April 27, 2023

Space, they say, is cold. It’s also very cool.

Missions to Mars. Lunar bases. Asteroid mining. And giant satellite constellations that blanket the night sky. There’s a lot of reasons to pay attention to space exploration today and in the future. 

IEEE Senior Member Ella Atkins, who leads the aerospace and oceanic engineering department at Virginia Tech, says that there is a side of the space industry that doesn’t get much sunlight. 

“The engineering that enables each space mission is often ignored or underfunded,” Atkins said. 

She notes that the sensors and software that are essential to every space mission are not studied in most academic programs nor are they covered in the media. Other critical programs, like contingency management and safety that are critical to the success of human and robotic missions, also don’t get the attention they deserve. 

Space exploration requires huge teams, well beyond the people we often see sitting in a mission control center ahead of a major launch. Some lesser-known roles, like model-based systems engineer, software engineer, autonomy engineer and duties covering power systems and communication systems are in demand. 

And that, incidentally, is creating a lot of opportunities. 

We spoke with Atkins about the hidden side of space exploration, and the task of preparing a workforce for the space age.  

If the essential aspects of space exploration aren’t taught in most academic programs, where do space agencies find the people they need? Is there on-the-job training?

In the case of software, senior personnel must work tirelessly to help computer scientists (who typically do not learn much about space in their college curricula) and aerospace engineers (who typically do not learn much about computer science and formal programming in their college curricula) become effective teammates.  Multidisciplinary curricular opportunities would help.

But yes, there is some on-the-job training. NASA, for example, hires capable and motivated college graduates who want to support space missions. These graduates bring a strong foundation in their specific discipline from their education, and NASA supervisors build teams in which senior personnel can mentor  junior personnel. 

Can you give us some examples of some of the behind-the-scenes roles that are critical to space exploration that don’t get their time in the spotlight?

Space debris tracking and management, space law and policy, day-to-day mission operation – as opposed to the “special event” management, to name a few. 

The Skies are unlimited: how space exploration benefits us all

Can you describe what the contingency management teams do for space programs? And why are they an essential part of the mission? 

Every member of a mission control and the operations team monitors the space mission for problems. Minor issues can be automatically executed in software, or it can be manually uplinked from a human on the ground. Major issues often require teams of people supported by increasingly capable software and increasingly informative datasets to address.  

We have had a lot of successes in our space missions. Most of these successes have only been possible by effective contingency management to resolve issues/failures in hardware, software, mission parameters or some combination of these. 

Most people that want to work in the space industry  spend years carefully crafting their resume. But it seems like the absence of training for some specialized disciplines means that there are some people working on space programs that never thought they’d be working on a space program. Is that accurate?

Yes. Certainly there are a lot of college students and graduates who dream of supporting space missions, and they focus on building a strong resume that will allow them to work for a space company or government agency such as NASA.  Others are recruited to fill gaps. 

Space companies and government agencies need people with the aerospace, electrical, computer, mechanical engineering disciplines as well as materials scientists and mission scientists from physics and climate backgrounds.

Space missions require expertise cutting across all these areas, which requires employers to hire graduates from multiple disciplines and mentor them effectively in interdisciplinary teams.

Learn more: Few engineering environments are more challenging than Mars, where NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has recently marked a milestone. Its Ingenuity Mars Helicopter recently took its 50th flight – not bad for a tech demo that was supposed to go for five flights over 30 days. IEEE Spectrum spoke with a member of the team that made it happen.


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