I am going to be beginning a degree in chemical engineering next year and also have a significant interest in space travel. I was wondering how much of a role chemical engineers play in space exploration. I understand there is a strong need for fuels and heat resistant materials and so forth, but how significant is this? Is there any significant need for chemical engineers in the space industry? And if so, in what section are they most likely to be working?
I would say chemical engineers play less of a role in space exploration than aero/astro, mechanical, software, and electrical engineers. I'll try to back this up with evidence before I share my anecdote.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most chemical engineers work in manufacturing (of chemicals). Designing new chemical products (like fuels or composite materials) is more of a scientist's role rather than an engineer's and typically requires a master's degree or PhD.
A typical chemical engineer in a non-research role (so probably with a bachelor's degree) works as a process engineer. A process engineer is usually tasked with profitably mass producing a product. That entails using thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat/mass transfer, and chemical kinetics to design, optimize, and operate a chemical plant or refinery. Aerospace engineers, however, largely go into the space industry since they've specialized in things like aerodynamic fluid flow; structural design; guidance, navigation, and control; instrumentation and communication; robotics; and propulsion and combustion.
I certainly wouldn't say it will be impossible for you to get a job in the space industry with a background in chemical engineering. You can do anything if you work hard and focus on developing the right skills. I do think majoring in something that is already more common in the space industry will increase your chances of getting a job right out of school.
I've gone down a career path similar to the one you're considering. I majored in chemical engineering for my BS, but I really want my career to have something to do with advancing space exploration. This has proven difficult so far. Since I haven't yet successfully switched to the space industry, I'm trying to develop skills relevant to space companies (CFD, propulsion knowledge) and working toward an MS in aero/astro engineering. I'm sure I'll make the transition eventually, but I think if space exploration is really what you want to do, you might save some time and effort focusing on the right things earlier than I did.
Yes a chemical engineer is a huge asset in space exploration. Anyone who says otherwise doesn't actually know what a chemical engineer learns.
Chemical engineers are essentially mechanical engineers with a deep understanding of chemistry (reactions, gases, liquids, solids, energy & mass transfer).
For some reason people see the description "chemical engineer" and they assume a chemical engineer only understands chemistry, when in reality a chemical engineer learns not only learns mechanical engineering, control systems engineering and chemical physics (energy, matter and space) but also how to combine all fields together.
Some examples of where chemical engineers are required:
- Life support systems (oxygen, water CO2 scrubbers, etc).
- Waste treatment systems.
- Control systems (process control engineer & APC engineers)
- Understanding the environment due to the composition of elements and chemicals present.
- How to use resources from different environments and convert them into usable processes, energy or materials.
- Energy generation from available materials present.
- Deep understanding of all the light and radiation in space (radiation chemistry/photochemistry/etc).
- Material selection in space (huge specialisation as a chemical engineer).
These are all areas that chemical engineers are experts in. Its unlikely a mechanical engineer or aerospace engineer would have much training in these areas.
How do I know this? I am a chemical engineer, I deal with most of the things I mentioned above and regularly have mechanical and electrical engineers come to be for help and guidance in these areas.