On a clear, dark night, you look up to see what appear to be millions
of stars. But what you can see is only a small part of the universe. There
are new planets to discover, new places to explore and lots of work to be
done before anyone can get there. Even before we can put the first human on
Mars, researchers need to gather and analyze more information about our solar
You could be one of the few who travel through space to visit distant planets.
Or you could study the planets from your computer and control a robot to do
the exploration for you. You could write press releases to explain the latest
discoveries to the world, or you could negotiate contracts with companies
who supply the tools for space research.
There are numerous opportunities for space researchers, and the future
promises even more exciting prospects for careers in space research. If you
aren't interested in visiting space as an astronaut, don't worry. Most careers
in space research are based right here on Earth.
Tracy Drain holds a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia
Tech in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a systems engineer currently working on the
project systems engineering team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,
California, as part of the Kepler Mission. She sees lots of opportunities
in her field.
"I think that friendly competition with other nations tends to increase
public awareness of and excitement about space exploration," she says. "And
that seems to increase the funds that both government and private industry
make available for such activities."
Chris Damaren is vice dean of the faculty of applied science and engineering
at a university. He is cautiously optimistic about the future.
"It is too early to tell," he says, "but it appears that space-faring nations
are not substantially cutting their budgets for space activities. Since much
of the work is financed by countries rather than the private sector, it should
be less affected than other aspects of the economy."
That's good news for those wanting to find out more about the universe.
Drain is excited about the future of her projects.
"Once launched and fully checked out, Kepler will begin monitoring over
100,000 stars to look for the tell-tale, periodic dimming of light that is
an indicator that a planet is passing between the star and our instrument,"
"Keep in mind that there is a wide variety of people needed to make a space
mission successful," adds Drain.
"There are a lot of areas for people who are strictly 'scientists' or 'engineers'
[working in areas] such as...chemistry and material science for developing
and testing the cutting-edge materials used for space applications, mechanical
and electrical engineering for designing and testing spacecraft components
and instruments, geology and planetology for developing the scientific goals
for our missions and analyzing the data returned by the spacecraft."
There are also many other jobs in this field that aren't directly related
to scientific research. These include managing contracts made with other companies,
obtaining parts and managing budgets. Graphic artists are needed to generate
realistic spacecraft models and images that engineers use in problem solving.
Media relations experts relay information to the public.
Deborah Bass is deputy project scientist for the Phoenix Mars Mission.
She has been involved in a variety of projects at the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration (NASA). She says there is a lot of diversity in jobs
even on the research end.
"I have done a number of different jobs at JPL. We manage unmanned, robotic
space missions at JPL. We also build much [of the] hardware that is flown
into space and operate those spacecraft as they are being flown in space missions.
"That is one of the fun things working here. I get to try out a bunch of
different types of things, and I am constantly learning new and exciting ways
to work. I have worked as a science systems engineer to design the kind of
work scientists will do for missions that land on the surface of Mars. I have
done this job for the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers, and also the Phoenix
Mars Lander. "
Bass has conducted research on data that has come back from spacecraft
orbiting Mars. She has tried to better understand the water cycle on Mars.
"These days, I am looking far ahead at what kinds of missions NASA might send
to Mars 10 to 20 years from now," she says. "That is a very different job
than what I've done in the past."
Kai Multhaup is also looking ahead to explore new planets. He is the local
project manager for the MERTIS instrument at the Institut fÃ¼r Planetologie
in Munster, Germany.
"MERTIS is an infrared spectrometer that will travel to Mercury aboard
the European BepiColombo in 2014 and examine its surface from above," he says.
"The catch is that we do not know exactly how to interpret the spectral data
that MERTIS will beam back to Earth."
Multhaup says analyzing that data is a good example of ground-based research
for scientists who are interested in space, but don't necessarily want to
The future looks good for all kinds of space researchers, he says. "These
are exciting times. NASA is gearing up for its return to the moon, the International
Space Station is nearing completion and a number of robotic explorers are
cruising throughout the solar system. New interplanetary missions to Mercury
and the moons of the gas giants are being planned.
"To implement current and future missions, the world's space agencies and
research institutes need engineers, scientists and astronauts."
How Do I Become a Space Scientist?
Typically, research scientists are people with a great curiosity about
the unknown. They have good reading and writing skills. Being able to effectively
communicate with other people all over the world is very important since a
lot of the research is shared throughout the global scientific community.
It is not too early to think about what courses to take to prepare for a career
in space research.
"Many careers in space research involve science and engineering," says
Damaren. "Middle school students should consider courses in mathematics and
science, including physics, chemistry and biology."
"There is a need for people with all levels of university education," Damaren
explains. "However, students can increase their chances of a career in space
research by earning advanced degrees in science and engineering, such as a
master's or a PhD."
There are other things you can do to increase your chances of success.
"Keep an eye out for things like summer internships and co-op programs,"
advises Drain. "Spending some time working in the area you are interested
in often helps a lot in determining whether you love it or would rather try
"Some summer internship programs take students who are still in high school.
Be sure to ask your counselors for information or visit a website for any
companies -- including NASA -- that you may be interested in.... It never
hurts to plan ahead and know what to aim for!"
Opportunities Will Explode
It appears that all systems are set to go for space exploration. The need
for space researchers will explode as global space agencies race to be the
first to put a human being on a distant planet, or to discover new life forms
on yet-to-be-discovered worlds. And it will take people from many backgrounds
to work together to achieve these out-of-this-world goals.
Learn about current happenings across the agency
Universities Space Research Association
Learn about the USRA, which works to further space science and
technology and promotes education in these areas
International Space University
Read about this university, which trains and educates students
in all space-related disciplines
American Association of Variable Star Observers
Learn more about this organization for amateur and professional
National Geographic Science and Space
Take a virtual tour