space shuttle leaving earth

Want to be a spaceman?

To celebrate World Space Week, held from 4-10 October, Student and early career takes a look at routes into the space industry and what employers are looking for.

“There’s something in the space industry we call the Apollo effect,” explains Joe McHugh, head of HR marketing and recruitment at Europe’s biggest space company, Astrium. “Some 40 years ago everyone was inspired to join the space industry because of the Apollo missions but many of those people are coming up to retirement.

“We’re doing a lot to raise the visibility of the space sector to get people into the industry and this includes using the fact that there is now a UK Space Agency,” says McHugh.

The UK space industry is enjoying an extremely buoyant period. It currently contributes £7.5bn a year to the economy, directly employs 24,900 people and supports a further 60,000 jobs across a number of different industries. It received a major boost earlier this year with the launch of the UK Space Agency in April, established as an executive agency of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and whose mission it is to drive economic growth.

While no-one can deny there is fierce competition to get into the sector - Astrium received around 3,000 applicants for 20 graduate places this year - there is also a desperate need for fresh talent. The Agency itself is also working hard to demonstrate to young people the wide range of opportunities that exist and head of education Jeremy Curtis says it has to put together a set of guidelines to point people in the right direction.

He says the sector employs more than 57 per cent of graduates, many of which come from the various engineering disciplines, as well as mathematics, physics, computer science and astrophysics. “They are all good routes into the industry,” he says, adding that apprenticeships are also another way in for young people.  


Securing an internship isn’t easy but they are available and McHugh said do provide a major boost to a young person’s chances of getting a job. Astrium has an internship programme for which it recruits internationally. One of the disadvantages for UK students is that far fewer courses have the year in industry built into them to the same degree as they do in countries such as France and Germany.

“Employers have to be pragmatic. You get so much more value out of someone who is available for 12 months as opposed to a two or three-month placement over the summer,” says McHugh. “So if possible I would encourage as many people as possible to do a degree which has a year in industry as it’s invaluable and you can see the difference in someone who’s worked in a commercial environment.”

There are specialist companies that help find internships and corporate websites can also be the best starting point. A good example is that of NASA. Ann Marie Trotta, public affairs officer for education, explains that students can go to where they can find NASA’s One Stop Shopping Initiative (OSSI): An Innovative Solution to Support the STEM Workforce of Tomorrow.

Here they can find details about the different internships available and apply for them and include international internships. “NASA internships are highly competitive, but they offer a great opportunity for students studying STEM,” she says. “We look for certain skills sets – mostly in STEM – and match them to the agency’s programmatic needs at the time. Setting up a profile on the website and finding out more is the first step to getting your foot in the door.”


Another way of making yourself more marketable for the space sector is to learn one or more foreign languages. McHugh says it isn’t a prerequisite for jobs and English is the language of the space world but stresses the international nature of the industry. He adds that it is sometimes noticeable that UK graduates aren’t as comfortable going out to overseas offices as their counterparts abroad are coming to the UK.

“It’s a broader issue than just our sector but if you want to know a useful qualification to have, it’s a foreign language as it gives you more options.”

Soft skills

In common with others, employers in the space industry also emphasise the importance of combining high academic standards with more people and business-oriented skills, such as team-working and communication. McHugh says that when graduates or apprentices come into their assessment centres, they are also looking for evidence of the ability to work as part of a team.

“So hearing about dissertations and project team work is very important to us,” he says, as is demonstrating a commercial awareness. “The space sector has projects running into tens and hundreds of millions of pounds and we work in strict commercial conditions.”

Show you have a love of space!

It goes without saying that an interest in space is a prerequisite and typically this isn’t something that is lacking among applicants. You should be aware though, that there are many ways you can demonstrate this and you also need to be building your own contacts in the industry.

“The space industry is filled with enthusiasts and networks of people keen to share their love of space,” says Curtis. He adds that The Royal Aeronautical Society, British Interplanetary Society, Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics are all keen to encourage junior members and produce magazines, websites, and present lectures which can help students get inside knowledge on the industry. Plus, UK Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (UKSEDS) has branches in many universities and is part of the world’s largest space enthusiast organisation for school and university students.

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