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Attendees of the latest summer session of the International Space University. While that university has offered space-related programs for decades, it’s not sufficient to meet the growing demands of the space industry. (credit: ISU)

Why the space industry needs a space college

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According to the Space Foundation's annual report, the global space economy netted $447 billion in 2020. Commercial space activity alone rose to nearly $357 billion, representing 80% of the total space economy. Launch attempts, which totaled 145, were the highest in history.

The formation of a campus—a “space college,” if you will—committed to expanding humanity’s progress beyond Earth could reimagine who gets a chance at an aerospace career and accelerate timelines for future missions.

These figures highlight a five-year trend of uninterrupted growth, encompassing space tourism, research on Mars, and major steps towards sending a crew to the Moon again. Interest in the cosmos appears unwavering, and experts estimate the industry will generate $1 trillion or more in 2040.

These efforts require highly skilled and enthusiastic workers. From programming the self-driving Perseverance rover to designing more durable spacesuits, immense skill goes into every aspect of off-world exploration whether it is done by humans or robots—or both.

That's why the space industry needs a dedicated university for aerospace studies and related career paths. The formation of a campus—a “space college,” if you will—committed to expanding humanity’s progress beyond Earth could reimagine who gets a chance at an aerospace career and accelerate timelines for future missions. By nurturing a new generation of astronomers, scientists, engineers, and business leaders in one place, a centralized college, with a global reach to anyone who is interested, would serve an important role in launching a truly spacefaring economy.

Oh yes, when the word “campus” is used it is done so in a 21st century context. In a post-pandemic world, where you are physically located no longer need limit who you can work with. When you take into consideration that the exploration and utilization of space will span distances where interaction is limited by the speed of light, various modes of interaction—many asymmetric—need to be factored into how the space economy operates. As such, this “space college” needs to be wherever you are.

As with any training that involves technology and travel, the hardware you train on and the places where you use it can require you to be physically present. As such, a virtual space college must be paired with a physical one. If you do it right, you can connect nearby and remote locations to function as one. In many cases existing capabilities can be brought together to act as one, with an emergent property being a space college that is both personal and distant. And instead of being wholly limited by “bricks and mortar,” such a space college would be open to anyone, anywhere with an Internet connection—even a slow one.

Workers needed in space

“Astronaut” might be the most popular title sought in the space sector, but it also boasts the fewest job opportunities: NASA currently employs fewer than 50 active astronauts. The private sector adds to that, but this is still a small number. However, behind the scenes, thousands of people work as engineers, astronomers, physicists, lawyers, PR specialists, photographers, and more.

Private space organizations employ nearly 150,000 workers across fields as diverse as robotics, agriculture, and media and communications. These jobs come with impressive financial compensation besides appealing to an innate sense of wonder. The average private-sector space salary in 2019 was $123,234, more than twice that of all US private-sector jobs.

A space college where every student is linked by a shared sense of responsibility for the future would be a site of unprecedented innovation.

As the industry continues to grow, so will the need for a wide variety of expertise. For instance, supporting a permanent base on Mars requires large-scale farming systems, sustainable habitats, and futuristic satellite technology. More immediately, the issue of space debris in low Earth orbit demands novel proposals for avoiding dangerous collisions and preventing further accumulation. We cannot continue to leave our junk behind us in space. Indeed, it is a resource that we should be re-suing in space: yet another set of job skills that will need to be met.

A space college where every student is linked by a shared sense of responsibility for the future would be a site of unprecedented innovation. Similar to a trade school, a space college has the potential to encourage collaboration and standardize education requirements in the industry. And if you are so inclined to think this way, by all means think of Starfleet Academy, minus the aliens.

Existing pathways to aerospace careers

Even if most people don’t realize it yet, everyone is in the space industry. Doctors, chefs, writers, miners—they all have a place in the future of space travel. Everyone’s taxes support government research, and their consumer dollars buy services that are either enhanced or only made possible via space technology.

But for those who enter college knowing they want an aerospace career, the pathway has always been a bit rocky. Plenty of universities dedicate resources to the core sciences necessary for such a career. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and the California Institute of Technology all have a long roster of aerospace alumni. However, their physical locations and high tuition rates mean not every course can introduce students to real-world experiences during their studies.

Sometimes, people start their careers as early as high school by winning a contest for habitat modeling or spacecraft solutions. Others are lucky to join initiatives such as the European Space Agency’s Young Graduate Trainee Programme or land an internship with industry giants like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon or increasingly with so-called “NewSpace” companies.

When it comes to non-science degrees, forming connections within the sector gets even trickier. It is rare for a business or law school to offer classes focused on space-related knowledge. But as companies launch satellite megaconstellations and the industry becomes increasingly commercialized, economic and legal concerns will be at the forefront of everyone's minds.

The benefits of a centralized space college experience

The extreme and deadly environments beyond Earth’s atmosphere have always encouraged agencies to work together to solve complex problems of travel, communication, and research. In the 20th century, the early days of competition quickly gave way to collaborations like the International Space Station.

That willingness to share the labor and rewards of space exploration is key to maintaining a flourishing space economy in the 21st century. And a space college where the greatest minds in aerospace engineering, economic development, and the humanities can come together with a global student body could be a promising epicenter for fostering such teamwork.

It’s time for the private sector to seriously consider the establishment of a diverse and powerful institution—a space college—in service of humanity's future.

Students at the space college could gain a well-rounded education by participating in STEM research, ethics courses, and legal seminars, all catered toward supporting life in a spacefaring economy. New jobs for existing aerospace workers would also arise in the form of faculty and administration positions. Additionally, use of a physical campus could double as a proving ground for hands-on use and development of cutting-edge technology, new ideas, and ambitious exploration efforts. Above all, every student would be surrounded by like-minded peers and professors willing to support their biggest dreams, either in person or within reach by keyboard or webcam.

Most Americans would tell you that space activity only happens in Texas, California, and Florida. But other states such as Colorado, Washington, Virginia, and Maryland have significant activities as well. If you look a little deeper, you will see that space commerce and exploration extends to all states and down to a very local level. In other countries there are similar centers of activity. If you want to reach the broadest possible domestic population for a space college, you need to be reaching further than has traditionally been the case. In a global sense this becomes even more compelling.

Again, while virtual participation in a space college is not only feasible but desirable, at the end of the day there are factories and laboratories where things are built and other places where they are launched into space. “Being there” has importance. Training facilities located in close proximity to space agencies and companies would offer the best combination of virtual and in-person training. The most important thing is that there be a commonality of purpose and a deliberate effort to focus on the best modality for the appropriate portion of a learning experience.

Emerging options for space enthusiasts

Right now there is only one university entirely dedicated to space studies. Established in 1987, the International Space University offers students a range of programs, including online courses and international opportunities. But ISU's primary location is in Strasbourg, France, and there is a steep tuition associated with its programs that is out of reach for most prospective students.

In the United States, courses for specialized space disciplines are slowly emerging from existing colleges and universities. Harvard Business School launched one in 2022 called "Space: Public and Commercial Economics." Led by Matthew C. Weinzierl, the 14-session course is the first of its kind at an elite educational institution.

At the Colorado School of Mines, coursework has similarly shifted. Rather than train students to mine materials from the Earth, professors prepare future engineers responsible for establishing settlements on Mars and the Moon. Students experiment with regolith simulants, build robotics, and work directly on NASA projects. However, the university's current program offered online and in-person only has the capacity for 75 students.

The rapidly evolving space economy will need many more teaching and training facilities than currently exist. It’s time for the private sector to seriously consider the establishment of a diverse and powerful institution—a space college—in service of humanity's future.

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