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Programs (Space) Industry - Different Paths Towards It

  1. Jul 18, 2018 #1
    Hello! I am a returning student, 19YO, and will be starting back in community college in a month retaking classes I failed the first go-around with college. This is hopefully less of a "tell me what to do" thread, and more of a "clarify my misconceptions."

    Basically, I am very interested in a large variety of things within the natural sciences. For instance, I'm quite fascinated with materials research that bridges biological systems with "engineering problems" -- growing organisms to sequester pollutants/micro-plastics, or replacements for leather. I thought I was going to do welding (for misguided financial reasons), but found learning about grain structures in metal/metallurgy was more exciting than doing pipes for a career. I've always been deeply connected to the urge to understand the world, and in my - albeit limited - education in the sciences, I have found more and more to be excited about.

    One thing I value is a tangible connection to the concepts. Arbitrary knowledge is great for some things, but I look at the world more as a series of problems to solve. Climate change? What are we gonna do about it? Agriculture unsustainable? How are we going to maximize efficiency and nutrition? This leads me to think that a career in academia is not the right choice.

    With this in mind, looking at what degree I want to pursue, I am in a pickle. My original major was mechanical engineering - guided by my (highly influential) Physics/math teacher in high school, and a desire to work in/on rockets. I was 16, so I had very little other than my adolescent preconceptions to go off of. Taking a step back from school for the past 2 years has given me a broader worldview, and I've returned wanting to pursue something hard.

    This is my long-winded way of asking whether I would be 'closing myself in' by pursuing a degree in Physics/Applied Physics? I don't want to dwell in school longer than necessary, for financial reasons as well as the fact that we have limited time to be who we are in this world. My intuition is pointing me towards a dual degree in physics/mech eng, but this could tack too much time onto my education to be reasonable, or simply not be worth it.

    Can I have my cake and eat it too? Is a degree in physics a broad enough skill-set to work in the rocket industry, or is it more reasonable to pursue engineering directly?

    Hope this isn't too rambling! Thanks
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 18, 2018 #2
    I'll just be blunt: You're thinking too idealistically, and are going to set yourself up for failure again. You haven't even had a job in academia, nor an internship, but you're writing it all off? You then go off and talk about climate change, but then bring up physics? What?! Slow down my friend!

    You really need to be focusing on your classes and getting an associates. What bachelor you get can wait, for now, get ahead in the classes you're taking in the next month. That should be your REAL concern! Once you start the process of transferring your credits to a 4 year school, then start worrying about all this.
  4. Jul 19, 2018 #3


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    I disagree a little bit with romsofia. While I totally agree that a focus on getting ahead and doing as well as possible in your classes is critical, on the other hand having a lofty goal like working in the Space industry can give you the motivation to keep plugging away at your coursework when the going gets tough (which it will).

    If you want to do something hard with a lot of ways to the Space industry I would suggest Electrical Engineering. I initially went in wanting to work for a place like JPL and I can tell you that it is MUCH easier to get a Space-related job with an EE background. This is primarily because for a physicist it is a real win, but most EEs can make a lot more money working in other industries, so the competition isn't as fierce.

    I went so far as getting an offer from a company that builds Space-qualified components and custom developments for specific missions. I ended up reaching my goal and worked on a space telescope for several years. It turned out to be an incredibly frustrating experience and I don't work in the Space industry anymore. I do have several friends that do Satellite design and mission planning (one at Northrup-Grumman in Redondo Beach, CA, and another at the Areospace Corp. in El Segundo). They both accept the tradeoffs inherent to that line of work and enjoy it, so it ends up being a personal thing.

    I ended up writing more than I expected but I will just reiterate, in my experience EE and software engineer are by far the easiest ways to get into the Space industry. If you like building or working on actual things you can point to and hold, then EE is for you. (btw most people in the Space industry don't design things. The vast majority work on things like test, system integration, component evaluation, safety and reliability, verification, and things like that. Still super interesting though).

    One other smart piece of advice romsofia gave. Get as many internships as you can, and try as hard as you can to get them in the Space industry. SpaceX is probably really hard to get, but there are tons of internships at the various NASA sites, plus the main contractors and Space Science institutes around the world.

    Good luck!

    Edit: I should have asked: "Are you a US Citizen?" If you want to work in the Space industry in the US, it is much much much much easier if you're a US Citizen. It isn't impossible if you're a foreign national, but it closes off many interesting opportunities.
  5. Jul 19, 2018 #4
    I need people to be blunt with me! Of course my focus is on the immediate coursework that I will have, I can't afford another failed semester. This time around though I (sort of) know that it is right for me, so I'm not going to give up and try the blue collar life.

    Interesting point about most people in the space industry not designing things directly. In my mind, it was the mechanical route that would fit that field best. Thermodynamics, all that good stuff. But the amount of software involved, electronics systems, etc must be incredible! I've always had a healthy interest in programming, but for the most part ruled it out because I wanted a different leisure domain. I have been working with Python again recently, and my website, so it isn't out of the question.

    Electrical Engineering is certainly an option to consider. It is hard to say if the realities of the industry will end up meshing with my personality, it would be quite possible to get all the way into it and decide I didn't enjoy the particular needs/demands of the work. I'd venture to say it is largely the idealistic image of working on projects of the scale of space travel that is exciting, especially at this time in history where Martian, Lunar, and asteroid projects will likely take off (unless a total species annihilation) on top of all scientific/satellite work being done.

    What do you mean "[...] for the physicist it is a real win [...]" ?
  6. Jul 19, 2018 #5


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    Hi Spacelime,

    What I mean is that, if you're a Physics PhD, the very top of the game, the Major Leagues (if you like a baseball reference), is working as a Professor at a Research University or getting a career position at a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC). Examples of FFRDCs would be Fermilab, Los Alamos, Jet Propulsion Laboratory or something like NASA Ames Research Center. These are great positions for Physicists because they let you do research and publish (like a Professor) but without the teaching demands. So, since these jobs are the brass ring, you'll be competing against the very best of the best to get them. By the way, lots of people get low-paid postdoctoral positions at these kinds of places and are unable to convert them to full-time positions at a similar institution.

    It is a bit easier to be an engineer at one of these places. The standards are still high, but these facilities simply cannot compete with the likes of Apple, Google, or Intel when it comes to salary for Electrical Engineers. That is why so many of the very best engineers I've ever met are now at Apple and Google and similar organizations. So, if you're heart is set on doing this kind of "Big Science" work, it is much easier to get into a position to contribute over the long term as an engineer. Simple as that.

    As an aside, the amount of software and firmware in these big projects is truly astounding. I worked on a big chip for wireless basestations when I was employed in Industry, and we had about 5 analog engineers, 10 digital engineers, and almost 40 software engineers working on the project (and that was for a chip!). I have a buddy from school days who works on the F-22 program and his claim is that half the engineers on the project are developing avionics software (and firmware). He's a mechanical engineer himself so I know he isn't exaggerating.

    All this is just my experience and perspective. Your initial post reminded me of myself at your age (e.g. tangible connection to concepts) so that is why I wanted to respond. Electrical Engineering has worked out very well for me.
  7. Jul 19, 2018 #6
    Thank you for your input!

    Although it is hard to pin my interest down to one particular field, space travel is one of the most consistent and alluring ideas that has been rattling around my head for longer than I can remember. I will be looking into electrical engineering programs, and seeing if that is more aligned with my goals.
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