Space is our last frontier – or at least we assume it to be at this time – and it remains our greatest exploratory and engineering challenge. The design and invention of the machinery, technology and equipment required, together with determination and sheer ingenuity can almost exclusively be attributed to the engineering fraternity. Space travel offers the broadest engineering career spectrum there is.
From avionics to electronics, to software, to rocketry, engineers draw the cutting-edge in every capacity, their work complemented by scientists from just about every field. With interplanetary travel a goal for the 21st century, Mars looms like a beckoning light in the night sky. A seven to nine month journey across the heavens, and then all the trials of an alien world with no oxygen and high radiation levels. And yet, so much of the work currently under research and design in the space industry is focused on the ultimate goal of reaching this dangerous red planet.
What you’ll need to get on board: Any engineer wanting to work in the space industry or one of its many related endeavours, needs to understand the principles of physics, including aerodynamics, motion and propulsion, as well as fluid mechanics and other theoretical and practical associated issues. A strong background in mathematics needs to be supported by a relevant engineering/tech/science degree such as: aerospace engineering, aeronautical engineering, space system engineering, mechanical or electrical engineering.
What space engineers do
Chief tasks encompass the design of spacecraft to facilitate safe space travel and the exploration of space, including the design, building, testing, maintenance and repair of engines and propulsion systems, as well as a host of related equipment.
A space engineer may work for NASA, the government or any one of a growing number of private companies. However, the job may not necessarily mean you will go to space – it is possible to have a job as a space engineer that is entirely in a laboratory or research facility. Communications and the building of satellites are integral to the advancement of the space industry and provide a range of opportunities for talented people.
The tools of the trade of space exploration are maths and science. Engineers are continually creating new technologies to solve the vast challenges that space travel presents. As an engineer in the space sector you could work on spaceships geared to travel immense distances, but you could also be involved in tackling the challenges of how we will live on another planet, as well as related aspects with regard to communications, robotics, computer programs, spacesuits, etc.
The process of a project
- A project will begin with an idea for scientific research or a new application. Engineers work with project teams and partners from industry and scientific institutes to evaluate the concept’s overall feasibility in terms of meeting mission requirements within acceptable costs, schedule and performance.
- While this is happening, engineers will assess whether the technology required can be made available on time and at sufficiently high quality. They work to identify, evaluate and accelerate ‘enabling technologies’ across multiple fields. The work here is to bring the new needs of the space mission into viable production.
- Finally the project team designs and delivers the product on time, on performance, and on budget. During this time, feedback to management must be transparent and continuous.
- Progress and financial reporting is supported by reviews at important milestones throughout the project’s process, a process that must be undertaken by independent teams of engineering experts.
- The work of product assurance and safety managers during this time is vital. Their purpose is to both reduce and control risk by raising warnings when a course of action or problem might stray from accepted quality standards or best-practice.
- All assembled space hardware has to undergo testing at every stage of Laboratories remain at the disposal of project teams with in-house engineers to advise on causes of any specific mission anomalies, and to research potential fixes. Information thus learned can then be fed back into next-generation mission designs.
- Engineers are responsible for the vital work linked to all aspects of a mission, including flight safety engineering; space debris mitigation; re-entry safety; and, most recently, planetary protection – the practice of ensuring that potential alien biospheres are not contaminated by terrestrial bacteria. We pollute our own planet enough, we should be wary of doing the same to another one!
Engineers are problem solvers, inventors and innovators! Without space engineers, we wouldn’t have many of the products that have been invented in the last 30 to 40 years. Satellite technology, GPS and cell phones, LED lighting, ear thermometers and memory foam to name but a few. The world as we know it today would not exist without the ingenious work of engineering pioneers in space exploration.
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