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What are the opportunities for people interested in building spacecraft?

  1. Feb 23, 2014 #1
    I am considering getting a BS in Aerospace engineering one day. I want to get a PhD at some point as well.

    What are the opportunities for people interested in building spacecraft? Are there many job openings for NASA or commercial space agencies like SpaceX for building space-related things? If so, how high is the competition for these jobs?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 25, 2014 #2
    No there are not many openings, yes there is high competition. I think that aerospace engineering is one of the most competitive areas of engineering to get a career in. Note that many engineers working in the aerospace industry have electrical, mechanical or other engineering degrees. Also, people with aerospace engineering degrees may work in non-aerospace fields. A good friend of mine graduate with aerospace engineering but couldnt get an engineering job so he studied nursing. Its a good idea that you have graduate school plans.
  4. Feb 25, 2014 #3
    Thank you for your answer.

    I'm trying to find realistic ideas for working in something very interesting such as this, but I am not particularly interested in building rockets or planes to function here on Earth... If I am going to get a PhD I might as well do Physics I guess.

    What kind of jobs exist for Physics BA/BS? And are they widespread?
  5. Feb 25, 2014 #4

    D H

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    Nonsense. One anecdote does not make for a good statistic.

    Unemployment amongst aerospace engineers has been low, even with the recession and prolonged lousy recovery. The prospect is for 7% growth in the next ten years, which definitely is not great, but on the other hand schools aren't expected to produce enough aerospace engineers to meet that moderate demand.
  6. Feb 25, 2014 #5
    We are talking about the subfield of astrospace engineering specifically, yes? My concern is that if I were to get a degree in aerospace engineering... if there are plentiful careers in designing satellites, rockets, propulsion etc. that would be going into space, as opposed to simply just airplane stuff.
  7. Feb 26, 2014 #6
    Ritzycat, there is no such practice of "astrospace" engineering. All engineers use similar concepts and design similar things. For example, a turbine is a turbine, no matter where it is. Once you compensate for fluid behavior with Reynolds numbers, Mach numbers, and boundary layer behavior, it's pretty much the same concept.

    Oh, and another thing: you won't be able to build a rocket propulsion system without careful study of those same concepts developed for that "airplane stuff." And in fact, these same concepts are found when designing pipelines, water pumps, piston engines, and the like.

    If your goal in life is to design spacecraft, then you should get a Master's degree in engineering. It almost doesn't matter which engineering courses you take. Electrical engineering with a focus on RF design might be a good choice. Mechanical Engineering with a focus on fluid dynamics is also a good choice. Even a straight course in physics might get you somewhere.

    Then, when you graduate, search out the opportunities. Let me warn you ahead of time: The Aerospace industries have a well-deserved boom/bust reputation. You may do very well working on a large project for a number of years --and then with the stroke of someone's pen, it's over and you're out on the street.

    In other words, don't just focus on Aerospace designs. Get a feel for the full breadth and scope of all engineering. Otherwise, you might find yourself working at a fast food restaurant to make ends meet.
  8. Feb 26, 2014 #7
    thanks for responding. However my interests in engineering are limited, if there are limited job oppurtunities in this type og work I feel it may be beneficial for me to pursue something else. I am not interested in designig air planes or the processes or whatever that specifically make them , more so how they are applied to vehicles that are going into outer space. i am aware that these similar pro esses are applied to many different jobs engineers may habe but im more interslested in the alspacecraft. junk design and mechanics. hopefully that makes sense
  9. Feb 26, 2014 #8

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    Ritzycat, don't go into engineering period if what you want is a safe job with plentiful career opportunities. Go into the medical profession. The baby boom generation is starting to retire and will be in need of increased medical care for a long time. There might be problems when the baby boom starts dying off in droves and the 1960s baby bust stops adding old guys/gals to the mix, but that won't happen for at least another 25 years.

    With regard to Jake's statement that aerospace has a boom/bust reputation: Yep, it does. It's going through a bust right now. The US military aerospace budget has taken huge cuts in the last few years. NASA has fared better than that, but only in comparison. It, too, has suffered the recent spate of budget cuts. That trend won't continue indefinitely. Be a contrarian. Entering into a field when it is in a boom cycle is not a good idea. It will go bust, and the oldest and youngest are the first ones to go. Entering into a field when it is a bust cycle is a much better idea, and that's where aerospace (as a whole) is right now.
  10. Feb 26, 2014 #9

    D H

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    No, it doesn't.

    You are hurting yourself with an overly narrow outlook. We see this problem far too often at this site, but usually with physicists rather than engineers. (That shouldn't be all that surprising as this site is physicsforums.com.) "I won't be happy with life unless I am a Nobel Prize winning physics professor at one of the top ranked universities in the world" -- that's a recipe for an unhappy career.

    So is "I won't be happy with life unless I am working on <some specific space project> at <some specific aerospace company>"

    Per another of your posts, you are a junior in high school right now. I'm going to be blunt: You have but a glamorized vision of what it is like to work in aerospace. You don't know the reality. Suppose you do get a degree in aerospace engineering, and you do get a job with your dream employer. You might well find out that you don't like the reality. The same is true for almost any technical endeavor. A high school student's glamorized view of some field is far removed from the reality. There are lots of things not to like about aerospace: 50+ hour weeks (and sometimes a lot more than that), a sometimes overbearing attention to detail, an oftentimes antiquated way of doing things, very antiquated machinery (example: radiation hardened computers are *at least* 15 years behind the state of the art), projects canceled for no reason whatsoever, and dealing with a weird bureaucracy.
  11. Feb 26, 2014 #10
    I told myself similar things when I was in college. If I had met an earlier version of myself and told myself that I'd be happy working at a water and sewer utility, I'd have been horrified.

    I too wanted to build spacecraft when I grow up (hint: you never "grow up" --it catches up with you). But two things happened. First, my brother, with a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering, who worked on the SDI ("Star Wars") project, having produced incredibly good results with all the bonuses they could have hoped for, was out looking for work six months after the project ended. The boom/bust cycles I mentioned are things I have observed with close family relatives. I have an uncle who went through similar things. My brother decided to put his talents to other endeavors.

    The second thing was that many of my classmates were suddenly looking for work after the cold war defense projects they had been working on were terminated. I was one of the few who graduated out of what had been a very large class at The Johns Hopkins University.

    I took stock in what I was doing to earn money to stay in school. I was working on some really cool terrestrial telecommunications systems with interesting and meaningful work, and lots of neat toys. Conceptually, the work was very similar in many respects to what people design on spacecraft.

    As for the aviation itch, I earned a pilot certificate and later purchased a share of an airplane. The spacecraft thing I can scratch by building my ham radio station up to receive telemetry from some of these spacecraft. You can do these things on the side if you are sufficiently motivated. Your job doesn't have to be the center of your universe. In fact, there are good reasons to make it just something that pays the bills.

    I suggest some time doing some soul searching on what you really want to do with life, career, family, etc.
    Yes, the bragging rights for being a "rocket scientist" or a "brain surgeon" are pretty interesting. But not everyone is cut out for that kind of lifestyle.

    If it is still available on TV or on some local Internet portal, look up Mike Rowe's "Dirty Jobs" series. There is more to life than prancing around in a suit among a bunch of office cubicles.
  12. Feb 26, 2014 #11


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    @ Ritzycat
    I work at a large defense contractor. My locations primary job is designing the critical flight controls for comerical and military aircraft. FCCs, FADECs, ETC. In my hiring class there are 8 electrical engineers, 3 mechanical engineers, and 1 aerospace engineer. While the aerospace engineering major initially had a leg up on us due to his knowledge of how an aircraft works, we quickly gained on him. The difference was his 'problems' that he solved in class for his undergrad were geared to airplanes, our problems were geared to generic things. It helps a little but not much, due to the fact that the real world is so different from college.

    I'm starting to get involved with recruiting. I was told to concentrate on ME and EE over AE. Why you ask? This is due to that fact that you will not be a solo high level aircaft systems designer until you have many years of experience. You will be part of a team and you will learn a lot. Even if you get a control systems job, there will be many people there to guide you. I'm assuming you want to do high level design the aircraft dynamics work. Thats about the only place that an AE may have an advantage over an EE or an ME. Even then, they will only have an advantage for a year or two. Also that type of work is mostly done by senior level engineers, aka the 50 year old engineers that have been doing this work for 30 years.

    However most work is very specialized. The AE in my class is only better at that high level systems stuff. 98% of the work is specialized. wing design, cpu design, actuator design, com system design, etc. In those fields, 98% of the work, AE is equal to EE or ME.

    The work im doing you would consider to be the work of AE (I'm an EE). I'm on a team of about 10 engineers making a flight control system. I have had zero setback due to the fact that i'm an EE, in fact it has helped me many times.

    I want to finish by stressing this. The difference between an AE and EE or ME (depending on what you specialize in) is the problems that you have to solve in school. The math, physics, and such are all the same. EEs and MEs get caught up to speed really fast once you get in the real world. If you really want an AE degree go for it, but EEs and MEs are much more marketable, and you can still get the same job.
  13. Feb 26, 2014 #12

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    I'll give the flip side to your story, Jake.

    I've been working in aerospace for more than 35 years. I've worked with a variety of employers for NASA (unmanned), DoD, NOAA, and NASA (manned). One of my employers went belly up. The owner was a brilliant engineer but a terrible businessman. Another employer was fired by NASA, en masse. We didn't do anything wrong. What happened was that company VP came down to whip our little group into shape, and in the process met with the NASA center director. She was a doofus with a PhD, he was a vindictive SOB. She said something insulting about NASA, and we were gone. (Aside: While this center director most certainly was a dictatorial, vindictive SOB, he was also one of the best managers NASA has ever had.)

    I've stuck with it through thick and thin because I am thoroughly infected with a terminal occupational disease. I have the space bug.
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2014
  14. Feb 26, 2014 #13
    @ D H: --and so it was with my uncle. He too was bitten by the aerospace bug. There were times, while unemployed, where the stress of trying to make ends meet for a family must have been significant.

    I prefer my stress in other areas. Although we make a comfortable living, nobody gets rich working at the water utility. Still, there is lots of steady work; and we usually get reasonable budgets to do what is needed.
  15. Feb 26, 2014 #14

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    I've been very lucky. My longest stint of unemployment was ~two months, and that was self-inflicted. In those two instances where did lose my job, I had a new job within a few weeks after losing my job.

    That two month stint of unemployment was a consequence of my then employer being in the process of being bought out by a large company. We were explicitly told not to inform anyone about the planned acquisition. I didn't tell anyone, honest! I did however set up an interview with that large company. The local managers of that large company were unaware of the pending acquisition. The interviews went well; they even offered me a position. However, they committed the ultimate sin in interviewing: They mentioned money first. (Rule #1 in interviewing: The first to mention money loses.) Their offer was 80% of my salary at the time. I could read the acquisition tea leaves: No matter how good a job I did, I wouldn't see a pay raise for a decade. I instead went to a start-up, and it took two months for that start-up to start up.
  16. Feb 26, 2014 #15
    There have been a lot of informative answers here but I do not appreciate it when someone stereotypes me and starts making claims on things I never even said...

    Anyway, my only interest in aerospace stuff would be participating in building space-related design, creation, whatever anything is involved in creation of such a thing, and if there are limited opportunities in doing this type of work I think I will find something else. I simply wanted to know what the job market would be like in that field. I am actually trying very hard to be realistic in this scenario. I figured aerospace engineering would be the best degree for such an endeavor, but as I have learned here, even if I were able to secure such a job it would likely be more beneficial to have it in mechanical or electrical or something.

    I am not particularly settled on what I want to get a bachelor's in, but I know one day I want a PhD, as of this point. That may change in the future. I am very interested in many of the STEM fields, particularly the esoteric unknown fields, like astrophysics or throwing something in space. Not so much the content itself, but how I would be participating in interesting, next-era stuff. Unfortunately, of course, that also so happens to be the fields where there is not many jobs...

    I've been doing a lot of "soul-searching" the last few months, and I keep teetering from engineering to science. I cannot seem to find clear definitions of what exactly I can expect to do with a certain engineering degree. While these fields are often claimed to be very "broad", surely there is a limit to what they can not do...

    I'm not too worried about money - I'd just like to have a job I enjoy. As of now, I do not plan on having any children, at least much earlier in life, so that may make going for a PhD more doable. If mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineering are so broad, is there a list of potential job descriptions of those who would hire one in each of these respective fields (outside of actually looking at specific jobs on a job-searching website)...

    How do engineers function in the actual work setting? Are they more often doing actual work that they have learned how to do or in an office? I am under the impression that engineers who have been in the field for a while often are promoted to "Management" positions. Is this true? If so, what does "Management" entail? Do I have to play with "Finances" and "Money"? I ask this because I absolutely hate capitalist crap and worrying about "making money" and "making a profit" for the company... Nothing against anyone who does, I just cannot envision myself taking such a "Management" position seriously. I don't want to be involved in an affair that includes doing that sort of thing, UNLESS my impression of such a thing is incorrect. If someone could explain that to me without making me feel stupid or something, that would be appreciated.

    That's why I keep finding myself lured back to the sciences, despite the atrocious job outlook for PhDs in such fields looking for careers in academia, I feel it is more disconnected from the business world than other fields. I think the only type of business/industrial type stuff they have to worry about is university funding, grant-writing, whatever, and a professor does what he does and only does what he does - research and teaching, if the resources are there... That is my impression of what its like - please correct me if I am wrong, in a non-condescending manner please.

    Thanks for all the responses thus far, it has been very good to hear actual stories of where you guys have been and done. While I always prefer statistics to anecdotes, you cannot get the descriptive stories and background with the statistics alone, and you've all given me a lot of great information

    I am really tired of looking at all this stuff, every day I come on and look at different things I could major in, different careers to pursue, I am growing tired of seeing everything interesting have some sort of caveat. What can people actually get their BS and get a job one day? Everything I've found only says engineering, nursing, and medical stuff is worth it nowadays... I don't care about the money really that much, but I still want to have a stable, decent income in a job with the field I actually studied to be in. . .
  17. Feb 26, 2014 #16


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    My work consists 30% documentation 40% design work 30% lab implementation. Obviously this changes based on the state of the project.

    At my job there are many old engineers. There are actually a few that became managers then switched backed to engineering because they liked it more. If you don't want to be a manager, don't be a manager. You don't need to be a figurehead to be a leader.
  18. Feb 26, 2014 #17
    fair enough. what exactly is lab implementation? And what are some of the projects you have done?

    Sorry for bombarding with questions, I've just had trouble trying to find information before I found this website :(
  19. Feb 26, 2014 #18


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    right now i'm working on an electronics system for a navy UAV.

    first you analyze the system and determine what is required of you. Then you develop the solution to the problem (in my case the electronics). You do the mathematical analysis of the system. Determine what the components that you will use. Then we develop a test to ensure that the system works correctly. This usually includes modeling the environment that your solution will be in (an example of this is a wind tunnel). you then build your prototype and test it. Then go back to the design stage and redesign it based on your findings from the test

    so the lab implementation is actually building and testing.

    Keep in mind there are many other things that are required (simulation, documentation, etc)

    My advice to you. Attempt to get an internship. You can try for larger companies, but smaller ones will do as well.

    Disclaimer: I'm very early in my career. Other people's words should be weighted heavier than mine
  20. Feb 26, 2014 #19
    That sounds fairly interesting.

    At this point in my life I can't decide whether the actual design/engineering process if right for me, or the scientific research approach. I hope that will be something I can try out in college....

    Might I ask what type of engineer are you (what did you major in)
  21. Feb 27, 2014 #20
    When we discuss scientists we often think that they spend time in a lab, designing, building, and using test apparatus to discover the wonders of the universe. But there is a very political and bureaucratic side of it too. You need to get funding from somewhere. You need to publish your results. And you need to build your reputation so that you can continue doing these things. These aspects use up most of your time and energy.

    Likewise, in engineering, people think we sit around dreaming up new gadgets that will make life so much more easy than it was before. But once again, we have to get the work first. There are the marketing aspects, the publishing aspects (practices, standards, and case study papers), and also the training and user interface aspects.

    Initially, most new scientists and engineers work under the guidance of a mentor of some sort. The mentor gives them the opportunity to do the science/engineering side of things while running interference for them on the political/bureaucratic side. Eventually, the mentor teaches the bureaucratic and political aspects.

    My point is that neither side of the business is strictly about engineering or scientific inquiry. In fact, I think the actual design or research elements diminish as you progress in your career to perhaps as little as 10 percent of your time. This happens, almost regardless of what field you choose.

    Is it depressing? Yeah. But it's the reality. And another thing: you probably won't find a single college anywhere that will teach you these facts of the business. The things they teach in the academic world, particularly to undergraduate students, are usually very theoretical and divorced from the reality of the business world. Many would have you think that all you have to do is to present your academic credentials and those kids who became business majors will throw money at you so that you can make everyone rich.

    It ain't like that. You have to market your ideas. You have to market yourself. You have to sell your product just like everyone else in the real world. Some who perform at a truly extraordinary level may find someone else who will do this for them. But guess who earns the real money among the two? It isn't the engineer or scientist.

    My point is that almost nobody gets to do pure science or pure engineering. You have got to figure out how to fund things, how to communicate your results, and how to sell yourself and your product/research/services. That's the reality.
  22. Feb 27, 2014 #21


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    Here's a question for you. Since it is important to both communicate your results and sell yourself and your product/research/services, would you recommend that all science or engineering students take a marketing course (to teach them how to market your product/research/service)? Since the whole point of marketing is to teach the student to market and sell -- why else would anyone consider getting a major in marketing?
  23. Feb 27, 2014 #22

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    The reality is even worse, or better, depending on perspective. You missed meetings, testing, and documentation. There is a lot of each in engineering.

    One key reason for all those meetings, all that testing, and all that documentation is that we engineers can kill people if we do our work incorrectly. Jake and his coworkers can make people sick and maybe even die if they do something wrong at their water and sewage facility. For example, Charleston WV recently had a big problem with its water. donpacino and his coworkers can kill passengers and crew if they do something wrong and make an airplane that loses controllability and crashes. My coworkers and I can kill astronauts if we do something wrong.

    Even if we don't kill people, there are huge amounts of money at stake in many engineering projects. The economic impact of the water crisis in Charleston WV is already in the millions of dollars, and this will climb. Closer to the topic of the thread, the International Space Station is a 100+ billion dollar endeavor. An engineering mistake that destroys it, or even some small part of it, is not a good idea.
  24. Feb 27, 2014 #23
    I wish it wasn't the reality :(
  25. Feb 27, 2014 #24

    D H

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    There are some key differences between aerospace engineering and other engineering disciplines.

    Here's one:
    Note the PE after Jake's name. Having a PE license is extremely important in many engineering disciplines. Designs, multiple phases of construction, work instructions, and operating procedures all need to be approved by a PE. PEs put their very livelihoods at risk when they give official approval to some aspect of an engineering project. They can mitigate this risk to some extent by buying the equivalent of medical malpractice insurance. Just as insurance companies only offer medical malpractice insurance to licensed medical doctors, insurance companies only offer professional liability insurance to licensed professional engineers.

    That PE designation is pretty much meaningless in aerospace. A hundred million dollars: That's a cheap space project. The Space Station is a hundred billion dollar project. No insurance company in their right mind is going to offer a hundred million dollar insurance policy, let alone a hundred billion dollar policy. I've only met a handful of licensed engineers in my 35+ years of working in aerospace, and almost all of them deal with things on the ground. The gantry at the launch pad, the means by which fuel is put into the vehicle, the assembly facility: All of that needs PE certification. The space vehicle itself doesn't. Losses that measure in the billions of dollars and in degradation of the status of the country are beyond the scope of what engineering licensing is intended to cover.

    Another difference: Much of what we do is DoD classified, ITAR restricted, or EAR restricted. This makes aerospace a bit immune to outsourcing.
  26. Feb 27, 2014 #25


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    Electrical Engineering with an emphasis on control systems and digital hardware design

    I also want to note that the money and politics side of things will be prevalent in any industry and any line of work.
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