As the new private space sector grows, it is becoming increasingly important to understand the fast-developing technology that is enabling humanity to push beyond Earth and into our solar system. In recent years, the options to study this technology have been growing even faster than New Space itself.
The most comprehensive way to study space technology is still to go to university and take a degree in either mechanics, mechatronics, electronics, aerospace, astronautics, or similar. This is the most time and money intensive option, but has the benefit of granting a recognised qualification.
This is only one possibility, though.
1. The Traditional Space Technology Education Path — Maximum Time, Maximum Money
Technology in the education space may be advancing at near light speed, but the traditional study path for space technology is still the gold standard. Even if you have long since graduated, if you want to put in the time and money, there could be no better way to lay the foundations to become a recognised professional — one whose abilities can shape our civilization’s technology and whose opinion can direct our future.
If you are young, this path can open doors and offer opportunities like no other, on top of setting you up as a contender to be taken seriously. If you can do it, do it.
Foundations — High School
Studying space technology begins with high school level subjects. By themselves, high-school level qualifications mean little in this field, but they are necessary to open up the next rung of the ladder*. They also contain critical base-level knowledge. The minimum requirements to be accepted at most higher-level institutions are well-demonstrated capabilities in mathematics and physics, along with other relevant subjects (see below). This can mean exam scores, but it can also mean taking a foundation course offered by many universities.
If you’re long out of high school but don’t want to physically take a foundation course, there are many options available to study either remotely or independently, all around the world.
- Computer Science
Fundamentals — Undergraduate
Once you’re at university, you will have a choice of major (or degree subject, if outside of the USA). Most of the available options are general-focus and it will be up to you to direct your study towards space-related applications. This does not mean that general-focus options like mechanics or electronics are inferior, though. Far from it. These majors can offer the greatest in terms of career flexibility and enable problem-solving at a more broad level. That being said, if you are dead set on knowing as much as you can about space technology specifically, I’d be a fool not to suggest you take astronautics or its country-specific equivalent.
One way to direct your focus towards space technology is to join a club engaged in space-based projects. With the rapidly falling cost of orbital launches, these clubs are becoming more prevalent. Search them out. Or else find an ally in the faculty and pitch your own! Anecdotal evidence suggests that employers, and those giving out opportunities in general, are especially interested in these kinds of activities. They demonstrate the ability to actually get stuff done.
Access to these kinds of clubs, facilities, and networking opportunities is arguably also the single greatest argument to be made for the value of traditional study over other options.
Highly Relevant Majors
Suggested Relavent Article — What Is Space Engineering Called? Finding The Right Course.
Not all astronautics degree programs are called astronautics. Space engineering programs come in an assorted array of guises and not all of them mean the same thing.
Advanced — Master’s Programs
After completing an undergraduate degree you will have a choice to advance to a master’s or take your current qualification and start on whatever project you intend, whether that means getting a job in the industry or using your skills on some undertaking of your own. Fortunately, you can often delay this decision until later, and can even derive benefits from such a path. Many employers, for example, will offer to pay for master’s education for promising employees.
The exception is if you are on an integrated master’s program of the kind offered at many British universities. These courses combine a bachelor’s and a master’s into a single four or five-year course and are becoming quite popular. This is relevant because the UK has a disproportionally large number of astronautical focused master’s programs. In such a case, you can decide on your masters right at the start of your undergraduate program.
Specific vs. General
Once you’ve decided to take a master’s, the next choice will be between pursuing a more specialised field of study relevant to space technologies as part of another discipline—such as material sciences or mechatronics—or taking a course aimed specifically at space technologies. The first gives potentially greater flexibility in the labour marketplace, while the latter grants a higher probability of actually ending up working on space systems.
One potential strategy can be a good idea to look at what you took for your undergraduate program and do the opposite for your master’s. For example, if you took astronautics or aerospace as an undergraduate, take a specialised field like material science as a master’s. If you took a specialised path for your undergraduate, like electronics or mechanics, then go for the astronautics or aerospace path for the master’s.
Aeronautics vs. Aerospace vs. Astronautics
One source of much confusion among those looking into space technology programs is the difference between aeronautics, aerospace, and astronautics.
The difference between aeronautics, aerospace, and astronautics is the medium that the different technologies operate in. Aeronautics will cover Earth-based flight systems, such as planes, helicopters, and drones. Aerospace combines air and vacuum, covering general physical and technological systems that are relevant to both. If you intend to work on ground to orbit launch systems, this might be a good option. Finally, astronautics deals almost exclusively with technologies that operate in vacuum and micro-gravity. Astronautics is the obvious choice for anyone who wants to work with systems that operate either in orbit or on interplanetary missions.
One important factor to consider is the availability of courses on each subject. My own investigation into the subject shows that aerospace is much more common than aeronautics, which itself is more common than astronautics. The number of master’s for aerospace is easily in the hundreds, while the survey of astronautics master’s degrees turned up exactly twenty courses worldwide (taught in English)*. These are programs that explicitly market themselves with an astronautics focus.
*Survey carried out in August 2021. Next update scheduled for August 2023.
2. Space Tech Bootcamp — Maximum Time, But Little Money
Not all of us have the money to go back to university. On top of that, not all of us want to put the rest of our life on hold for the next three to five years to pursue a degree. What we might have is a few weeks—maybe a month or two— and we want to immerse ourselves as deeply as we possibly can in space technology, without spending a small fortune to do it.
I’m not saying you can achieve the equivalent of a traditional education in just a month or two. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for just putting in the hours. But you can massively speed up the process through efficiency and focus.
Foundations – Brilliant.org
Brilliant.org is an online-based company that aims to make learning the basics of mathematics and science easy.
The reason I’ve selected this platform, among the many that exist, is that Brilliant’s focus on visual puzzles makes their lessons highly digestible—almost like playing a computer game. If your goal is to cover the most you possibly can in as short a period of time as possible, without getting fatigued, especially if you are new to hardcore study, this platform may be your best bet.
It should be noted that Brilliant.org doesn’t cover all high-school level aspects of mathematics and science. You may need to look outside the platform to fill these holes, if you are aiming for completeness.
Fundamentals – Coursera.org
The online learning company Coursera offers a huge selection of undergraduate and masters level courses, taught by some of the most respected universities in the world, all for a fraction of the cost of the traditional version. Many courses also have the option of upgrading courses you are on to fully recognised ones from the university offering it, complete with university credits… for a price, naturally.
At the time of writing, Coursera has over 400 university courses related specifically to physical science and engineering, and their offerings include such gems as a 4.8/5 star, specialized, four-course path offered by the University of Colorado Boulder in Spacecraft Dynamics and Controls.
If a 2,000-hour commitment (broken up into four courses) sounds a bit much, then not to worry. Coursera has many other offerings that aren’t quite so intense. The robotics pathway from the University of Pennsylvania, for example (a critically important skill in space technologies), only requires five hours a week over seven months. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you going much faster than that, if you can.
Advanced – Textbooks
Studying advanced subjects straight from the textbook that a university class is based on can be a great option to learn. Not all advanced subjects have online courses available for them. This is especially true for highly specialised subjects like space technologies. Fortunately, we don’t need to rely on the universities to make their courses available to us online. As an added bonus, textbooks cost a fraction of what a full course would cost.
Another option is to use textbooks in combination with various ‘open source’ courses available online, such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare project. The subjects on offer can often be very specialised and have no analogues commercial online courses.
The courses differ from the offerings from platforms like Coursera in that the courses are not tailored specifically to the requirements of remote learners. Rather, they consist of the materials that already exist for an in-person class, uploaded to the internet for anyone to use.
Examples of such materials include class notes, slides, project briefs, exams, and grading schemes.
Not all OpenCourseWare courses are created equal, though.
Opencourseware projects tend to be more sparsely documented and rely far more on the learner to structure their own learning path. The more specialist and esoteric a class, the less likely it will be fully documented, and the more students will have to rely on their textbooks. Nevertheless, if an OpenCourseWare course is available for the subject you’re tackling, it can be a great help for independent learning.
3. Part-Time Pupil — Maximum Money, But Little Time
By little time, we mean that you can only scrape a few hours here and there over the day or week. As stated above, there’s no way to get around the fact that learning takes time, and the more time you have to invest, the more you’re going to be able to learn. However, as with many things in life, if you have lots of cash to throw at the problem, you can absolutely make the process easier for yourself.
Foundations – Tutoring
If you need to build a solid foundation for yourself at the high-school level, hiring a tutor (either online or in-person) can be a great option for a whole slew of reasons:
- The market for this service is already well-developed at the high-school education level. This means it should be easy to find a good tutor who matches your specific requirements. This may not be so true if looking for a tutor at other levels — such as masters degree, for example (but if you’ve got the cash, don’t let that stop you!)
- Having a tutor helps build a reliable schedule around your studies. This is especially helpful if you are strapped for time. Knowing that you have a meeting with your tutor on Tuesday at 7:00pm focuses the mind and helps ensure you stay on track with your studies.
- A good tutor can help guide you through learning bottle-necks or be able suggest additional resources to help your learning that you may not have thought of.
- And obviously, a tutor can help you directly by answering questions about the material you’re studying and show you where you made mistakes.
Fundamentals and Advanced – Online College Courses
If you can learn everything you need, online, for free, why would you ever pay for an online course? This is a question universities have also been struggling with.
Universities have come up with several key reasons why people should pay for their online courses. They focus on faculty access, student community, qualifications, and pay-gating key content. They also tend to be flexible than the equivalent in-person program.
If you’ve got the money to throw at an online course, exploring some of these courses could be a good option.
Having said that, I haven’t investigated these paid courses much myself, so I encourage you to do your own research. This is something I’d like to do myself in the future, and in that case, you can be sure I’ll report on my experiences.
4. Little Time AND Little Money — Future Bonus
What if you’ve got a specific understanding gap that you need to plug right now? You don’t have time to build a great knowledge foundation, and you don’t have the money to hire an expert to work out the answer for you. In that case, you need something I call backward learning.
This subject deserves a full article all for itself. Once that article is up, I’ll link to it here.
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Article last revised — August 2021 | Next article review — August 2022