What’s It Like to Work for NASA as a Design Engineer?

  • All members of the NASA team play a role in successful missions creating a level of job satisfaction literally “out of this world”.
  • If money is your prime motivation then perhaps a career with NASA is not for you.
  • It takes years of planning, designing, testing and retesting to reach the glamorous “for television” NASA celebrations we all love to watch.

At first glance, to work for NASA seems very glamorous, very satisfying but ultimately something for the “nerdy” types who like to work on their own. However, in reality life as a NASA mechanical design engineer is very different to the impression you get when you watch rocket launches from Cape Canaveral!

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Finding a job with NASA

When you bear in mind the billions of dollars spent by the US government funding NASA you might expect the authorities to formally invite applications from those looking for employment. The idea that the authorities could pick and choose the best from the world of mechanical design engineering makes perfect sense to such a prestigious operation. However, finding a job with NASA is not as simple or straightforward as you might presume!

Some individuals are lucky enough to apply directly to NASA highlighting their experience, qualifications and perhaps more importantly their passion for the industry. Passion and knowledge will get you a long way but the vast majority of those who work for NASA have gained experience elsewhere and joined the NASA community via third-party project management companies. It is more likely you will find your way to a career with NASA via these third parties.

space-shuttle-11089_960_720Salary expectations and career progression

Anyone joining a NASA engineering position would be expected to have a master’s degree or at the very least a bachelor’s degree in a specific area of engineering. The qualifications required will depend upon how you gain entry to the NASA funded projects but in reality the very least you would need is a bachelor’s degree. The level of salary you can expect will vary between the different levels of expertise but we are looking at $75,000 upwards and the ability to achieve upwards of $100,000 within five years. You will find that there are more lucrative opportunities outside of the world of NASA but how do you put a price on landing a probe on Mars, discovering a new Galaxy or perhaps the ultimate goal of creating a new human colony outside of Earth?

It is well documented that there are two real pathways to increased salary which are management or technical expertise. In reality those looking to take the management path will have some technical expertise and those looking to take the technical expertise path will have some management experience. For those with a passion for space travel and the connected array of engineering challenges there will be many opportunities to climb up the career ladder with NASA. The vast majority of NASA employees will have standard office hours but, depending upon their position and their role, there may be additional requirements outside of these hours.

Passion, passion, passion

Those who work for NASA live and breathe the various challenges which the organisation is presented with. While you will obviously need to have expertise and experience to develop your career, a genuine passion for the industry should not be underestimated. The idea that so-called “nerdy” types walk around NASA offices in a world of their own is so far from the truth it is unreal.

The engineering community at NASA work extremely closely documenting, testing and retesting ideas and projects to ensure that they work perfectly when required. In recent times some employees of NASA have complained about excessive documentation and report writing but in reality we are dealing with very thin margins of error and ground breaking technology. It is a waste of time, money and effort if different project teams revisit and recalculate the same procedures. Therefore accurate report writing is vital to the long-term success of NASA because this gives a pool of invaluable information for all concerned.

There is also scope for individual creativity and “out-of-the-box thinking” which could prompt the creation of a new technology, improve an existing system or allow project teams to look at problems from a whole different angle. For those looking for a career in design engineering with NASA this will be music to their ears.

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Job satisfaction

The vast majority of those who work for NASA will tell you that you need to have a passion for the industry above and beyond a financial motivation. Experience in a specific field of engineering, whatever niche area you choose, is vital when attempting to open doors and secure employment. What makes you different from the next applicant? Are you able to work on your own and as a member of a close-knit team? What drives you when faced with challenging situations?

Whether you are involved in the design of a rocket engine, the design of the crew’s control systems or you are charged with eliminating electronic interference between gadgets, everybody has a role to play. It can take years of research, planning, testing and building before your project actually comes to fruition – indeed many do not even get this far! The satisfaction of working for NASA is evident through successful launches, pushing the boundaries of space travel and ultimately returning probes, rockets and astronauts to earth safely.

We see the glamorous side on the television after successful missions but these few days or hours are preceded by years of testing, planning and the unglamorous elements of the job which go unnoticed by the general public.

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