More Students Are Going to Space School — And It May Be a Better Idea Than You Think

There's never been a better time to want to build a rocket ship for a living.

Private companies are exploring how to mine asteroids, how to create new satellite networks and how to manufacture tools with 3-D printers to enable greater space exploration. In 2012 alone, the U.S. aerospace industry added $118.5 billion in export sales to the economy, and investors are bullish on the prospects of the new space economy. Visionary thought-leaders like Peter Diamandis and Neil deGrasse Tyson have predicted that the first trillionaire will be made in space.

But that first trillionaire won't come out of nowhere. Enter space school.

As America moves further into space and begins to reap the benefits, custom education programs designed to train the future space workforce are popping up. Unlike general programs, these schools are designed specifically around helping students learn how to turn space dreams into space careers.

A student works in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Aerospace and Astronautics department lab.M. Scott Brauer/MIT News/Flickr

One of the earliest Aeronautical Universities, Embry-Riddle, founded in 1926, originally trained civilian pilots and helped increase the number of pilots before World War II. Today, the school offers more than 40 different degrees from its five individual colleges, from space policy and law to the more popular aerospace engineering and aeronautical science.

In 2013, Embry-Riddle added a commercial space operations program to meet the rising demand for classes on the business of space. While this is currently the only university in the country with a commercial space program, more are likely to develop as new careers emerge, from space tour guide to spaceport designer and space architect.

"The need [for the program] came from industry growth," professor and program coordinator for the commercial space operations degree program at Embry-Riddle, Lance Erickson, told Mic. "The year it started, there were 400 businesses listed in the commercial space industry. The growth is strong and the demand is strong."

Students at Embry-Riddle University work on an engineering project in the Prescott Campus.Flickr

While aerospace engineering programs have traditionally included both aviation and aeronautics, Embry-Riddle isn't the only university to start putting a greater focus on its space programs The University of Southern California, for example, created an independent astronautical engineering department in 2004, citing space exploration and "a looming shortage of engineers in this area" as factors.

"The space industry was underserved in our view, so we established a new, separate department focused completely on space," USC professor of astronautics Mike Gruntman told Mic. "We are one of the largest programs in the country targeting this niche area of the space industry." 

MIT's aerospace engineering program, the oldest in the country, offers programs in space propulsion and space systems, and many of the best aeronautical engineering schools have space programs, including CalTech (space engineering), Stanford (space systems), and Purdue (astrodynamics and space applications).   

Overall, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics students do well when it comes to career earnings, consistently dominating lists ranking valuable college majors. Aerospace engineering sits close to the top as the second most lucrative college major over the course of a lifetime, according to a list compiled by the Hamilton Project. The only thing outranking it is chemical engineering, a major that has its own prospects for future space careers. Aerospace engineering also ranks in the top 10 for highest starting and mid-career salary earnings, according to a report from PayScale.

What we know about the potential for career earnings suggests that the opportunity is only growing stronger. In 2010, there were fewer than 150 businesses listed in the commercial space field. In 2013, there were 400, and today there are over 800, according to market researcher Newspace Global.

All of that means one thing: If you missed your chance at space camp, don't worry — you're better off setting your sights on space college.

Correction: June 25, 2015

This series is part of a collaboration between ULA and Mic to investigate the future of space exploration. ULA provides reliable, cost-efficient access to space, opening up endless opportunities for public and private space missions. ULA employs more rocket scientists than any other company in the world. This story was written by Mic's branded content team with no involvement from Mic's editorial staff. For more stories in this series, click here>>