The New Frontier: The Future of Astronautical Engineering in the Growing Commercial Space Industry

January 18, 2023

Someday soon, astronautical engineers might need to consider a new checkbox on job application forms: Remote work? Or really, really remote work.

As the commercial space industry blazes new frontiers, job opportunities are expanding, and not only on planet Earth.

The Rise of Commercial Space

Astronautical engineers are the professionals who develop flying machines intended to enter space. Until recently, they were employed primarily by manufacturing firms and the federal government. Their work involves the critical design of spacecraft, satellites and missiles. Working on a team, they routinely test concepts using software or prototypes, and perform evaluations before the manufacturing process is tooled up. Normally, they might travel to test sites, but most work is conducted in an office or lab.

With the race to build private space stations, how might the career of an astronautical engineer change in the future? If offices and labs are located in orbit, will the engineers follow?

Changes to Astronautical Engineering Careers

Mission specialists already exist. These individuals operate as crew members on a specific flight, and travel with equipment that needs their expertise to operate. They may also assist with data collection and experimentation on that mission. A full-time science officer might also serve permanently on a space station. Both job functions could expand opportunities for astronautical engineers interested in space travel.

Currently, NASA has signed 3 US companies to design commercial space stations. Blue Origin, one of the contract holders, intends to design a low-Earth orbit “business park” that will supply essential infrastructure to support human spaceflight activity in its region. It will begin operation within the next few years. If this initial venture succeeds in attracting business park tenants, low-orbit research ventures operated by private entities and government will expand. Economic realities will require astronautical engineers to forgo traditional commuting if they need to test equipment in such an environment. Perhaps it will become routine for these professionals to maintain a residence on Earth, but a pied-a-terre “up there”?

Northrop Grumman’s design for a commercial entity in low-Earth orbit includes a base capable of building out additional infrastructure once established. Such development is focused on attracting not only tourists and the residences they may require, but also the businesses for whom “space-as-a-service” proves appealing. Commercial testing labs, dedicated sub-manufacturing facilities and satellite maintenance operations have all expressed interest in possible relocation to the new real estate. Astronautical engineers will find their professional expertise sought after as this growth ramps up.