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Non-Engineering Majors for Student Interested in Space Exploration and Operations?

STEM2017STEM2017 Registered User Posts: 3,975 Senior Member
My DS19 is very interested in a career supporting space exploration and/or operations. Although he loves math and science, he probably does not have the grades to be successful in an engineering program. I am trying to help him choose a major that might eventually land him in a job supporting the commercial space industry (space exploration and spaceflight operations). I would guess that this industry is 95% engineers, but there must be non-engineers in important roles as well. He is considering Meteorology, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Geography, etc.

Anyone out there with personal experience in commercial space programs? Any thoughts on different majors that would be appropriate? Thx
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Replies to: Non-Engineering Majors for Student Interested in Space Exploration and Operations?

  • Twoin18Twoin18 Registered User Posts: 1,104 Senior Member
    "Supporting" can cover a lot of ground, depending on how closely he wants to be involved with the actual space stuff. For example, there's lots of lobbying and regulatory work for lawyers in this area. Similarly there's plenty of technical marketing, technical writing, bid management, etc. A lot of paper gets pushed in this business. To me those would be more robust and flexible options if plans change later. Then just look for internships in those areas at a commercial space company or at NASA. Most of the courses you identify above like meteorology or astrophysics still require a lot of math and science, which may not be any easier than engineering, and don't really get you any closer to the space industry itself.

    Also, while it is nice (and fairly unusual) to see interest in space amongst young people, do be aware that the current bubble in NewSpace is likely to pop quite soon. There's a distinct lack of credible business plans, let alone profitability, right now. But there could still be some interesting internship opportunities even at a startup that's struggling if you are in the right part of the country.
  • STEM2017STEM2017 Registered User Posts: 3,975 Senior Member
    @Twoin18 Thank you. Very helpful.
  • juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 12,678 Super Moderator
    Well, my first question is - what does "not have the grads to be successful in an engineering program" mean? Is he in high school still? Obviously you don't want to steer him into anything he'll struggle in, but if he's pretty good in math and science, really loves doing it, and just tends to get more Bs than As...that's fine, too.

    But actually I'd wager that many jobs supporting space exploration aren't necessarily engineering. They're probably mostly science, but as Twoin18 mentioned, a lot of those are non-engineering science positions like atmospheric science/meteorology, earth sciences/geosciences, physics and astrophysics, chemistry, etc. (A lot of those scientist positions are going to require at least a master's, if not a PhD, though.)

    But looking at the USAJOBS listings for NASA, I also see other areas there - attorney, public affairs specialist, several program specialists (they provide administrative support). I also checked out SpaceX and they hire people like environmental specialists/scientists, finance (somebody's gotta do payroll!), information security, legal and government affairs, software development, and logistics and supply chain management.

    Also, to Twoin18's excellent point about the NewSpace bubble, I would highly encourage a career path/major that can be widely applicable to many fields. Space science and exploration is (as far as I know) heavily dependent on federal government funding, and that expands and contracts with different administrations. There are some private companies of course doing the work, too, but they make an excellent point about the lack of profitability and good business plans (one of the reasons space science was done almost exclusively by the government for so long is that it's tremendously expensive for very little immediate financial benefit. It's not like we're pretty close to sending people to Mars for vacations or something).

    Meteorology and atmospheric science can be used across SO many different businesses. I peeked into this major area before going in a completely different direction, but lots of people hire them - news and weather forecasting companies, of course, but also airlines, investment banks (for commodities trading!), food science/agriculture operations, environmental science/sustainability firms, etc.
  • Twoin18Twoin18 Registered User Posts: 1,104 Senior Member
    Meteorology and atmospheric science doesn't have much to do with space *exploration*, the (small) part that is space related is (government funded) space science. So is exploration an important part of your son's interest in space?

    Most current start-up activity is in one of three areas: launch, imaging satellites/analytics and communications satellites. The first is most closely related to exploration (although of course launches are used for imaging and communications satellites too), you have SpaceX and Blue Origin, plus the defense contractors and a bunch of startups. But caution is needed because unless space tourism really takes off, the demand for launches won't be large enough for many of these companies to survive.
  • juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 12,678 Super Moderator
    Meteorology and atmospheric science doesn't have much to do with space *exploration*, the (small) part that is space related is (government funded) space science. So is exploration an important part of your son's interest in space?

    Definitely not my field, so I don't know for sure. But wouldn't understanding the atmospheric conditions of a planet be necessary to constructing the proper technology to land/explore there? There are also atmospheric scientists who study the conditions of planets - like the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft's collection of information on the atmosphere of Saturn and Saturn's moons - yes?
  • RightCoasterRightCoaster Registered User Posts: 2,771 Senior Member
    There is a lab in a nearby town that produces a lot of equipment for the space program and military. , like uniforms, tools food products etc.
    Maybe he could work in a field that? Less math, more product research? That way if the space bubble bursts he still has some other options.
    Good luck to your son on his journey. Sounds like a fun plan.
  • Twoin18Twoin18 Registered User Posts: 1,104 Senior Member
    "But wouldn't understanding the atmospheric conditions of a planet be necessary to constructing the proper technology to land/explore there? There are also atmospheric scientists who study the conditions of planets - like the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft's collection of information on the atmosphere of Saturn and Saturn's moons - yes?"

    Indeed, that's part of space science. But it's a really esoteric subject probably involving less than a few dozen people worldwide. A tiny part of the overall meteorology sector, and limited funding compared to the billions being invested in new rockets (e.g. https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/10/air-force-makes-consequential-awards-to-rocket-developers/).
  • NoKillliNoKillli Registered User Posts: 251 Junior Member
    I'm in IT.

    Early on in my career I worked for a big defense contractor. Mostly fighter jets, but there were some smaller space projects related to telecom. I got to go onto the shop floor as long as whatever they were working on that day was not classified.

    Another job was at a major private sector R&D facility. They did pretty much everything including space "stuff". Again, I was mostly IT. The best thing about that job for me was being the "dumbest" person in the room when we had meetings with the scientists. The lab staff without a PHd, were usually technicians.

    The crazyist thing about that job were special buildings guarded by very heavily armed men in uniform.
  • juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 12,678 Super Moderator
    @Twoin18 - Thanks, that's great to know!
  • STEM2017STEM2017 Registered User Posts: 3,975 Senior Member
    Thank you all for your advice. He's applied to about a dozen schools across a variety of majors. Here's how they break down...

    4 'Less competitive' Engineering programs
    4 Atmospheric Science programs
    1 Environmental Science program
    1 Science Communication program
    1 Computer Science program
    2 +/- 'Undecided Science' programs

    We'll see how acceptances shake out, then he'll decide on a path. I'm happy with his strategy. Hopefully it opens doors to several options.

    I'll be back in April seeking more advice!

    Note: When I say 'less competitive engineering' I am referring to the student body - don't want to offend any engineers. He is well aware that all engineering curriculum are fairly standard but very rigorous. But he's more comfortable knowing that his grades and scores put him comfortably toward the upper-middle portion of the admitted student body stats. I agree with him.
  • Twoin18Twoin18 Registered User Posts: 1,104 Senior Member
    These internship opportunities are definitely worth being aware of for those interested in the field of space exploration:
    https://www.matthewisakowitzfellowship.org/
    http://www.brookeowensfellowship.org/
  • STEM2017STEM2017 Registered User Posts: 3,975 Senior Member
    @Twoin18

    Great resources! Bookmarked and Favorited.

    Thank you!
  • RightCoasterRightCoaster Registered User Posts: 2,771 Senior Member
    @STEM2017 Has your son made any progress deciding what might be best for him?
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