What it takes to become a Space Mission Specialist

This career sheet is based on the interview with Dr Mag Selwa, who works as HPC[1] consultant at Facilities for Education, Research, Communication and Collaboration, ICTS services of KU Leuven, Belgium. As a PhD student, she studied astrophysics, mainly on solar physics and solar space missions. Later, when she became a postdoctoral researcher, she worked at the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre[2].

Space missions are using space technology to achieve the flight of spacecraft into and through outer space. Spaceflight is used in space exploration and satellite telecommunications but also, soon, in commercial activities like space tourism.

Due to their complexity and variety, space missions are the culmination of thousands of people’s work who collaborate to solve the innumerable problems that arise when one tries to reach beyond what seems possible.

Since there are so many aspects to the work, describing someone as Space Mission Specialist could mean many different things. In this career sheet, we will focus on the engineering(i.e. computer/software engineer, electrical/electronics engineer, materials engineer, robotics engineer)aspects of this role.

TASKS & RESPONSIBILITIES

SKILLS

Professional

  • Knowledge of computer programming and technologies
    A space mission specialist needs to know how to build something from scratch, as well as integrate changes and updates into existing software. This requires strong coding skills.
  • Critical Thinking
    Using logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems is an essential part of a space mission specialist’s day-to-day work.
  • Complex Problem Solving
    Problem-solving involves the identification of complex problems and reviews related information to develop and evaluate options and implement solutions.
  • Operation Monitoring
    As a space mission specialist, you will often need to watch gauges, dials, or other indicators to make sure a machine is working properly.
  • Quality Control Analysis 
    Part of a space mission specialist’s work is to conduct tests and inspect products, services, or processes to evaluate their quality or performance.
  • Systems Analysis 
    It is quite common to have to determine how a system should work and how changes in conditions, operations, and the environment affect outcomes.

Personal

  • Good written and verbal communication
    The majority of space mission specialists do not work in isolation but they need to communicate with their colleagues on a daily basis. Good communication skills and the ability to express your idea clearly or explain your thoughts are essential.
  • Collaboration
    Interpersonal skills are crucial for space mission specialists since they often work in teams. As a result, having respect for others, having the ability to listen, to accept criticism, to empathize are much needed.
  • Adaptability
    Space mission specialists are daily asked to deal with new challenges or problems. As a result, you must be able to adapt, be creative, and communicate the issues to work towards a solution.

HOW TO BECOME A SPACE MISSION SPECIALIST:

Which subjects´ knowledge is essential for a career?

Many different paths can lead you to a space mission specialist career. High school students interested in space missions should take courses in chemistry, physics, and math, including algebra, trigonometry, and calculus, as well as programming courses.

A bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science or mathematics should be your next step. A Master’s degree or a PhD in any of the previous subject is also recommended although real-world working experience is also important.

Some universities offer cooperative programs, in partnership with industry, that give students practical experience while they complete their education. Cooperative programs and internships enable students to gain valuable experience and to finance part of their education.

At some universities, a student can enrol in a 5-year program that leads to both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree upon completion.

HOW TO GET EXPERIENCE:

Finding work experience in the space sector can be tough since there are a limited number of opportunities available and they are not always easy to get to. Some big organisations like the European Space Agency run their annual “Young GraduateTrainee”[3] programme where they publish about 100 job opportunities, aimed mainly at engineers and scientists, graduates in Information Technology, Natural or Social Science and Business.

If you cannot find any space firms willing to have you do not despair! Try to find something that is related to what you are interested in. Maybe a software company that makes web apps or a civil engineering company that builds a new train station. They may not do space-related things, but you will acquire many skills that you can transfer to your future space-related occupation.  Universities (in case you decide to pursue a Masters or PhD) and future employers want to see that you are motivated and interested and they definitely not expect you to have found the perfect job yet.  In addition, attending international conferences is a great opportunity to meet scientist from all over the world, learn from them and expand your network.


– CAREER PROSPECT:

Space mission specialists are employed in industries that design or build aircraft, missiles, systems for national defence, or spacecraft. They work primarily for firms that engage in manufacturing, analysis and design, research and development, and for the federal government.

According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the employment of aerospace engineers is projected to grow 6% until 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations. As international governments refocus their space exploration efforts, new companies are emerging to provide access to space beyond the access afforded by standard governmental space agencies (ESA, NASA).

Q: If you could start all over again, how you would change your career path?
A: If I could start over, I am not sure what I would have done. When I was young, I knew I wanted to work with computers, as an adult you also think about financial stability and other aspects. The career path of a researcher is not the easiest, as it requires constant development that requires work after hours. Although it is not the easiest job, I am very happy, and I cannot tell if I would have done anything differently.

Dr Mag Selwa, HPC consultant, ICTS services of KU Leuven

– INQUIRY LEARNING SPACE

Travelling To Mars: https://www.golabz.eu/ils/travelling-to-mars

This ILS is aimed towards Astronomy, Engineering, Physics, and Mathematics. In this activity, students will work on trajectories by trying to send a spacecraft to Mars. Since Earth and Mars are in constant motion students also will be acquainted with the notion of relative motion.


*Any company mentioned in the text in no way supports this publication and we do not promote any specific tool, instead, we give examples of the most popular ones.

Sources of information:

[1] High Performance Computing

[2] https://www.nasa.gov/goddard

[3] https://www.esa.int/About_Us/Careers_at_ESA/Graduates_Young_Graduate_Trainees


All Career Material created by the Project is published under Creative Commons license, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).