A career in space exploration is probably one of the most difficult paths to pursue. To succeed, you need to meet a slew of qualifications. Completing an advanced degree, being physically fit, having the mental strength to deal with the many stresses of this dynamic field — the list goes on. On the flip side, working in space exploration can be extremely rewarding, both in terms of financial gains as well as career satisfaction. Space exploration aims to move society forward, and a career in this field guarantees that you will make an impact on society.
In terms of pay, salaries can vary across private companies and government-owned space agencies. For instance, NASA’s salaries are based on the Federal Government’s General Schedule pay scale for grades GS-12 through GS-13. Each employee’s grade is determined based on his/her work experience, educational qualifications, and other achievements. According to an article on Business Insider, salaries can range from $63,600 to upwards of $120,000 per year, “depending on their position, responsibilities, and performance within the astronaut corp.”
In any industry, landing a new job is no small feat. Often, it takes months of preparation, like building an online presence, actively networking, and constantly following up just to get your foot in the door. There’s no doubt that working in space exploration can set you up with a high salary, but these yields are only available to those who make it through a grueling application process.
As we’ve mentioned in a previous article, NASA will only consider the best, most qualified candidates. The competition is extremely stiff, making the process that much harder. According to the Business Insider piece, NASA’s selection process is 74 times harder than that of Harvard University’s: “NASA selects a new astronaut class once every couple of years, and picked only 12 of 18,300 applicants in 2017.” With these odds, you really need to set yourself apart to stand a chance of gaining a coveted position at NASA.
Even though astronauts are the most famous space workers, they actually hold a minority of positions in the field of space exploration. Space missions and research require large teams, immense amounts of preparation, and workers in many different occupations. As described in an article by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are a “universe of options” when it comes to space careers. Here are some of the lesser-known career options you could consider if you want to work in space exploration:
Scientists who specialize in space exploration are integral to furthering our understanding of space. You could pursue one of many different scientific specializations to get involved in space exploration. These include astronomy, atmospheric science, and plasma science, among others. If you have aspirations to travel through space (although not in the capacity of an astronaut), you will need to earn specific educational qualifications such as an advanced degree in civil engineering (or another engineering field), biological science, physical science, computer science, or mathematics.
Even though technicians don’t get to travel to space, they do contribute to space exploration in a variety of ways. Technicians work alongside engineers and scientists in different capacities. For instance, aerospace engineering technicians help design, develop, and test products used for space missions. Avionics technicians focus on communications and navigation. They also develop and improve integral spacecraft systems. Meteorological technicians are in charge of measuring weather and determining climate conditions. Their findings determine whether climatic conditions are safe enough for space launches.
Government agencies like NASA also employ a variety of contractors. Whether through external internships or graduate school programs, you might be able to contract your services to NASA through other employers, even if you aren’t able to work directly for the agency.
Leticha Hawkins, a recruiter at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, talks about various indirect work opportunities for those interested in getting involved with NASA. In regards to contractors, she states,
(Contact work) is not a government position … We’re not always hiring, but there are people who support our work who may be hiring. (They may not) have the same citizenship requirements, and so we give them that list and advise them to go on the company websites to see: Do they have summer work? Do they have internships? Maybe they even have positions for students fresh out of college.”
Becoming a contractor is a great way to get started with your space exploration career, especially if you don’t meet the requirements to be a permanent NASA employee. However, before signing any sort of contract, be aware of what it entails. A breached contract, especially due to failure on your part to perform contractual obligations, can have serious ramifications, potentially ruining your future in space exploration.
There are many media and public relations careers in space exploration. For instance, most space agencies need producers and directors who are in charge of creating educational videos. These media leads handle the budget, production schedule, creative decisions, and hiring media crew members. While you might not need an advanced degree in science for this sort of career in space exploration, you will still need a basic knowledge and understanding of space. You will also need additional appropriate qualifications and work experience in media and PR.
Another media-related career is that of a technical writer. Technical writers work closely with scientists and are responsible for translating complex scientific jargon into prose that is easily understood by the public. They may also be responsible for the redaction of sensitive government information or personal data in outward-facing communications. Once again, a scientific knowledge of space, as well as excellent writing and communication skills, is a must for this sort of job.
As you can see, there are many different career options available to you if you want to work in space exploration. Don’t limit yourself by thinking your only option is to become an astronaut — space exploration is a vast and growing field that needs professionals with all sorts of expertise. With some hard work and dedication, you could easily become one of them.