From the time we are children, many of us dream of becoming astronauts and exploring the stars. A job with the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations, better known as NASA, can offer engineers the chance to live that dream. NASA employs a variety of types of engineers, including aerospace engineers, computer hardware engineers, electronics engineers and mechanical engineers. Find out more about what engineers do at NASA and what it takes to become a NASA engineer. NASA engineers in all disciplines work to apply the concepts and techniques of science, mathematics and engineering design to solve problems pertaining to space research and exploration.

nasa mechanical engineer

Why Look for an Engineer Job Instead of an Astronaut Job?

Is there anyone who never dreamed of being an astronaut as a child, or at least pretended to be one? While astronaut may be a dream career, that dream will only become a reality for a very small, select group of individuals. Out of the thousands of NASA employees, there were only 45 active astronauts and 73 total astronauts as of 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS). That doesn’t mean working at NASA is out of the question, especially if you have the right degree. NASA employees work in many different occupations and are much more likely to hold a different job title, such as engineer.

The famous individuals who travel into space and set foot on the moon do critical and at times dangerous work, but they are only able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere because of the support of the thousands of Earthbound NASA workers. Statistically, you’re much more likely to get hired by NASA in an engineer role, especially in fields like aerospace engineering, computer engineering and electronics engineering, than to be hired as an astronaut.

You don’t necessarily have to choose between being an astronaut and being an engineer. Engineering backgrounds have been an asset for those selected as astronauts ever since the very first astronauts were chosen in 1959, according to NASA. Even if your end goal is to become an astronaut, earning a degree and some work experience in engineering means that you have something to contribute to NASA besides a burning desire to fly into space.

Having a master’s degree in another STEM field, such as mathematics, biological science, physical science or computer science – along with professional work experience and the ability to pass NASA’s long-duration flight astronaut physical exam – can also prepare you for the possibility of serving as an astronaut. 

How to Become an Aerospace Engineer for NASA

One field of engineering that NASA frequently hires is aerospace. This field is closely related to flying in space, but it doesn’t necessarily involve undertaking space travel yourself. Aerospace engineers help design, construct and test the spacecraft NASA uses, not only for manned flights but also unmanned ventures.  In addition to hiring its own in-house aerospace engineers, NASA sometimes works with outside aerospace engineering consulting companies.

One thing aerospace engineers must keep in mind is that there is no air in space, so designs that would work on Earth won’t work in space. Therefore, these engineers have to design and test rockets that use compounds such as liquid oxygen to create thrust.

To become an aerospace engineer, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree, typically in aerospace engineering. Finding a program that includes a concentration or academic track in astronautical engineering, which focuses specifically on the science and technology behind spacecraft and other launch vehicles, is probably one of your best options for this career path.

An undergraduate aerospace engineering curriculum will include classes in propulsion, compressible flow, flight and spacecraft dynamics, low-speed aerodynamics, aerospace materials, electromechanical systems and feedback control systems. These major courses build upon foundations in calculus, linear algebra, physics and engineering mechanics, which encompasses studies of statics, dynamics and the mechanics of solids. Often, aerospace engineering majors also complete some coursework in computational engineering, including engineering computation and computer programming. Hands-on work is important for learning the practice of engineering, as opposed to only its underlying concepts, so students should expect to take laboratory and design courses as they work toward completing their bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. Studies in engineering fundamentals and engineering communication are also valuable for engineering students in this and other disciplines.

Aerospace engineers must have specific skills to be successful at their jobs. Analytical and problem-solving skills are a must for you to be able to identify what design elements may not work in space and what alternatives can be used instead. Math and writing skills are also important, since advanced calculations need to be made for space and the reports explaining spacecraft designs must be clear.

The BLS reported that aerospace engineers working for the federal government enjoyed a median salary of $123,010 as of 2020.

Becoming a NASA Computer Engineer

NASA also needs computer hardware engineers to research and design computer systems that measure activity in outer space. To work as a computer hardware engineer for NASA, you should ideally have a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. However, computer engineering isn’t the only educational path you could choose to wind up in this career. The BLS reported that some computer engineers instead hold a degree in electrical engineering – the broader engineering discipline of which computer engineering is a subdiscipline – or in computer science.

The work that NASA computer engineers do may not be as visible as building rockets and satellites, but it’s no less important. NASA’s space research and exploration efforts run on computer technology. While computer engineers doing work for NASA may have the opportunity to work on flight hardware, they are more commonly involved in ground systems. These systems are used for everything from communication to simulation, control and analysis. Without these ground systems, space travel wouldn’t be possible.

NASA computer engineer

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

In a bachelor’s degree program in computer engineering, the major coursework builds upon studies in the fundamentals of physics and math classes in algebra, trigonometry, calculus, discrete mathematics and complex and vector analysis. A general engineering core is likely to consist of courses in engineering design and data analysis, linear and dynamic engineering systems and introductory computer programming for engineers. A degree in computer engineering will require familiarity with computer software systems, and computer science courses like data structures and advanced programming tools and techniques may be required to acquire this background. The specialized classes that fit into the computer engineering major often include studies in computer organization, signals and systems, the foundations of electric circuits, digital logic design, design and microcontrollers, probability and data analytics and the real-world applications of electrical and computer engineering.

Some qualities NASA may look for in computer hardware engineers are analytical skills, critical-thinking skills, problem-solving skills and communication skills. Computer hardware engineers must analyze the digital circuits in hardware to determine what design would be best fitted for monitoring activities in space. Critical-thinking and problem-solving skills help computer engineers devise alternative options if the existing technology may not work in space. Since they will be working on a team with other types of engineers, being able to communicate effectively with engineers in other disciplines is essential.

Computer hardware engineers who worked for the federal government made a median salary of $118,620 as of 2020, according to the BLS.

Working as a NASA Electronics Engineer

Spacecraft require electronic devices of all kinds, including instrument panels, flight systems and communication systems. This is where electronics engineers come in. These engineers help design the electronic components used in spacecraft and inspect the existing electronics to ensure astronauts’ safety. These engineers are also in charge of developing the maintenance procedures for the components they design to keep spacecraft electronics systems functioning accurately and safely. Some of the job duties you might encounter when working as a NASA electronics or electrical engineer include designing and developing the hardware and software systems used in flight electronics and electrical systems, as well as pinpointing any potential hazards and coming up with strategies to mitigate them.

Electronics engineers must have a bachelor’s degree but can choose from a couple of possible majors, such as electrical engineering and electronics engineering. Coursework in electronics engineering may include classes in microprocessor architecture, electronic circuits and devices, digital systems, hardware description languages, and programmable logic devices. All of these topics will prove useful when designing components used by NASA.

Working for the federal government earned electronics engineers a median salary of $117,210 in 2020, according to the BLS.

Becoming a NASA Mechanical engineer

If you want to help create the sensors, tools, engines, or other machines that support space missions, you might want to be a mechanical engineer for NASA. These engineers often work with other engineering fields to develop these products. For example, a mechanical engineer might work with aerospace engineers to develop the steering mechanism on the rocket nozzles used by spacecraft to move through space. Mechanical engineering is among the broadest of engineering disciplines and can encompass the design and development of any engineering solution, large or small, that involves moving parts and the principles of motion, force and energy.

Mechanical engineers typically need a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering to find a job. These programs heavily emphasize studies in mathematics, often including differential equations and a sequence of courses in calculus, as well as laboratory coursework in physics and chemistry. General engineering classes for mechanical engineering majors include engineering techniques, computational methods in engineering, statics and dynamics, basic thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, mechanics of deformable bodies, electric circuits and computer-aided design techniques for engineering. Major coursework for mechanical engineers typically includes studies in heat transfer, engineering vibrations, mechanical measurements, the mechanics of engineering materials. Mechanical engineering students are likely to delve deeper into the study of thermodynamics with more advanced coursework in this area, as well as studying kinematics, or the geometry of acceleration, velocity and motion. Coursework in hands-on engineering design is particularly important for mechanical engineering students.

Aside from math skills, some of the other qualities employers like NASA look for in mechanical engineers are creativity, listening skills, and problem-solving skills. Mechanical engineers need to be creative to design and build complex machines and equipment. They also need to be able to listen to and work with engineers in other disciplines such as aerospace or electronics engineering. Last but not least, problem-solving skills are a must when dealing with issues that might arise in space.

The BLS doesn’t report salary data for mechanical engineers working for the federal government, because the government is not one of the top employers for this branch of engineering. However, mechanical engineers who worked in the scientific research and development services earned a median salary of $104,260 in 2020.

NASA Jobs With Advanced Degrees

Many engineering schools offer five-year programs that allow students to earn their bachelor’s degree along with a master’s degree. While having a graduate degree can help advance your engineering career in any field, it can be particularly useful if you want to be an astronaut. While NASA often prefers applicants for astronaut positions to hold a graduate degree, even having a master’s degree might not be enough to attain a competitive position as an astronaut. In fact, aerospace engineers who aspired to be astronauts have noted that the candidates most often chosen to be mission specialists held doctoral or medical degrees, according to the BLS. To achieve this lifelong dream, these engineers often need to go back to school and attain a Ph.D. degree.

Although your degree is important if you want to work as a NASA engineer, your work experience also matters. Many engineering students begin gaining experience early through co-ops or internships so that they can practice their skills and start cultivating the type of work experience that will capture the attention of a NASA recruiter. NASA offers internship programs, like the Pathways Intern Program that can put you on the path to full-time permanent employment with NASA.

U.S. News & World Report noted in 2021 that alternatives to having a master’s or doctoral degree include having two years of doctoral-level study in a science, math or engineering field and completing a pilot test program at a pilot school that is nationally recognized. 

Additional Resources 

What Degree Do I Need to Work as a NASA Engineer?

What Degree Do I Need to Work as a NASA Scientist?

What Associate’s Degrees Can Help Me Get a Job at NASA?

Do I Need a Master’s Degree or Doctorate to Get a Job at NASA?