Not just astronauts: career opportunities in space
Institutional Communication Service
15 May 2023
The aerospace industry is rapidly expanding, making space more accessible. As a result, various career opportunities are available beyond just a few specialised professions. Multidisciplinary profiles are important and sought after at all levels, as the CV of the new Swiss astronaut Marco Sieber shows. Selected alongside 17 colleagues by the European Space Agency (ESA) in November last year, Sieber graduated in medicine from the University of Bern with a thesis on robotic surgery, specialised in emergency medicine and is a pilot and parachutist. But career prospects are not limited to unique profiles such as astronauts.
Job opportunities in the space sector were discussed during the Long Night of Careers held at Università della Svizzera italiana on 20 April, attended by Grégoire Bourban, head of Space Exchange Switzerland (SXS) - a national platform in which USI also participates in its role of promoter of careers in space for young talents who study or have studied at Swiss universities - and Andrew Kane, Entry Level Coordinator of the European Space Agency (ESA).
The ESA and SXS presentation at USI Long Night of Careers was also attended by Professor Svetlana Berdyugina, Director of the Istituto ricerche solari Aldo e Cele Daccò (IRSOL), who presented the many synergies between Università della Svizzera italiana and the European Space Agency. Berdyugina emphasised how IRSOL's research is relevant to space: solar activity, for example, can damage electronic equipment in space and pose a danger to astronauts. She also showed how all USI faculties prepare for possible careers in the space sector. Then we have information technology, from the management of robotic devices used in space exploration to the analysis of collected data; or even biomedicine: understanding the physiology of humans, animals and plants under conditions of low gravity and high radiation is necessary for space exploration. Finally, not to underestimate the challenges of creating habitats, laboratories and even factories in space or on other planetary entities such as the Moon or Mars. But business and communication skills are also crucial at this historical time when ESA is rejuvenating its staff and will hire almost 600 young employees.
Andrew Kane, people imagine that ESA, and the space sector in general, is a place for highly specialised engineers and personnel. Is that so?
In English, we say "It's not rocket science" to indicate that a subject is not particularly complicated. At ESA, we indeed have "rocket scientists", but we also have many people who are not. Many jobs at ESA involve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines, but we also have many opportunities for other profiles. For example, I studied political science: I work at ESA but am certainly not a rocket scientist.
As I observe students at USI, I can identify intriguing prospects for the field of biomedicine. Our focus on space medicine means that each astronaut's journey into space can be viewed as a medical experiment. Additionally, computer science is highly relevant to space exploration, with data science and artificial intelligence playing vital roles. In Frascati, near Rome, you'll find ESRIN, the European Centre for Earth Observation, which employs numerous data scientists. Economic and business expertise is also necessary at ESA's headquarters in Paris. Communication skills are also crucial to effectively conveying the importance of space exploration. Lastly, architecture is an area of great interest, especially as we strive to create innovative workplaces such as our newly opened headquarters in Paris.
Although STEM disciplines are crucial to our business, ESA requires diverse skills beyond just "rocket scientists" to operate effectively.
Can we say that space is becoming a second home for humanity, and in a home, you need everything?
Yes, exactly. I return to what I said about architecture: many of our cutting-edge colleagues, including many young graduates, imagine how we could design a base on the Moon or Mars. That's an aspect of ESA that you won't find anywhere else: working in other sectors can be very satisfying, but there is not that passion, that long-term vision about the future of humanity that space has, and which I think can attract a lot of people.
But young people are very focused on what is happening on this planet, from sustainability challenges to the climate crisis. Isn't it difficult, in this context, to talk about space launches?
At ESA, we excel in Earth observation, utilising data collected through our satellites. Our focus is not limited to exploring the solar system or other planets but rather learning more about Earth and safeguarding its ecosystems and biodiversity. For instance, if there is a volcanic eruption, satellite images can provide valuable insights into how to manage the situation and ensure people's safety. Additionally, we can monitor the North and South Poles from space. Suppose a student is interested in climate and environmental issues. In that case, ESA offers an excellent opportunity as our data is crucial in comprehending and devising effective strategies to tackle the climate crisis.
What opportunities does ESA offer young professionals in concrete terms?
ESA has several paths to start a career in the space sector. The first is internships for university students: every November, we open a call for over two hundred positions in all European locations. In the Netherlands, in Leiden, we have our technological heart, the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC). Still, there are opportunities at the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT) in Oxford in the UK or the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) in Villafranca, near Madrid in Spain. I have already mentioned ESRIN and its fantastic campus in Frascati, near Rome; in Germany, we have the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne and the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt. And, of course, there is the headquarters in Paris, where internship opportunities cover many different profiles. Swiss students can count on the excellent support of SXS: ESA internships are a perfect opportunity to gain experience in another country. (Two students from Ticino have already benefited from a mobility scholarship to Europe, obtained and managed by USI Careers Service, ed).
We offer the Young Graduate Trainee Programme, which announces around 100 positions in different fields every year, typically around February. The programme lasts for a year and can be extended. Many opportunities are available, including extracurricular activities, in a lively environment that enables you to balance work and social life. I began my career with this programme and found it to be a great experience.