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Commercial Spaceflight After Philosophy; Help!

  1. May 18, 2012 #1
    I'm looking for some input about good strategies for getting into commercial spaceflight after a pretty long detour through philosophy. I'm 25, I have a BA in Liberal Arts from a Great Books program (essentially a theology/philosophy/math degree), and I'm wrapping up a MA in Philosophy (I just have to write the Thesis [oh god I don't want to write this thesis] and take orals). I was originally on the PhD track for philosophy, but after basically 7 years of it, I was finally overcome by the feeling that the field is too contrived and too irrelevant for me to be comfortable dedicating my professional life to it. So, while I treasure the training and formation I've received from philosophy, I've decided I need something more concrete to do on a day-to-day basis. I've always been good at math, science, and writing, and I absolutely love a frontier, so the fitting resolution of these interests seems to be space exploration. Now seems to be an especially thrilling, promising time in the field of commercial spaceflight, with many companies springing up to fill the need. I'm aware that this is a pretty drastic career switch, and I'm more than a little daunted by the length of the road in front of me.

    I suppose my question is twofold. First, is it better to return straight to school, or try to self-educate as much as possible and worm my way into an internship/build connections before returning to school? Then, if it is better to go straight to school, ought I be looking to get a second Bachelor's, or does it make sense to be applying straight to grad programs? And in either case, do I need to start out at the community college level to build some references and pre-reqs, or can I self-educate and then take some GRE subject tests?

    Although I have natural facility with math, my credentials up to this point are very slim, particularly in relation to a field like spaceflight. Also, I have basically 0 good references right now, as my performance in philosophy grad school has been less than stellar, due mostly to a crushing indifference to the subject matter (clearly, some poor decisions were made). To top it all off, I'm married, have a new baby, am working two jobs, and am carrying roughly 20k in student loans from my BA. As I see it, the only things I have going for me right now are natural aptitude, a good work ethic, and a supportive family. Don't get me wrong: I'd rather have those things than any other possible advantages. But the rest of my circumstances sure aren't helping me any.

    So, any thoughts? Strategies? Warnings? Recommendations as to good schools or companies that might be suited to my situation? Has anyone out there been in a similar spot?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. May 18, 2012 #2
    You never said what it is exactly that you wish to do in the space industry. You want to be a pilot/astronaut? An engineer? A manager?
     
  4. May 18, 2012 #3
    Right. Engineer, pilot, manager, in order of preference.
     
  5. May 18, 2012 #4

    phinds

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    Just as a side question, ... "A great books program" ? I thought there was only one, St. Johns.
     
  6. May 18, 2012 #5
    There's also Thomas Aquinas College, which uses bits and pieces of St. John's curriculum, and Wyoming Catholic, that I know of.
     
  7. May 18, 2012 #6
    Well, they all require vastly different skills and some take many years of training and experience before you would even be considered. I don't work in the space industry, but here's an educated guess.

    As an engineer or physicist who does technical work, you are likely going to have to go back to school, and attain a bachelor's degree at least. In my physics grad school, I had fellow electronics students who were doing their masters thesis on sub-projects for a very simple and academic style satellite. It might even be difficult for them to be hired on a space project as an engineer, so I'm not sure how easy it is to be an engineer in this field. A philosophy degree definitely won't cut it. If you get a degree in aeronautical engineering, and then went into the US air force or went to work for an aircraft company, you might get a chance in a space related job eventually.

    As a pilot, I don't even know where you'd begin, but its definitely not in the space industry. You'd probably be best off joining the air force, and even then you're not guaranteed to get the right job to move into space flight. Think of how selective NASA is for its astronauts. Space flight is not mainstream enough for it to be a realistic career goal unless you're highly dedicated and willing to be disappointed.

    As a manager or some other job with non-space oriented tasks, you might have sufficient education, but you need experience and connections. My guess is that a law degree would actually be the most beneficial in an administration position (and a philosophy grad student could transition into this more smoothly). Again, military experience is probably helpful.

    Sorry to be pessimistic, but I think that the field is probably hard to break into and requires a lot of dedication. You could always make things work for yourself by your own methods (social contacts, publications, journalism, etc.), so the idea can't be shot down. I think if you went the traditional route, you'd be in for a lot more future training/education and that is a big burden if you have a family.

    Another factor to take into consideration is that the industry is not distributed evenly over the world. There are hotspots like Texas, and the west and east coasts. Its a personal decision if you want to drag your family around or persevere for a career goal that may seem unrealistic. I don't think you're too old to switch to a different field, but it depends on your situation.
     
    Last edited: May 18, 2012
  8. May 18, 2012 #7
    Thanks for the pessimistic lens, dragonpetter; it's good to hear. Fortunately, my wife is nomadic enough that she doesn't mind moving pretty much anywhere, at least for now. And the baby is too young to care, as well. Again, for now. So I have a few years in which to relocate as necessary.

    Let's assume that the travel is not an issue. So I could theoretically get an astronautical engineering job, given enough time to acquire the necessary education and experience. Assuming, for argument's sake, that I have all the time in the world, is the education out of reach? I.e., is it possible to get accepted somewhere with my current credentials, or will schools take one look at a philosophy degree and figure, "He had his chance; move on?"

    And realistically, although I'd be willing to commit a long career to this endeavor, time is still a bit of a factor, since I feel I have maybe 5 years to become reasonably enough secure that my family won't be constantly living on the edge. That could be enough time to be solidly into grad school, but if I could operate in a smaller timeframe, that would obviously be better. So can you say more about "making it work for myself?" Is the idea there that, if I read on my own and get published a bunch, I could say to employers, "Look, I've written so many articles in such and such journals, clearly I know my stuff and I can do the job?" Would such an approach really be feasible for an engineer? Wouldn't they want to see more real work experience?
     
  9. May 18, 2012 #8
    You are lucky to have that selfless support. If you think you can pull it off, then the risk may be worth it; that's your risk assessment.

    The only thing I can answer with any certainty is that you probably will be able to find some university that will take you into an aeronautical engineering program, assuming you have the aptitude (how you prove that to them, I don't know - perhaps ACT/SAT scores. An associates or community college courses that put you on track for a degree in engineering would be a good start too). How you finance that is another answer you'd need to find. I imagine earning a masters degree in anything will be a positive rather than a negative, as it shows you have discipline and the ability to finish what you start.

    "The making it work for yourself" was in reference that some people are able to pursue their goals in the unconventional way. I doubt you would be published in journals without credentials or a really remarkable finding, but I meant more in the social/popular science journalism route. If you know enough technical knowledge, you may be invited to space industry publicized events and from there it would be up to you to maximize networking and get involved in whatever you could, be it for free or not. Blogging or collaborating with other independents could get you some kind of way in to the industry, but I don't know to what extent, and you'd have to actually be creating useful information and ideas or show value to the industry. Just one way to be involved with the industry without actually having the credentials or experience to get hired in a straight-forward way.
     
  10. May 18, 2012 #9
    a philosophy degree is a good stepping stone to solving the biggest problem in commercial spaceflight: getting people to pay for something that won't have returns for at least 2 decades, and perhaps forever.

    I'd suggest an MBA or law degree, since the regulatory and policy hurdles are probably just as big as the scientific ones.
     
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