If you’re interested in a career in space exploration and study, engineering is an excellent educational path to pursue. The United States government agency known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) employs engineers in various disciplines. Engineers who work in space exploration work in a number of different capacities to solve problems, from designing spacecraft and hardware to developing new materials to use in the creation of spacecraft. The engineering degrees that are considered the most in-demand at NASA include aerospace engineering, computer hardware engineering, electronics engineering and mechanical engineering.
What Aspiring NASA Engineers Need to Know About Choosing a Discipline
You need an engineering degree if you want to work in an engineering role at NASA. There’s no question about that. However, aspiring NASA engineers often fear that choosing the “wrong” engineering discipline could hold them back from achieving this dream. In fact, NASA jobs in engineering are numerous and diverse. NASA employs 20 different types of engineers in roles that range from officer to director-level positions.
Naturally, though, certain types of engineering are more relevant to the agency as a whole and to specific projects and undertakings than others. Aerospace engineers, who design and develop aircraft and spacecraft and the systems, components and equipment used to power them, are understandably relevant to NASA’s space exploration efforts. Both in-flight and Earthbound computers play a big part in making NASA’s research happen, so computer engineers are needed for many of NASA’s engineering roles.
Since NASA’s projects are so extensive, general engineering skills are also critical to NASA. If you want to develop a breadth of engineering skills to fill up your repertoire, consider majoring in a broad area of engineering, such as mechanical engineering, or opt for the broader discipline of electrical engineering instead of the narrower subdiscipline of computer engineering.
Generally, the only engineering majors that won’t help you get a job with NASA are very specialized majors that don’t have direct ties to space exploration. Even nuclear engineers may find opportunities to work in nuclear thermal propulsion applications.
If you get a bachelor’s degree in an engineering discipline that doesn’t directly set you up for working with NASA, you could opt to go to graduate school for an engineering discipline that builds off of your undergraduate knowledge but has more relevance to NASA. For example, a petroleum engineer could pursue graduate studies in mechanical engineering and end up working for NASA, the Society of Petroleum Engineers reported.
How to Become a NASA Engineer
Starting your engineering education is the first step toward becoming a NASA engineer. Although you may need an advanced degree for some NASA roles, all students have to begin with their undergraduate studies. Generally, this means declaring an engineering major and either starting off at a four-year college or pursuing an associate’s degree before transferring to a bachelor’s degree program.
Expect to spend a minimum of four years pursuing your bachelor’s in engineering degree. In engineering programs that include co-op experiences – which are essentially lengthy, paid internship work experiences – your education might take longer. If you want to work for NASA, you should be looking for relevant opportunities during the course of your education. Find out if any instructors at your school are involved in research with or for NASA or otherwise related to space exploration, and see how you can get involved. Apply for NASA internships, such as the NASA Pathways Program, which will allow you to get your foot in the door, see for yourself what life working at NASA is like and meet potential mentors and make other professional connections.
Once you graduate with your bachelor’s in engineering degree, you could start applying to work for NASA. If you get hired at this point to entry-level roles with the agency, you can continue to advance your career from inside NASA – which means that you will be eligible for internal roles not open to the public. If you don’t get hired or you can’t find an entry-level role that fits your interests and discipline, you can either go to graduate school to advance your education or get started in industry work to build the skills and experience that will qualify you for higher-level NASA jobs later. Obviously, you want to look for opportunities that put you closer to that goal of working for NASA, which may mean seeking out job roles that are relevant to what you would like to do as a NASA engineer and selecting graduate school programs with the potential to help you get hired by the agency.
One point to keep in mind is that not everyone who works for NASA is a permanent, full-time employee. There are term positions that are offered for a limited span of time, as well as NASA contract work opportunities. Consider what you want out of your working relationship with NASA and decide what type of employment arrangement you want to pursue.
Degrees for NASA Engineers
Engineers need to understand both the theory of designing and building products that solve problems and how to put those principles into action. Regardless of specific engineering discipline, most undergraduate engineering degree programs incorporate learning in the classroom, in the laboratory and in the field.
Students take foundational courses in engineering theory and principles, but they also spend a good deal of time designing tools, engines, electronics, computer systems and vessels and building models and prototypes of these products. Many engineering programs encourage, or even require, that students gain hands-on engineering work experience through an internship or cooperative program.
What Level of Degree Do You Need for NASA Engineering?
To work in engineering for NASA, you’re going to need a bachelor’s degree, at minimum. The more advanced, senior-level or competitive the role you want, the more likely you are to need an advanced education. For example, if you want to be an astronaut, you should plan to pursue at least a master’s degree, if not a doctoral degree like a Ph.D. or a Doctor of Engineering (DEng or EngD) degree. Actual astronauts represent just a tiny fraction of the NASA workforce. Only 44 of the nearly 17,000 NASA employees were considered “active” astronauts as of 2021. Considering how small this workforce is, it makes sense that the engineers with the best odds of becoming an astronaut are the ones who have the most impressive credentials, including an advanced level of education, extensive work experience and highly advanced and specialized technical skills.
Majoring in Aerospace Engineering
A bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering typically includes studies in aerodynamics, mechanics, stability and control, propulsion and structures, as well as general engineering principles, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. For an aerospace engineering program to be accredited by ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, it must include studies in subjects like the following:
- Orbital mechanics
- Space environment
- Aerospace materials
Aerospace engineering isn’t always offered as its own distinct major, especially at the undergraduate level. At some schools, aerospace engineering is a concentration area students may pursue within a discipline like mechanical engineering. As of 2021, there were 76 ABET-accredited bachelor’s degree programs in aerospace engineering in the United States.
Majoring in Computer Engineering
An undergraduate degree program in computer engineering often combines computer science studies with electrical engineering principles and practices, according to the BLS. ABET-accredited programs cover computing science and the computer and engineering coursework needed for developing computer systems and the hardware and software components that make up these systems. Generally, computer engineering degree programs add more specialized computer science coursework to an electrical engineering curriculum, so students should be prepared to complete classes in digital design and circuits and systems, as well as programming coursework. ABET recognized 292 bachelor’s degree programs in computer engineering in the United States as of 2021.
Majoring in Electrical and Electronics Engineering
Students of undergraduate electronics and electrical engineering programs take classes in subjects such as electrical circuit theory, digital systems design and differential equations, the BLS reported. Coursework in electromagnetics, microelectronics and microprocessors is common among bachelor’s in electrical and electronics engineering programs. There were 392 ABET-accredited electrical and electronics engineering bachelor’s degree programs in the United States in 2021.
Majoring in Mechanical Engineering
A bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering typically includes studies in math and science as well as engineering and design, according to the BLS. In a mechanical engineering program, students are likely to take classes in the design of machine components, mechanical engineering systems, manufacturing processes and systems, control systems, thermal/fluid system design, modeling and simulation and product design and manufacturing. Because mechanical engineering is such a broad engineering discipline, students in this major often have the opportunity to pursue an area of concentration, such as aerospace engineering, robotics, automotive engineering, power generation or sustainable energy. ABET recognized 392 accredited mechanical engineering bachelor’s degree programs in the United States in 2021.
If you don’t have your heart set on working as an engineer, specifically, you might find opportunities as an engineering technician or technologist with a lower level of education. Engineering technicians typically need only a two-year associate’s degree program and perform technical work without personally undertaking the design aspect of engineering.
NASA Jobs in Engineering: What Do NASA Engineers Do?
In the most general context, NASA engineers are engineers who design solutions used in NASA’s missions, particularly in the context of the agency’s aeronautics and space programs. Engineers draw upon a foundation in the principles of science and mathematics to design and develop all manner of innovations and solutions to problems, including vessels, equipment, devices, systems, materials, computer hardware and software programs and more. Engineers with a background or scope of work in different disciplines may focus on different types of engineering applications.
To design solutions, engineers must first understand the scope of a problem – such as the need for equipment to perform under the conditions that exist both within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere. In the course of designing and developing these solutions, engineers run calculations, use computer technology to develop designs and perform statistical data analyses and modeling and create and test prototypes.
NASA Aerospace Engineering Positions
Aerospace engineers working in space exploration put their engineering knowledge to work designing, building and testing spacecraft, missiles and other equipment that can withstand the challenges of the space environment. Although what primarily comes to mind when thinking of NASA aerospace engineers might be spaceships and rockets, aerospace engineers are also responsible for developing propulsion systems, space flight mission paths and more.
Computer Hardware Engineering
NASA also employs engineers with the skills to design and construct computerized equipment used in space exploration. Although NASA uses plenty of what would fall under the traditional category of computers and computer hardware, NASA computer engineers may also design and develop robots and robotic equipment. These engineers typically have a background in computer engineering, although some computer engineers earn their bachelor’s degree in a related discipline such as computer science or electrical engineering.
Electrical and Electronics Engineering Jobs
Computers aren’t the only electrical equipment used in space exploration. Electrical engineer and electronics engineer job roles at NASA are more general and encompass the development of all kinds of electrical and electronic equipment. The solutions an electrical or electronics engineer working for NASA might develop include motors, aircraft, instrument panels, computers, video and communications equipment, robots, radar systems and electrical wiring systems. To design and maintain NASA’s electrical and electronic equipment, engineers need a bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering or a similar discipline.
Astronauts use all kinds of tools and machines during their endeavors in space. Mechanical engineers are the ones who devise and develop these products, ranging from sensors to steering mechanisms and even spacecraft engines. Any space exploration system, equipment or innovation that involves moving parts of any kind may require the work of a mechanical engineer.
Many of the challenges in space exploration, and the attempts to solve those problems, require input from engineers across multiple disciplines. Aspiring engineers who want to work for NASA should be creative and resourceful problem-solvers and have the interpersonal skills to work well with a team of engineers, technicians and scientists.
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