Brutally honest answers to Space FAQs

Introduction

Every week I answer diverse questions around space from how to become an astronaut to making a career in the space industry, and so on. So here is a much-needed FAQ section. The answers are based on my personal experiences and from observing the career trajectories of my fellow space enthusiasts along my journey.

This post will be discouraging several times, but I just want to paint a very realistic picture. There are too many starry eyed young aspirants who get caught in the glitter of the space sector and end up disillusioned with enormous financial burdens and fancy but practically useless space degrees and dejectedly settling down with a job in a non-space industry.

On the bright side, there are ways to smartly maneuver this space. Of course it greatly depends on personal strengths, previous experience, risk tolerance among other factors. But anybody who enters this enticing field, should be aware of the risks and be prepared for the worst. This article attempts to give an overview of the risks and their mitigation methods. I hope this article can help you in accurately gauging the space scene and finding your niche. Ad Astra!

FAQs and Answers

FAQ #1 I want to become an astronaut. What should I do?

If you are a national (or some cases permanent resident) of the USA, Japan, Russia, EU, China then please check the websites of the respective space agencies. Also, consider yourself lucky! 🙂

If you are an Indian national (mostly Indians ask me this question), then it depends on what exactly you mean by ‘becoming an astronaut’.

If you just want to experience microgravity, then buy a ticket on-board the Virgin galactic. If you want a more thrilling experience, just buy a ticket from SpaceX like the Japanese billionaire and loop the dark side of the moon. If you can afford these, then you can also afford a shrewd and very much required legal team to help you navigate the regulatory and insurance aspects.

If you wish to be a part of a space mission or the International Space Station crew then there isn’t much hope since India is not a member of the ISS consortium.

ISRO has announced a human space flight program Gaganyaan and the first batch of ‘Vyomonuats’ will most likely be selected from the Indian Air Force. Remember Rakesh Sharma and Ravish Malhotra, they were both Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots.

Of course, you can also join the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) or a science research group in the country (TIFRIIAIUCAA, IISER) and hope for the day when Indian scientists will get to be part of human space flight missions. 🙂

FAQ #2 I completed my bachelor(/master) of engineering(/science) degree and want to work in the space sector in India

You have several options

  1. Government
    • ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) is the most popular government organization doing space activities in the country. Apply through the ICRB (ISRO central recruitment board) or check the careers page of individual ISRO centers regularly.
    • TIFR (TATA Institute of Fundamental Research) has a department of Astronomy and Astrophysics which worked alongside ISRO on the Astrosat mission – India’s own space observatory
    • IIA (Indian Institute of Astrophysics)
    • IUCAA (Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics)
    • IISER (Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research) have campuses across India
  2. Private
    • Big corporations like SES, Airbus have little presence in India since ISRO builds its own satellites
    • L&T, TATA, Godrej have no real products but act as vendors to ISRO
  3. SMEs – Don’t expect IT sector like pay since they all fight for the same limited pie. An engineer’s salary can be as little as Rs 25,000-30,000 per month
  4. Startups
    • Bellatrix Aerospace develops thrusters and rocket engines
    • SatSure is a satellite data analytics company
    • Skyroot Aerospace develops small launchers
    • Exseed Space will soon be launching a cubesat onboard SpaceX’s Falcon-9 which would be India’s first industry built satellite
    • Agnikul also developing launch vehicles

Word of caution Startups can be highly volatile. For instance, Team Indus had made a lot of news internationally but didn’t make the launch and its current status is unknown

FAQ #3 I am a middle/high school student and wish to pursue a career in space in India

In addition to the routes mentioned in the previous section, you can also apply to get into IIST (Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology) after which, depending upon the vacancies and your academic performance, you will be offered a position in ISRO.

FAQ #4 I completed my bachelor degree in an Engineering/Science stream. Which aerospace master course should I choose?

The answer to this question obviously depends to a great extent on the person’s background, interests and capabilities. I tried coming up with a flowchart but it just doesn’t do justice since the thought process is highly personal. So I’ll list down a few general pointers that apply to most people and scenarios.

Golden Rule

Contrary to public opinion and space being the latest buzzword, the space sector doesn’t have as many vast numbers of well-paying jobs that we think it does. The pay often is mostly around average and do keep in mind that you’d be competing with graduates with generic master degrees in electrical, computer, mechanical engineering areas. Therefore, never pursue a master course with a hefty tuition fee that would result in a financial burden which would in turn force you into desperation to take up any job after graduation. Check out these master courses that have low/zero tuition fees.

If you cannot find a suitable low financial burden master, then consider doing a master in generic engineering or science streams. Very often, space companies are looking for employees with pure STEM expertise. For instance, a company making satellites requires a lot of software engineers to code their onboard computers, their ground processing chains, the tracking algorithms, etc. In this case, an embedded systems graduate whose had been coding for say 3 years would obviously be more valuable than a graduate with a space degree who knows a lot about spacecraft orbit dynamics and other fancy space stuff but hadn’t really coded much. Similarly, they often look for analog/digital electronics experts, communication engineers, optical systems experts, etc.

Moreover, with a generic STEM degree, if you cannot find a job in the space sector right after graduation, you can always work in your STEM field and build expertise while waiting for the right opportunity in the space sector.

Of course, if you have access to deep pockets but still want to continue in the space sector after graduation, then this golden rule will not apply to you. But other aspects addressed below might help in choosing a master program.

Some common sense

I’m assuming that you want to pursue a master course in a country which already has a thriving space program or a reasonable amount of space activity. There is no point going to say Eritrea to study space science and technology.

Of course, there are several emerging space actors such as South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil which already have a space agency and government funding for space activities. But unless your life depends on it, I would recommend going to established space ecosystems such as

  • USA
    ITAR regulations prohibit 90% of the aerospace jobs to be given to only US nationals. Only limited science research positions mostly in universities, NASA, other institutions are available to non-citizens.
  • Western Europe
    Ample research and job opportunities with companies such as Airbus, OHB, SES, Thales Alenia, etc and many SMEs
  • Scandinavia
    Limited opportunities in industry but more opportunities in space science research
  • UK
    Visa regulations to Indian students make it harder for Indian students to immediately find jobs
  • Japan
    JAXA’s research labs and upcoming startups like iSpace, Axelspace
  • China
    Couldn’t find much information, but there is definitely the language barrier
  • Australia
    Most recently got their space agency but has a good local ecosystem of space companies
  • Canada
    Lucrative PR entry and a few space companies. Not sure how sustainable though
  • Luxembourg
    Lots of cash being thrown at newspace companies but I would be cautious
  • Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland
    Have only a few but excellent space companies such as Ruag Space. Also, most beautiful countries to live in! 🙂
  • Russia
    The first space giant, but sadly there are not enough space jobs for foreigners. But do consider the excellent Skoltech master with its full scholarship and tie-up with MIT

Plans after the master

If this master course is just a stepping stone to an eventual PhD, then you should consider the following aspects

  • The global reputation of University/Department
    Unlike in India, entry into PhD programs worldwide depends entirely on the professor-in-charge. Studying at a reputed University/department (do note that sometimes the department’s reputation is entirely independent of the university’s ranking) would increase your chances of landing your dream PhD position. Most importantly, figure out ways to secure funding since getting accepted to a PhD position doesn’t guarantee funding in many countries
  • Quality of research in University
    Obviously. This just needs a bit of internet search – look up their past and current projects, peer-reviewed publications, participation in any reputed competitions. You’ll also get to know the latest happenings during this.

If you wish to start working in the space industry right after graduation, then prioritize these

  • Country and its regulations for foreigners
    In the space industry, a master degree makes the most sense when augmented with internships and work experience. Somehow, most Indians only realize after beginning their studies in the US that the ITAR regulations don’t allow them to work in the local space industry, neither for internships nor employment. On contrary Germany doesn’t have such limiting regulations for foreigners and all foreign students after graduation can stay in the country for 18 months to find a job. Also, securing a work-permit is also quite easy and straightforward in Germany given its STEM work-force crunch, unlike the H1B hassle in the US.
  • Presence of a local space ecosystem
    It’s almost common knowledge that grades aren’t the biggest indicators of a person’s employability. The space industry needs good team players with decent work ethics. What better way to demonstrate this to your potential employer than to have worked with the local space industry or space agency? To land this internship or part-time position in the first place, it makes sense to choose a university which has a local space ecosystem in the form of SMEs, space companies, or a space agency.

Will keep adding more answers.

Meanwhile, feel free to reach out on me@rachana.space or through any of the channels below to address any further questions. But do go through this check-list before sending a message or email.

ISRO and UN SDGs – A Short Critique

Let’s look at some numbers around ISRO’s popular Tele‐education, Tele‐medicine, Village Resource Centre and Disaster Management System Programmes. Do go through this post for a table that maps the major national projects/initiatives of ISRO to UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The multitude of initiatives and programmes that ISRO has undertaken towards social development are commendable given the meager budget for the Indian Space program of about $1.4 B for the year 2017-2018 which accounts for less than 0.06% of the country’s GDP.

The biggest benefactors of ISRO’s various socio-economic programmes will be the rural and remote populace who cannot otherwise have access to these facilities. This has been achieved through their Village Resource Centres (VRCs) with assistance from NGOs/, Trusts and state & central agencies for taking telemedicine, Tele-education, Panchayat Planning, Vocational Training, Weather Information, Marketing information, Drinking water facilities, Watershed development to the rural populations. The 461 VRC nodes set up in 22 States/Union Territories include 81 Expert Centres. 6500 programmes have been conducted addressing areas such as Agriculture/horticulture development, Fisheries development, Livestock development, Water resources, Telehealthcare, Awareness programmes, Woman’s empowerment, Supplementary education, Computer literacy, Microcredit, Microfinance, Skill development/vocational training for livelihood support and were used by over 500,000 people so far.

As per the press notes released by the Planning Commission of India in 2013, there are about 269.3 million poor people in the country according to the survey it conducted during 2011-2012 of which 216.5 million are from the rural and 52.8 million from urban areas. Assuming that the 500,000 users of the Village Resource Centers of ISRO belonged to the poor sections, only 0.23% of the urban poor had ever accessed the space-based services. Moreover, there are no clear metrics on what percentage of this 500,000 users have continued using the space-based tools and services for upgrading their lives. Similarly, the telemedicine network of ISRO covers about 384 hospitals with 60 specialty hospitals connected to 306 remote/rural/district/medical college hospitals and 18 Mobile Telemedicine units. As per the Open Government Data (OGD) Platform of India metrics of 2013, there are 35,416 government hospitals in the country, of which 26,604 are in rural and 8812 in urban areas. Again, the penetration is less than 1.5%. More importantly, given mobile coverage slowly reaching the rural and remote locations, these tele-education and telemedicine initiatives require better infrastructure in the form of large projection screens and monitors than simple connectivity, given the global trend of moving towards knowledge economies.

Major Limitations

The biggest limitation to the otherwise successful and meticulously planned space application programmes of ISRO is the inability to reach out to the majority of the population that actually needs these services and benefits. Though the drafting of these programmes, some of which had begun six decades ago, has been exceptionally visionary in anticipating the benefits of space technology, the existing implementation methods of operating primarily under the control of the Department of Space, are preventing them from scaling to the entire population.

The shortcomings of the ISRO originated implementation method can be especially sensed in the area of Earth Observation. Though acquisition and basic processing of satellite data is more or less automated, deduction of meaningful information from parsing satellite imagery for understanding climate and weather, monitoring natural resources, planning of developmental activities and assistance towards good governance requires intensive analytics. Performing data analytics and image analytics is a highly customized exercise and is manpower intensive for developing the task-specific algorithms. For instance, the two ISRO applications of identifying heritage sites and urban planning can be accomplished using the same high-resolution satellite imagery. However, the analytics algorithms developed for one project cannot be used for the other.

In spite of participation from several local administrative bodies, NGOs and trusts, the methods of engagement and service dissemination have been largely traditional. For instance, the tele-education program does not take into account the extensive repository of free online education material in the form of videos, lectures, exercises and even complete courses from primary to university level education. Instead, the components of the existing tele-education network connecting 59,700 schools (of the 15,16,865 schools and 38,498 colleges in the country) are receive-only and interactive classroom terminals with content such as lectures, training, lab sessions, databases being generated mostly within the network, though have a thoughtful feature of catering to users with special requirements. Similarly, the telemedicine initiatives also do not provide access to globally available resources but are restricted to their limited network. Therefore the second limitation of these space application base social programmes is the lack of integration with modern day technology and resources. OECD, 2012, OECD Handbook on Measuring the Space Economy, Paris, DOI: 10.1787/9789264169166-en

Possible Solutions

Solving the first limitation of scale and increasing the penetration of space technology tools can be achieved through recruiting more dedicated personnel to achieve wider penetration of the space technology services. However, this results in a large financial burden on the exchequer. An optimal solution is when the same mass penetration can be achieved through a commercial player ecosystem that reaps benefits while taking these space technology tools to the remotest populations. Inviting participation from startups in the fields of education, healthcare, social entrepreneurship ventures would give the required innovation momentum to the utilization of space technology tools in sustainable development and also solve the second problem of outdated content and implementation methodologies. However, in order for these efforts to make a convincing business case for these space applications disseminating companies, the space technologies, and services themselves should be available at an affordable cost. This, in turn, can be achieved by a thriving SME eco-system on both the upstream as well as downstream space sectors that would integrate space-based products/services into traditional industries such as energy, agriculture, retail, transport, internet/connectivity, etc. This dynamic integration precisely forms one of the strong pillars of NewSpace companies.

Moreover, NewSpace companies are planning to pick up the buck where traditional space companies have flattened in technology and growth. For example, there is a whole new ecosystem of Earth Observation (EO) downstream applications ventures that want to go beyond traditional Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) but using satellite data with ground-based sensors in creating data stacks that can add specific industry and decision intelligence to an array of industries.

A thriving newspace ecosystem would by itself cater to supplying the necessary space technology tools and services for sustainable development in the areas of climate change, disaster management, urban planning, resources monitoring, natural resource conservation while indirectly aiding large-scale dissemination of space technology-based tools and services in the areas of education, healthcare, poverty eradication, economic growth, sustainable practices.