Jobs and Skills of the Commercial Space Industry

Published on Apr 6, 2022

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Drew Repp

As tempting as it is, we’ll refrain from the low-hanging puns about this being a “giant leap for mankind.” But this month is indeed historic for space exploration and the commercial space industry. On April 8, Axiom Space will take four private astronauts aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon Endeavour spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). It will be the first-ever completely privately manned mission to a low Earth orbit (LEO) destination.

Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson made headlines last summer for taking suborbital trips with their respective space exploration companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. Then in September, SpaceX made history with the first all civilian crew to orbit the earth. 

Actor William Shatner, famous for playing Captain Kirk on the 1960’s television series Star Trek, even got in on the fun. He was aboard Blue Origin’s second human spaceflight in October.

With Axiom’s trip to the ISS again pushing commercial space exploration into the spotlight, we decided to take a closer look at this exciting industry. Since the space industry has historically been a function of governments (NASA and the Department of Defense), getting an accurate view of the private industry can be difficult. Fortunately, job posting data is a great mechanism to separate out this new industry. We used company and keyword filters (e.g. SpaceX, Blue Origin, space exploration, spaceflight, etc.) to isolate the activity of the private space industry, and from there examined the occupations and skills driving the industry.

So for space junkies and connoisseurs of labor market data, today our paths cross. Alright, fine, our stars have aligned.

More than just space tourism

Axiom Space describes itself as “a full-service orbital mission provider for private and national astronauts.” In a press release announcing their trip to the ISS, they list their services as “training, transportation, mission planning, hardware development, life support, medical support, crew provisions, safety and hardware certifications, on-orbit operations, and overall mission management.” This checks most of the boxes on your to-do list when planning your next family vacation to space.  

But they are also working on building a commercial space station in our solar system. And so are other companies. NASA signed three Space Act Agreements with companies to develop designs for LEO commercial space stations. Blue Origin is developing Orbital Reef, Nanoracks has Starlab, and Northrup Gruman has yet to name its station, but it is a modular design based on its Cygnus spacecraft. These space stations are being developed because the commercial space industry is far more than just tourism. After all, only a handful of people will ever be able to afford a trip to space (even if gets down to a sub-$500,000 pricepoint like the major players have suggested). 

Space stations are seen as the next step in commerce, research, exploration, and technology. And are about the benefits and opportunities on earth just as much as in space. This includes consumer TV and radio, satellite broadband, even ultra-fast cargo deliveryMorgan Stanley estimates that commercial space industry revenue could exceed $1 trillion in 2040, up from $350 billion currently. They also estimate that satellite broadband will represent 50% of that growth, and potentially 70%.

Thus, not only is there growth in the areas typically thought of—engineering of rockets, satellites, launchpads, etc.—but to pursue the expanded commercial opportunities space provides, there is growth in other areas as well.

The result is an industry that continues to blast off (we’re just going for it now). From 2010 to 2021, job postings have risen more than 500%. This growth reached a peak in 2018 before dipping between 2019 and 2020. But since then, it has recovered beyond 2018 levels.

Not surprisingly, the major players in the space tourism race are looking to do the bulk of the hiring. SpaceX and Blue Origin have had the most postings over the last three years, and Virgin Galactic the fourth. But as in any large-scale manufacturing and assembly, there are a host of subcontractors, suppliers, and consultants. Firms such as Jacobs Engineering Group is working with NASA to explore planetary habitat manufacturing and assembly technologies.

More than just rocket scientists

Because the commercial space industry encompasses more than just getting to space, the occupations it employs are moving beyond just rocket scientists. While engineering jobs one would think of (mechanical, aerospace, manufacturing, etc.) make up the majority of the in-demand occupations for the industry, roles in the IT realm are currently most sought after by employers. Software developers and computer systems engineers are the most commonly posted jobs over the last three years.

The hard skills in demand also reveal the scope of the industry. Knowledge and experience in International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) is far and away the most sought-after skill. Project management and skills within it, such as scheduling and budgeting, are also in the top 10. The general-purpose coding language Python is the third most common skill. Meanwhile, physics and avionics, skills more commonly associated with space flight, are ninth and tenth.

Community impact

In September 2014, SpaceX broke ground on Starbase, a production facility, test site, and spaceport in Boca Chica, TX. Originally intended as a launch site for SpaceX’s rockets and vehicles, in 2018 it expanded to production and testing. 

Boca Chica is part of the Brownsville-Harlingen MSA, and the SpaceX investment there is noticeable. The population changed course markedly in 2018, with both people and businesses moving to the area to be in proximity to Starbase.

This growth is reflected in the SpaceX job postings for the area, rising from basically none in January 2019 to a peak of 219 in August of last year.

Similar to the commercial space industry not just employing rocket scientists, Starbase isn’t just employing those with advanced degrees. Since job postings really took off in mid-2019, the jobs requiring a high school diploma or GED have mirrored the posting trend of roles requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

Some point to the needs of a major campus, such as a cafeteria: culinary staff and barista trainers. Or helping with SpaceX residential facilities: residential assistants. Others speak to the unique needs of a launchpad and production of rockets: launch logistics specialists, Starship subassembly technicians, and Starship heat shield technicians. But all only require a high school diploma.

The potential on earth

Space exploration being propelled by private industry is what some have dubbed the Space 4.0 era. The idea is that to achieve the host of opportunities space is believed to hold, breaking away from the government agency model of exploration is needed. Moving into the Space 4.0 era is already resulting in expanded job opportunities as a new industry has emerged. But it is potentially just the beginning. 

Right now the focus is on how to more easily and affordably get humans, rockets, and satellites into space. But once humans are living and working there, and all those satellites are there too, the potential it unlocks for Earth is immense, especially for workers.

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