Beam me up to a job in space

It may have been the final frontier for Captain James Tiberius Kirk, but for the current generation of student engineers, space might actually represent something far more mundane: the workplace.

Engineers have always had a starring role in the space exploration industry, from the materials engineers who made it possible to build spaceships that didn’t burn up on re-entry, to the earliest software engineers who wrote lunar landing programmes that saw man set foot on the moon.

Budgets may have stalled now that the White House is making unconvincing noises about exploring the Red Planet but, interestingly, new players have entered the market. Although the last few years have seen private space travel largely played out through the Russian Space Agency offering trips to the International Space Station for a mere $20-$35m, there is no shortage of companies intent on proving the commercial viability of space travel and exploration.

Surprisingly, these aren’t just the headline grabbers like Virgin Galactic, but a whole range of companies which are developing crew transports, new means of propulsion and even their own space stations. 

With all of them needing engineers like you to make their dreams of reaching for the stars possible, we’ve identified ten engineering-led roles that are necessary in modern space travel, to see if any of them could be your route to getting off this planet.

1) Aerospace Engineers

What do they do: 

Aerospace engineers are the people responsible for actually designing, building and testing space vehicles. Don’t fall into the mistake of thinking that this only means rockets. Aerospace engineers also work on a variety of craft that might only be able to reach Low Earth Orbit – such as missiles or satellites.

What skills do you need?

As you might imagine, spacecraft are complicated things and there’s a wealth of hydraulics, electrical systems and airframe work that needs to be sorted to get them into space. That means that, regardless of your engineering discipline, chances are there will be an element of aerospace work you can apply it to.

2) Radiation Engineers

What do they do?

Although it always looks pretty calm in the pictures, space is an incredibly harsh environment. Without an atmosphere to protect us the sun’s radiation can lead to more than a case of severe sunburn. 

Working out how to protect astronauts from radiation is just one challenge met by radiation engineers; other projects might see them investigating how to stop delicate circuitry in satellites from being fried.

What skills do you need?

Clearly, an understanding of radiation is key to this role and so a physics background is useful here. However, materials engineers who have specialised skills in developing and testing new forms of protection against radiation would be extremely well qualified for these roles.

3) Robotics

What do they do?

The problem with manned space missions is that they are costly, complicated and prone to doing PR-unfriendly things like killing off their crew. That’s why the immediate future of space travel and exploration will be undertaken by robots, from caterpillar-tracked rovers to ultra-sophisticated robotic arms.

What skills do you need?

This is another area where different engineering disciplines can all be applied to good effect. Mechanical, electrical and software engineers are all central to the construction of how a robot moves, works and even “thinks”. It’s this last element - focused on the development of Artificial Intelligence - that is a vast area of research and an especially fertile sector for engineers looking to undertake further study.

4) Space Simulation Engineer

What do they do?

Space craft and people are expensive things to play around with and the simulation of missions plays a massive part in preparing for an actual voyage into space. A space simulation engineer will be recruited to model particular missions on the computer and run simulations to help train the team which will perform them.

What skills do you need?

The simulations are mostly performed by extremely sophisticated computers and simulation engineers will spend a large part of their time converting real world behaviours into software code. Once a programme is created it can then be set to run a simulation programme.

5) Propulsion Engineer

What do they do?

One thing that all space missions need to succeed is a rocket that can get past the earth’s gravity field. This means propulsion, and one of the most common forms is chemical propulsion. A chemical engineer’s role in propulsion is to ensure the maximum efficiency of the chosen propulsion system and to find ways of making it safer and perform better.

What skills are needed?

Chemical engineers are highly skilled and capable of looking at the fundamental formulae that exist behind propulsion systems. Propulsion engineers would look at theoretical systems of propulsion and model new ideas to see if they can improve on the systems already in existence.

6) Technical Writer

What do they do?

Technical writers are responsible for creating and updating the documents that explain what a particular piece of equipment is and how it works. The importance of producing clear documentation that can be understood by people who aren’t subject specialists is especially vital when you consider that in space no one can hear you scream about the instructions being gibberish.

What skills are needed?

A strong engineering background in any technical field should give you adequate technical knowledge to cope with the subjects you are writing about. After that an excellent grasp of English (and other languages) and first rate written skills are vital.

7) Software Engineer

What do they do?

Some of the earliest software engineers working on the Apollo Lunar Module had just 74k of memory and just 4k of RAM to achieve the task of landing on the moon. These days software engineers working on space projects have access to cutting edge materials and computers to enable them to create extremely sophisticated programmes that will automatically run much of the space mission.

What skills are needed?

A degree in computer science, software engineering or electronic engineering is an absolute must and several years of experience is often required to get to work on the code which is used on live space missions.

8) Telescope Engineer

What do they do?

Telescopes are a growth area in terms of space exploration. This is largely because the technology needed to create better telescopes is available and also because comparatively it’s cheaper than sending a rocket into space. Although telescopes will also employ many mechanical and electronic engineers, telescope engineers are a specialised part of the team who ensure both optical and radio telescopes stay in working order.

What skills are needed?

This is a highly specialised field and requires ongoing training to keep you up-to-date. Solid engineering skills from either a maintenance, electronic or mechanical background would be vital.

9) Communications Engineer

What do they do?

This is a vital element of all space missions – after all, if you can’t communicate with a probe hundreds of thousands of miles away then you can’t receive information from it. Telecoms, broadcast and radio communication engineers design, build and install the systems that allow ground control to stay in touch with craft in the air.

What skills are needed?

A degree and experience in telecommunications or broadcast engineering are the best place to start..

10) Astronaut

What do they do?

The lucky few who actually get to go on the space missions without having to spend tens of millions of dollars on a space tourist ticket.

What skills are needed?

It might be easier to start with what skills aren’t needed! Unless you’re an extremely skilled pilot then you’re probably looking at one of the mission specialist roles. For this an engineering background is a good thing but you’ll need to be qualified up to PhD level, be fit and healthy and it would be a bonus if you weren’t incubating a xenomorph in your stomach.

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