Sometimes, knowing what you want to learn is half the battle. If you want to work specifically on spacecraft, satellites, interplanetary rovers, and space stations, then you may want to study the engineering of space travel.
The study, science, and engineering of space travel are collectively known as astronautics. Astronautics covers all aspects of engineering that pertain to flight in a vacuum. Astronautics then contains many sub-disciplines, some taken from other engineering fields and then applied to spacecraft.
If the spacecraft must also deal with atmospheric conditions, such as those found on Earth, the correct field of study is called aerospace. Aerospace deals with those aspects of flight engineering that are common to both in air and vacuum.
It is usual for those studying astronautics and aeronautics to also study the general principles that are common to both. For this reason, many degree programs are simply referred to as aerospace degrees. Such degrees often then give the option to specialise in astronautics or aeronautics* later on in the program (but not always).
*Aeronautics is the study of flight vehicles that operate exclusively in atmosphere, such as aeroplanes, helicopters, drones, etc.
However, astronautics is not the only thing astronautics degrees are called. And sometimes, astronautics degrees aren’t actually full astronautics degrees.
Identifying a Bonafide Astronautics University Program
There is no substitute for manually inspecting a course’s curriculum to find out what it is exactly you’ll be learning. After going through a dozen syllabuses, you’ll start to see patterns. Some subjects, you will be expected to take no matter where you study. Others will indicate a specific focus that the course has in mind for you.
If you’re going to be studying something for years, it’s a good idea to make sure it is in fact what you are intending to study.
Familiarise yourself with the following terms. They are clues as to what kind of university course you’re looking at.
If you’re looking specifically for astronautics degree programs, you’ll quickly become frustrated by how common it is to refer to such programs simply as ‘aerospace’ programs. You will need to dig deep to find out exactly what an aerospace course is offering. It is not uncommon for aerospace degrees to simply be more general aeronautics degrees wearing the skin of aerospace.
Even if the university in question unambiguously offers astronautics classes, you should still be cautious.
Aeronautics is a more popular field than astronautics. Because of this, many universities will have their infrastructure set up to facilitate and support aircraft rather than spacecraft study. It has also simply been easier in the past for universities to work with aeronautical projects.
Thankfully, this has been changing in recent years. Universities across the world have seen a boom in CubeSat and other NanoSat projects, spurred on by the increasing accessibility to space. This in turn, is facilitating more general investment into such programs.
But still, if you’re looking specifically for an astronautics-focused program, be prepared to sift through a lot of aerospace programs to find it.
Because building a spacecraft requires so many sub-disciplines from so many fields of engineering, the collective speciality of engineering spacecraft is sometimes referred to as Space Engineering.
You may find university programs with titles like Astronautics and Space Engineering.
In this case, the astronautics part refers to those aspects of spacecraft engineering that are unique to the environment of space. Examples include orbital mechanics, mission planning, in-space propulsion, and spacecraft design.
The space engineering part might then refer to those elements which come from other fields, but are then applied to an in-space context. Examples include electronics, finite element analysis, control systems, mechatronics, and materials.
The lack of Space or Spacecraft Engineering in a course title, however, does not mean these elements will not be covered. Nor does not finding ‘astronautics’ in a ‘space engineering’ course mean that space-specific engineering won’t be covered.
The more marketing orientated part of me suspects it may simply be the case that some universities choose to name their programs in such a way because many prospective students simply don’t know to search for ‘astronautics’, but do know they want to do ‘space engineering.’
If the course you’re looking at contains ‘Space Science’ in the name, this is likely a sign that the degree will at least in part be focused on some non-engineering aspects of space. These could include fields such as astronomy, astrophysics, astrobiology, astrogeology, and many others.
Many of these subjects are highly useful if you want to peruse a career in space and can simply be very interesting to the curious mind.
If you combine these studies with astronautics, you’ll be better positioned to be working on spacecraft payloads rather than the spacecraft itself. For example, chemical sensing equipment, remote sensing technology, telescopes, etc. The bits of science missions that do actual science, rather than the getting there.
This does not mean you won’t have the skills to work on spacecraft. You almost certainly will. Just maybe not to the same extent as a dedicated astronautics student.
If the course you’re looking at specifies aeronautics in combination with space-related terms, such as space-engineering or astronautics, you’re probably looking at a course specifically designed to teach you how to build orbital launch vehicles — the rockets that get you from Earth into space, rather than solely in-space craft like satellites and space stations.
If that’s what you’re looking for, then more power to you. If it’s not, then take a good long look at the course syllabus before making any commitments. If you’ve done all the research you can, and you’re still not sure, it might be a good idea to reach out to someone in the university department your course belongs to.
Incidentally, developing orbital launch vehicles are also what the more general aerospace degrees will likely best set you up for, as well (at least in regards to space tech).
This one can be tricky. If you see ‘technology’ somewhere in a university degree title related to astronautics or similar, then it’s likely at least part of the course will be on doing stuff tangentially related to the space mission, rather than on engineering the mission itself.
These degrees often straddle the divide between space and other fields that either benefit from or interact with space.
Examples of such other fields include Environmental Science, Management, Government Policy, Law, Remote Sensing, Climatology, etc.
Note: I’m in no way suggesting these courses are not good choices. They absolutely can be. What I am saying is that because they often include studies from other fields, as well as astronautics, it is a good idea to make sure that’s what you intend.
Are you seeing a pattern yet?
Whatever course you end up selecting, make sure it’s what you want. Investigate, ask questions, check their youtube channels, see what projects students who study there have worked on in the past.
But above all, don’t let the choice paralyse you. You are more important now than ever before. Humanity needs more astronautical engineers.