This week, undergraduate space engineering student Alexandre Séguin reflects on what he might tell a high school student looking to match up their interests with a career path via a university education. In the spirit of such matching, the image above shows the Jules Verne ATV docking with the international space station (image: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Engineering_Technology/Flight_Safety )
by Alexandre Séguin
As the leaves turn to darker colours and the sun makes its visits shorter by the day, I find myself preparing for yet another end of term examination session. Going over my different courses, I pondered that with nearly two and a half years of progress in York’s space engineering program, I interestingly have had the opportunity to explore quite a few different engineering disciplines. I have had a taste of electrical design, programming, 3D modeling, and orbital mechanics to name but a few. When I recently volunteered at the Ontario University Fair, I took these experiences with me to share them with new prospective students. One of the most common question asked was “Why did you chose space engineering?”. I responded with what I usually say, essentially that I liked math, science, and was good at both. However, now that I have a fair amount of experience as a student of space engineering, I believe the question merits a more thorough answer. In a time where apps and silicon chips rule supreme, what is the appeal to study space engineering?
To begin with, engineering education is never wasted. Even if one has a sudden epiphany during graduation that their career choice should be completely different, engineering will still have been fruitful in their development. Going through such a program is an excellent exercise in resilience and character building. As well as this, one exits with an above average grasp of mathematics and the natural sciences which is usually an indicator of good logical thinking skills; adding a specialization in space only augments the benefits received. Due to the fact that it heavily borrows concepts from all other disciplines, space engineering students have the added benefit of being acquainted with electrical, mechanical, software, and computer engineering. Contemplating satellite subsystems, this indeed seems like a natural flow of events. Students must learn how to provide power to a satellite, how to appropriately enhance or hinder heat flow on its structure, how to encode and decode telemetry, and of course they must also understand the workings of the on-board computer overseeing these tasks. Consequently, graduating students may, with some additional work, branch off into other industries and fields if they so wish.
But let’s focus on the space industry for now. Back at the Ontario University Fair, parents would often ask me what kind of job prospects could be expected upon completion of the program. At this time, they are indeed rather limited. In the Canadian market, examples of employers include the CSA, MDA, and Magellan Aerospace but there is more to the industry than meets the eye. Space is an expanding field, pun intended. I like to compare it to the automotive industry in the early 20th century and although the industry is not as novel as its olden counterpart, large influencers like SpaceX, Boeing, and the Sierra-Nevada Corporation are trying to advance the privatization of space travel which, in itself, could revolutionize the market. This is an opportunity to be a part of a major shift in humankind’s capabilities beyond our atmosphere. Notwithstanding that privatization will bring with it some complications, it has the potential to greatly improve space travel technologies, reduce its overall cost, and increase space related employment. To return to the subject, this is an amazing time for students entering the workforce since they can partake in the industry’s expansion. On a similar train of thought, it can be reasonably assumed that most of the opportunities that will be available in 20 years do not yet exist; perhaps the institutions or even sub-sectors that will host them do not either! To be brief, the industry is difficult to pierce in its current state, but we may see a large demand in the near future for capable young individuals to push the boundaries of our technological abilities.
In any event, a prospective student might wonder how their work will contribute to society’s wellness back here on Earth. In fact, I once shared the same concern, but later discovered that space benefits us all in more ways than is initially perceived. In terms of direct impact, the space sector offers satellite communication for areas where cellular signals are unavailable. In addition, there is the Global Positioning System(GPS) to assist navigation and SARSAT to support search and rescue operations. But what if one is not involved with these systems? The influence of the industry, even to the extent of interplanetary exploration, is quite significant. Past space programs have produced what are called spinoffs; technologies initially designed and manufactured for their applications in space, but which have found a niche in Earthbound commercial contexts. Such tech includes memory foam, invisible braces, enriched baby formula, and polymer textiles used in firefighting and military gear. But this is only scratching the surface! NASA even has a yearly publication titled “Spinoff” that “highlights NASA technologies that are benefiting life on Earth in the form of commercial products.”(Source: https://spinoff.nasa.gov/). Beyond these technologies, space exploration is one of the few fields fostering authentic international collaboration. Despite recent tensions between Russia and the United States on the political scene, Roscosmos and NASA are still working side by side, ensuring the International Space Station still functions and continues its scientific contributions. Perhaps one day, other industries will emulate this relationship.
To conclude, space engineering offers a thorough education that leaves its students more capable and resilient, with excellent skills in mathematics, physics, and an understanding of various engineering disciplines. It opens the door to an impactful industry undergoing significant changes that will positively affect humankind’s on-and-off Earth capabilities. That being said, its students can decide to pursue a career in a different field and will still have the knowledge necessary to propel themselves in this new direction. It is an excellent choice for both those who already know they wish to partake in the advancement of space exploration, and those who are unsure of their path yet wish to cover all their bases - academically speaking. Now, next time someone asks me why I chose space engineering, I will ask them “Would you like the short or the long version?”.