For Aron: How I Became a Rocket Scientist

>> Sunday, April 5, 2009

rocket_into_galaxy.gifAron said: Hey, you work at NASA, that is really cool. One day you have to write an article on how you landed that job. I dream of leading a space habitation effort with NASA, maybe you could provide a roadmap on how to get that job. If answering this won’t put your job in danger, how much red tape exists in NASA?

OK, there are three part to this: First, how did I come to work for NASA?

Well, that’s rather a long story. First off, unlike you probably are, I never intended to be an engineer. I’d always wanted to be a writer. I also, however, wanted to eat, so I was going to go to college to get a degree to pay the bills. If you’d asked me if I was going to be an engineer my senior year of high school, I would have laughed long and hard. I didn’t even like math–except word problems. Anyway, I needed scholarships and I did a blanketing of scholarship applications.

So, along with an academic scholarhip, I got offered several other scholarships. However, if went into engineering physics, I could take both the scholarship from the engineering college and a scholarship from the physics department. It was a tough major and, once in, I was unwilling to let it beat me so I stuck with it until I graduated. That, and it turns out it ended up suiting me quite well. Who would have guessed

Now, NASA at the time was actively recruiting (as were a number of NASA contractors) so they came to the campus and interviewed prospective students, including me. I was all excited by the opportunity and really wanted NASA to call me, but they were slow and the then Lockheed Engineering and Science Company called me first. By the time NASA called (they work slower, so you know), I’d already been hired. So, no mystery. (My career has been about that planned and more interesting, but you didn’t ask it).

Part 2: Hiring is probably fairly slow at the moment; however, I’ve heard rumors that hiring for “fresh outs” might become pretty hot. There are, additionally, several options to increase your chances. First, you could get involved in a college that has on-going space activities, like University of Colorado or the California Institute of Technology (which co-operates JPL) and try to get involved. If that’s not an option (we can’t all go to a university actively involved with space), you might try one of the programs like internship or volunteer programs that NASA does. If you can’t manage that, there’s always the direct route, like applying at NASAJobs or one of the many space contractors. Some of the commercial space companies might also be worth checking out.

Third part: Is there a lot of red tape at NASA?

Short answer is yes.

The long answer is red tape is part and parcel of any government job. On the one hand, that can be a hassle. On the other, red tape can also be a lifesaver. Many of the safety requirements, for example, call for tests and verifications from parts manufacturers, perhaps inspections, that their processes meet requirements and are consistent. Irksome for a vender, but counterfeit parts or parts that aren’t made from reliable processes have frequently caused problems for launches or hardware in space, like the tin-plated relays that cost the redundant string for four satellites and the whole shebang for four more. So, yes, lots of red tape, but not always a bad thing.


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