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. However, opportunities to become an astronaut are scarce. Out of the thousands of NASA employees, there are only 45 active astronauts and 73 total astronauts, 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.
One field of engineering that NASA frequently hires is aerospace. This field is closely related to flying in space, without actually having to go to space. Aerospace engineers help design, construct and test the spacecraft NASA uses. 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 behind and technology of spacecrafts and other launch vehicles, is probably your best option for this career path.
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 advance calculations need to be made for space and the reports explaining spacecraft designs must be clear.
The BLS reports that aerospace engineers working for the federal government enjoy a median salary of $117,700.
Computer Hardware Engineering
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 have a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, though some computer engineers instead hold a degree in electrical engineering or computer science. A degree in computer engineering will require familiarity with computer software systems, and computer science courses may be required to acquire this background.
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 work for the federal government enjoy a median salary of $111,550, according to the BLS.
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 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.
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 earns electronics engineers a median salary of $110,200, according to the BLS.
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 spacecrafts to move through space.
Mechanical engineers typically need a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering to find a job. These programs heavily emphasize studies in mathematics, so it is important to have math skills. Other qualities employers look for 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.
According to the BLS, mechanical engineers who work in the scientific research and development services enjoy a median salary of $98,530.
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, 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.
A degree in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics is required by NASA become an astronaut.