5 Career Options in Space Beyond Academia

Building upon the article I posted about the pyramid scheme of academia, let’s get into some specific non-academic career options if you are studying space-related fields.

This list is U.S.-centric, but there are likely analogues to each option in many other countries as well. Please note that none of the companies or entities mentioned in this article are meant as an endorsement, and are provided for informational purposes only.

NASA

The Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Image credit: NASA/Bill White
The Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Image credit: NASA/Bill White
The Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Image credit: NASA/Bill White

Okay, this probably seems obvious for a space-related career. NASA has various centers across the U.S., each with a different focus. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama focuses on rockets and propulsion systems. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has a strong presence in Earth system sciences, as well as astronomical missions like Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA Ames Research Center covers a huge swath of science and technology, including computing, space missions, and astrobiology. Positions at NASA are either as a civil servant—meaning you are directly employed by the government—or as a contractor through a private company. Due to NASA being a government entity, many roles require U.S. citizenship or permanent residency.

You can browse NASA’s current job postings at USAJobs.gov.

National Labs

Map of the current U.S. Department of Energy national labs. Image credit: U.S. DOE
Map of the current U.S. Department of Energy national labs. Image credit: U.S. DOE
Map of U.S. national labs. Image credit: U.S. DOE

The U.S. Department of Energy currently funds 17 national labs across the country. The types of research conducted at these labs covers a massive array of topics: Materials science, fundamental physics, sustainable energy, biology, nuclear science, and national security and defense, just to name a few. But two areas covered by some of the labs are ones you might not immediately expect: Earth sciences and planetary missions. Los Alamos National Lab operates the ChemCam instrument aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars, developed its successor the SuperCam aboard the Perseverance rover, and has scientists on staff working on instrument development and research for other space missions. Their Intelligence and Space Research group alone employs hundreds of scientists with backgrounds in astronomy, planetary science, and geology, although not all are necessarily working in research-focused roles. Other labs like the Pacific Northwest National lab employ atmospheric scientists, geophysicists, and biogeochemists. Positions for physicists are widespread, particularly at the labs associated with particle accelerators. Many of the labs offer post-doctoral positions, which can be a gateway to permanent employment. Similarly to NASA, most positions at the national labs require U.S. citizenship or permanent residency.

You can find a complete listing of the national labs on the U.S. Department of Energy’s website. Each lab has job listings posted on their own site.

Private Space Companies

Falcon Heavy on the pad before its demo mission. Image credit: SpaceX
Falcon Heavy on the pad before its demo mission. Image credit: SpaceX
Falcon Heavy on the pad before its demo mission. Image credit: SpaceX

The private space sector is booming right now. Launch companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and RocketLab dominate the media when it comes to the realm of commercial space, but the field is much more diverse than that.

Earth observing companies such as Planet Labs and Maxar build and/or operate satellites to capture images of our world for research, business, and national security efforts. Data aggregators like SkyWatch and Harris Geospatial work with getting commercial Earth imagery to customers. Analytics firms like Descartes Labs delve into the insights contained within satellite imagery, creating things like derived maps and predictive models. If you have experience with remote sensing, GIS, machine learning, or coding, these sorts of companies might be ones for you to look at. Even if your experience with this isn’t Earth-based (looking at you, astronomers and planetary scientists!), your skills are totally transferrable. Depending on the company and type of role, there can be options that do not require U.S. citizenship.

There are even private space companies focused beyond Earth. First Mode, based near Seattle, works on design and technology for applications on Earth and planetary missions. Astrobotic has a heavy lunar focus and was recently awarded a nearly $200 million contract from NASA to develop a lander for the Moon’s south polar region. Made in Space is a company working on in-space manufacturing and 3D printing, allowing for equipment to be produced on-orbit to reduce launch costs—and eventually, 3D printing out of materials like martian regolith.

If your chosen field of study is engineering—aerospace or otherwise—then there are tons of options in the commercial space sector. Companies building everything from rockets to satellites obviously need talented engineers. Many companies also hire computer scientists/programmers to help create and maintain the software needed to operate the technology they are developing. For the easiest road into the space industry, if you’re reading this early enough in your academic career and still trying to decide which path of study is right for you, engineering is definitely the best route to take for the largest number of job opportunities.

You can browse job openings on the websites for various space companies themselves. There are also collections of postings spanning the globe on Space Careers and Careers in Space, as well as LinkedIn. (Yes academics, industry does actually use LinkedIn, so it’s good to have a profile there and keep it up-to-date if you’re on the job market!)

Due to the types of technology being developed at many of these companies, the roles do often have citizenship requirements due to ITAR restrictions. (If you’re unfamiliar with ITAR, it is something that will come up a lot if you work on anything related to space technology. We space lovers probably think of space in all of the happy, altruistic exploration ways, but realistically it is also an arena for defense and national security. Which leads us to the next category on this list…)

Military

United States Space Force logo as of September 2020.

While we don’t have troops in space, the military does play a role in some key areas. Space Force develops, maintains, and operates the space and control segments of the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that we all interact with daily as we navigate the world. They also operate other satellites focused on meteorology, communications, and space situational awareness. Ballistic missile detection and tracking also falls under their purview, which they accomplish with both satellites and radar ground stations.

The U.S. Naval Observatory provides critical ephemeris data about celestial bodies, Earth, and satellites. (We actually used their ephemeris data in some codes for Mars missions at one of my previous jobs.) They employ astronomers, computer scientists, engineers, and more.

The Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC; formerly known as Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC)) at Vandenberg Air Force Base is tasked with tracking approximately 25,000 objects in Earth orbit for space situational awareness. They keep an eye out for potential collisions of satellites, rouge debris, and anti-satellite weapons. So, they need folks that have a good understanding of orbital dynamics.

Other Government Agencies

A topographic map of the Moon produced by the U.S. Geological Survey. View the map in its full-resolution beauty here.

NASA isn’t the only federal civilian agency that works in space. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, generates many of the official maps we have of other planets! Researchers there are often directly involved with active missions, working in operations and science for missions like the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers on Mars. They hire research scientists in positions for geology and planetary science, geophysics, and space science, just to name a few. It is worth noting that these positions are sometimes “soft money” research positions, meaning your salary support is your responsibility via writing grants to secure funding.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates multiple satellites to track Earth-focused things like weather and sea level rise—but they also focus on space weather. Their Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCO) satellite provides critical data on the solar wind and geomagnetic activity to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. From this, NOAA space weather forecasters can monitor and warn of severe and potentially dangerous events. Geomagnetic storms have damaged satellites in Earth orbit, and can even wreak havoc on the ground by disrupting communications systems, electrical grids, and even pipelines.

And Even More Options!

There are even more opportunities that I won’t get into in much detail, but just to list a few:

  • Science Museums: These positions can include exhibit curation, event planning, and sometimes even research. The Smithsonian is a great example of this.
  • Science Communication: NASA, private space companies, science magazines, and more, all need good communicators! While some of these jobs may be specifically marketed toward people with communications and/or journalism backgrounds, it is something worth keeping an eye out for or perhaps considering if you are still in school and want to add some courses or a minor to your degree.
  • Consulting: Firms like Bryce Space and Technology, Deloitte, and McKinsey all provide consulting services in the aerospace industry.
  • Space Policy: Getting involved on the policy side can be a way to influence the space sector at the government level, helping to promote a better space ecosystem for us all to operate within. Organizations like the American Geophysical Union have begun offering fellowships in policy to help students navigate paths in that direction.

This article is just a small sampling of how many opportunities there are right now in the space sector if you are looking for options beyond academia. As we continue down the path of sending humans back to the Moon and on to Mars in the next decade+, I see nothing but expansion of these opportunities in both the public and private sectors. It’s truly an exciting time to be entering the space field.

Professional Martian. PhD Geoscientist at Planet Labs. Former operations team member for Opportunity, Curiosity, & the Mars Recon. Orbiter. Views = my own.

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