Industry Insight: Space Jobs of the Future

Courtesy of NASA

Courtney Stadd spent more than 35 years helping draft and implement federal policies and regulations to spur the growth of commercial space. Today, he is widely consulted within the industry. The article below was originally published in The Space Report Quarter Three in October. The views presented herein are those of the individual author and do not represent the Space Foundation.


“I still can’t quite believe that we’ve just marked the 50th anniversary of the Space Age! We’ve accomplished a great deal in that time, but the ‘Golden Age of Space’ is only just beginning. Over the next 50 years, thousands of people will travel to Earth orbit—and then, to the moon and beyond. Space travel—and space tourism—will one day become almost as commonplace as flying to exotic destinations on our own planet.” –Arthur C. Clarke (2007)

The late Dr. Clarke, popularly known for authoring the cinematic space classic, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” was known for his technical prowess (he conceived the geostationary satellite) but also for his compelling optimistic vision for space development.

Regardless of whether one supports his expectation of space tourism becoming commonplace in our lifetime is less important than his prediction—shared by many of us who support the Space Foundation’s mission—that the Space Age that gave birth to NASA and the moon landing is a mere preamble to a new era, one where unimaginable new space-based industries and career opportunities will soon unfold on a seemingly daily basis.

To a young person in K-12 or even beginning his or her college years, the career paths in space go way beyond the stereotypical astronaut, rocket engineer or space scientist profile normally conjured when thinking a future in space. Globally, it is true that an industry worth U.S. $414.75 billion generates a lot of employment for engineers, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists and similar professions. This is just the beginning. Entire practices devoted to domestic and international legal/regulatory regimes are being formed within prominent law firms; as well as disciplines devoted to marketing, business development, and branding for space-related activities.

Universities and research institutions are developing next-generation innovations that will drive the future of space exploration and travel. The whole concept of building and deploying cubesats—marshaling the computing power of smartphone technology—came from research at leading universities such as Stanford University and the Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University.

The space sector for the first half century (with the prime exception of satellite communications) was essentially a monopsony dominated by the public sector. Just as we have witnessed in other fields such as biotechnology, computer processing, and telecommunications, the space sector is increasingly being disrupted by market-driven forces changing the various nature of the players entering the space exploration arena.

Because of advances in science and technology, researchers are designing experiments differently and tackling ever-more complex questions relating to data, discovery, and colonization. Due to changes in the economy and in industry funding models, private commercial enterprises are initiating projects that the government once led. Billionaires are betting on a future in which public trips to Mars and back are reality, not a sci-fi fan’s fever dream.

Joseph Schumpeter, the late political economist coined the expression, “gale of creative destruction” which describes the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one”. The predicate for this phenomenon is a market in which one witnesses a diverse range of players representing a variety of products and services. In other words, there needs to be critical mass of participants to allow for the healthy market dynamic in which companies rise, fall and reconstitute themselves based on changing customer demand.

As The Space Report has documented, global commercial space commerce, an industry dominated by U.S. companies, now represents about 80 percent of total global space activity. The commercial sector includes longtime NASA private partners such as Northrop Grumman and Boeing but increasingly includes newer players such as SpaceX, Garmin, EchoStar, Qualcomm, Google and DigitalGlobe. With little or no government investment, these companies are at the forefront of a range of space-related commercial industries, whether developing outer space crew transport vehicles, launching satellites to provide worldwide communications and broadcast services, or building components that help our cars and phone navigate cross country or track packages delivered to our front porches.

Every day seems to witness the emergence of new entrants in the commercial space arena—including new applications  such as the use of optical communications (in lieu of conventional radio frequency uses), satellite imagery including optical and synthetic radar, thousands of low orbiting satellites for tracking and communications, and innumerable examples of cutting-edge satellite technology in the area of in-orbit satellite servicing and repair. Others are pursuing the use of smart satellite designs that allow ground operators to repurpose existing satellites, thereby extending their revenue and application potential.

These areas do not begin to touch on the myriad companies building robotic and human-rated flight systems to explore and ultimately settle other planetary surfaces such as the moon and Mars in the generations to come, including those who are developing technologies to mine and harness resources from asteroids and other planets.

A partnership between NASA and Bob Bigelow, founder and CEO of Bigelow Aerospace, is one example. NASA helped pay for the integration costs of Bigelow’s privately designed expandable habitat, which is attached to the International Space Station. It is a test-bed for futuristic uses of such orbiting commercial expandables, including foreign-government-operated microgravity laboratories, medical facilities, perhaps even sports arena where athletes of the future will be pioneering unimaginable athletic competitions taking advantage of near weightlessness. Imagine watching sporting contests in which participants are doing 20 plus back flips while in midair! One can imagine whole new fields of sports endeavors being developed in the weightless environment of orbiting habitats.

All of these developments—generating Schumpeter’s “gale of creative destruction”—are leading to all new categories of space career opportunities in the years to come.

As Space Angels, a leading early stage investor group, proclaims on its webpage: “Commercial space is a large and rapidly growing market that will be worth trillions of dollars over the next decade. In many ways, the space industry is at a similar stage today as the internet was in the mid-1990s. This is a unique moment in history to invest in an exciting and rapidly growing sector. There’s real money to be made here!”

It’s easy to imagine the LinkedIn space job notices of the future:

Food engineers: Experts who can invent enticing food products in space (food in microgravity loses its smell) that can deliver compelling scents—especially important for space travelers on long missions. Space-based agricultural expertise will be called upon to grow crops in exotic weightless conditions such as orbiting space Stations, long duration human spaceflight planetary missions, as well as on other surfaces such as Mars.

Mining specialists: People who can organize and manage operations to harvest water and other precious resources from asteroids, the moon and other extraterrestrial surfaces. It is theoretically possible to mine resources from the approximately 9,000 known asteroids traveling in orbits near Earth and the 1,000 new ones discovered annually.

Media specialists: Experts in the multimedia arts who can film and memorialize private space tourists’ experiences in Earth orbit as well as voyages to the moon and beyond.

Additive manufacturing: Both the private and public sectors are investing in ways to design and build customized components in the rarified environment of microgravity to avoid the immense cost of hauling spacecraft components from the surface of the Earth to Earth orbit and beyond. Companies such as Made in Space are successful pathfinders in this emerging industrial sector.

Holoportation specialists: As Star Trek devotees will recall the holoportation technology was capable of virtually placing people from various locations—even on different planets!—in the same room. This makes communicating with family, friends, and co-workers a seamless and natural experience. Yesterday’s science fiction is today’s reality. As image and personal bot technologies rapidly advance, bots with sensory technology may even permit one to “feel” the touch of another human on a far away planet.

Space Tourist Managers: Experts in space travel who can organize holiday excursions to Earth orbit or the moon on commercial passenger spacecraft.

Space Architects and Construction Experts: Such specialists will possess unique knowledge and skills associated with building structures in the harsh environment of space—capable of withstanding everything from extreme radiation to subzero temperatures. Such experts will also need to understand fields such as physical and psychological wellness in space.

Space Medicine: Traditionally, space medicine focused on the health of astronauts in top-notch condition. With the emergence of space tourism in which people of all ages and health profiles will be subject to the stresses and rigors of the space environment, space-health practitioners will be called on to develop unique therapies and protocols for ensuring the physical and mental well-being of “average” citizens in space.

Space Traffic Managers: As more and more launch vehicle operators emerge, there is an increasing need for expertise in coordinating human piloted and robotic spacecraft in the increasingly crowded Earth orbit.

These emerging space jobs should be viewed as only an “appetizer” of what lies ahead as the commercial development of the high frontier rapidly matures. As Dr. Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources and a research associate professor in mechanical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines stated, “You need people from all sorts of different disciplines. You need mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, mining experts, computer scientists, geologists, economists. Think about all the jobs we have here on Earth. A lot of those are also going to be used when we go to space. It opens up a whole new range of possibilities for new new jobs and opportunities.”

How can and will government and private organizations adapt to this changing reality?

The foundation for the emerging job opportunities derives from a long history of laws such as the COMSAT ACT of 1962 which arguably birthed the commercial communications industry; the Commercial Space Act of 1984 and subsequent amendments that laid the regulatory framework for the emerging commercial launch industry administered by the FAA; and the Land Remote Sensing Act of 1992, which has provided the licensing framework for the emerging commercial satellite industry.

Several presidential space directives issued by the current administration have, among other initiatives, called on the federal government to set up a Space Traffic Management system led by the Commerce Department. They are intended to create a commercial-friendly approach to managing the increasingly congested Earth-orbiting environment, as well as help manage orbital debris.

All of these statutes and policy directives are providing the building blocks to nurturing the creation of a breathtakingly diverse space sector—the nature and scope of which is beyond even Clarke’s imaginings. As the Space Foundation’s own analysis shows, overall robust space activity is being measured in a seemingly endless upward climb in the overall manufacturing value of spacecraft and satellites launched each year. From 2014 to 2018, the total manufacturing value of spacecraft/satellites launched each year increased almost 50 percent from just under $30 billion to $45 billion. There is every expectation that those numbers will grow exponentially in the decades to come as new players and completely unforeseen industrial space applications come to the fore.

It is not too early for today’s youth to start developing the skills to support the types of jobs that just beginning to emerge from lab to workplace reality.

To further support that future, even more emphasis may be placed on education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The White House National Space Council may be exploring an initiative to focus on how the federal government can encourage policies that call for a nationwide emphasis on STEM-related workforce development versus the current piecemeal approach of local efforts.

If the administration does indeed pursue such an initiative, the benefits of calling national attention to the myriad skills needed to support our diverse future in space will be key to sustaining the Golden Age of Space that Clarke declared.