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In a general sense, this question is looking to address the problem that most space enthusiasts encounter; actually getting themselves involved with something beyond Earth. Most people don't have access to cheap and effective ways to launch themselves or probes into orbit-- so my question is as follows...

Beyond reading as much as possible, as often as possible, and following as many current events as I can, what else can I do? Potentially, I'd like to start plotting my own launch-plan for a theoretical mission. Can anyone list a couple tools that could be used to accomplish this? I understand pen-and-paper mathematics are tried and true, but if anyone has a list of resources to get me started in the right direction I'd be happy. I really want to start getting my career on a path that could potentially intersect with space, and any resources/insight that the highly respected former KSC employees that frequent this site have are welcome. A guide on how to prepare yourself to be hired as a NASA employee (not astronaut) would potentially be good material.

On a personal note, my degree is in Computer Science and Engineering. The answers honestly shouldn't focus on this facet though, as I want this to be accessible to other interested parties.


If this is not considered on-topic for this website, please let me know; I will remove it.

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There are several ways to get involved in space exploration and you don’t necessary need to have the greatest understanding of everything. Focus on one area that you find interesting and excel at that, whether it be command and data processing, thermal, mechanical, systems engineering, etc… it will all aid in the development of a spacecraft. If you want to look at everything (not really specializing) I recommend looking into systems engineering, the best book for this is Space Mission Engineering: The New SMAD (this is literally a bible here at NASA for spacecraft design), which outlies guidelines for developing spacecrafts, analysis, configurations, and much more.

Space Grant Programs – NASA funded organizations that are at most universities across the US and usually work on space related projects from developing CubeSats to creating new instruments or space-rated hardware. Many of these universities would be thrilled to have an additional participate helping develop their systems. A list of US based Space Grant Programs.

CubeSat Workshops – A great way to meet community members involved in developing CubeSats and CubeSat hardware. Workshops would be an excellent place to meet new people and make connections to help develop systems.

Open Source Projects – This is a harder one and have yet many open source space related projects. One open source project I know of is UPSat.

Tools & Resources

I recommend reading about spacecraft systems and their design. Depending on what you actually want to accomplish I recommend starting small (with CubeSats) and actually try to create your own, maybe open source it, but most importantly, it will give you the best experience and something to talk about.

Do not be afraid to email programs or organizations out of the blue and offer them assistance or ask them questions. Most will be thrilled to help and collaborate with you.

  • CAD – I’d recommend learning SolidWorks, it’s fairly easy to use and is relatively cheap. However, most CAD programs will be adequate for developing a CubeSat. Depending on complexity of the system and what you wish to accomplish you might want to use a different CAD package.
  • Orbital Simulation - AGI STK A great resource for trajectory design, mission planning, and a lot more. It is commonly used throughout the space industry.
  • Simulation and Analysis - You can use integrated simulation packages that are in SolidWorks or other CAD programs. However, dedicated simulation packages such as COMSOL Multiphysics or Thermal Desktop are widely used and accepted. Also the Siemens NX simulation package is very good.
  • Software for spacecraft development, design, and analysis (look at the updated response from 5/29/2018).
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    $\begingroup$ What a thorough answer. Thank you. I've been enthralled since watching Apollo in the 60s, and you include an excellent variety of options for people of many walks of life. $\endgroup$ – Don Branson Jun 20 '18 at 1:28
  • $\begingroup$ I like your answer here as well as here. For any items that might be expensive for an individual who just "wanted to get involved in space exploration", if you could cite some with zero, or minimal entry costs that would be great. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 20 '18 at 2:56
  • $\begingroup$ I have a lifetime Auto-CAD licences from my university :D. The orbital simulation software seems really cool too!! I wonder if there are any cube-sat workshops in my land-locked non-equitorial state though :(. $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Jun 21 '18 at 12:58
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As another enthusiast who frequently gets lots I'd recommend Kerbal Space Program. Scott Manley had a great YouTube series called "Things Kerbal Space Program doesn't teach" and I find those very useful.

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    $\begingroup$ I love KSP already :). imgur.com/gallery/NSQ1ITw and imgur.com/gallery/hcMzbKg were my 2 favorite missions that I did (first is landing on all of Jool's moons in 1 launch, the latter is to the moon for $9,000)! I'm looking more for... real-life applications though. I want to get my feet wet in something more than blind awe. It would be a great leap to go from awestruck by human accomplishment to a productive member of extraterrestrial humanity. KSP is a long leap from viable though, especially in a professional environment. $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Jun 20 '18 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ I will, however, check out that youtube series. Though I prefer textbook reading (I know, I'm weird). $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Jun 20 '18 at 0:04
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    $\begingroup$ @MagicOctopusUrn my goodness, there's nothing "weird" about learning by reading! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 20 '18 at 2:58
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    $\begingroup$ I would argue though that KSP is a good leap from a normal no-knowledge layperson to a space enthusiast. It can really 'kickstart' the interest. By playing KSP, a layperson will inevitably learn 'space' things to help in his game, eventually leading to an interest in space overall $\endgroup$ – Keale Jun 20 '18 at 7:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Keale too late for me, that's exactly what happened lol. $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Jun 27 '18 at 13:27
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You can get involved in amateur radio (especially satellite activities).

Look at AMSAT. You can also build a ground station and talk to the astronauts on the ISS (ARISS). Building an amateur radio satellite station is not rocket science and does not have to be terribly expensive.

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I'll address this one part that wasn't answered yet:

A guide on how to prepare yourself to be hired as a NASA employee (not astronaut) would potentially be good material.

This is based on my experience as a NASA contractor from 1983 - 2014 - I have no idea if it's official policy or written down anywhere.

The most important thing you can do - in fact the crucial thing you must do - to get hired by NASA out of college is to intern at NASA while you are in college. They basically won't look at your application if you don't. Work with your college placement office, call up any and all contacts you have, but get that internship. They still may not hire you when you graduate, but your application will get considered.

If you want to work at a contractor instead, I again highly recommend that you intern or work summer jobs with engineering companies while you are in college. When I was a hiring manager I gave strong preference to applicants with that kind of background (based on my experience with how people that I hired worked out). Not even aerospace engineering companies necessarily, just some kind of engineering work.

This is the place to apply: https://intern.nasa.gov/

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Are you looking for a career in the space industry?

Are you still in school? Does your school have an aerospace department? I work for a laboratory attached to the University of Colorado Boulder, and we hire students all the time. I was originally hired as a student, in 2003. Basically any engineering study is useful. We use software, electrical, mechanical engineering, plus systems engineering (which I think only gets taught on-the-job). More and more schools have space programs, and not a lot of them are well-publicized, so it may take some digging.

Do you live in a space-heavy area? Obviously some place like Cape Canaveral, FL will have many companies in the space industry, but you may be surprised to find that the area you live in has a healthy space component as well. The Denver area has dozens of such companies, from Lockheed Martin to small startups in the dozen-person size range. Once again, it may take some digging to find the perfect one for you.

I happen to think that for many things, interest is more important than knowledge. If you have a certain minimum talent (and that's a relatively low bar), then interest alone will motivate you to learn what you need. If I were in a position to hire, and if you lived near me, I would give you consideration based on your question above alone. You might of course start out at a pretty low level, but at our lab, we sometimes draft students still in their undergrad program to work on a flight project -- design a circuit board, install it in a sounding rocket payload, and go out to White Sands, NM to make sure it is operated correctly.

It might be easier to work with a smaller company to begin with. A lot of times, you just need to get into an interview and impress the first person you meet. That might be a lot harder at a company like Boeing or Lockheed Martin with a large established bureaucracy. Google " aerospace companies" and see if something interesting comes up. I know "Colorado aerospace companies" produces an interesting piece of propaganda by our state government.

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In addition to the following answers:

You can also

where you can rub elbows with and query all kinds of space and space-adjacent people, see how they talk and think and how they use their space words in complete sentences.

For example, I learned that exhaust and thrust are not the same thing; in fact they point in opposite directions. Who'da thunk it?!

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