Can people without technical backgrounds work in the space sector?

The space sector is often portrayed as being full of scientists and engineers. But it also has job opportunities for individuals without technical backgrounds. Especially with the proliferation of new space-sector startups, there is a need for individuals with traditional business skillsets. How does someone without a technical background transition to the space sector? To find out, we spoke to Gary Paul, the Operations Manager for Made In Space Europe who until recently worked in international development. He shares his experience making the transition and provides tips to other individuals interested in doing so.

How did you transition to the space sector?

I was on a boat outside a tropical island when I met an astronaut by accident. No, really! I worked in the NGO and international development sector, usually in operations and logistics. I was working in the South Pacific when a chance meeting with some tourists, who happened to be retired NASA astronauts and satellite communications experts, reignited my childhood dreams of space. They were impressed with the operation we had at the time and noted the similarity between an aquatic expedition and a space expedition. “Hang on,” I said. “If they’re the same… and I’m on the aquatic expedition already… does that mean I could be part of a space expedition?”

I stopped thinking in terms of “I work in the NGO sector so I can’t work in the space sector”. I realized my skills were sector-independent and could transfer directly. With that in mind, I set about networking and attending conferences as often as I could. I joke that everyone just got so tired of my endless questions that, just to get rid of me, someone finally suggested I should attend the International Space University – a place designed to answer all my questions. I applied and, in 2019, I was accepted to the Space Studies Program.

As part of that program, I amplified my space knowledge while displaying my existing skills to a host of space professionals. I worked directly alongside aerospace engineers, astronomers, NASA and ESA experts, doctors, biologists, lawyers, business managers, and more. There really was space for everyone. And it turned out there was space for me.

What opportunities exist for non-technical professionals in the space sector?

Many, many opportunities exist in the space sector. If you have any sort of professional job right now, that job will exist in the space sector. Space businesses still require business developers, accountants, lawyers, human resources, marketing and PR, logistics, etc. The biggest mistake a non-technical professional can make is to assume they need a technical degree to work in the space sector.

I’m not even sure I would list a degree as required – the space sector is a sector of doers, and if you can provide and prove value, that you can make things happen, you might be surprised. My company is hiring a role right now that doesn’t have a degree listed as a requirement.

I’d say start-ups offer the most roles for non-technical professionals, especially those who are just starting their journey in the space sector. However, even NASA hires non-technical professionals.

What advice do you have for people with non-technical backgrounds who want to participate in the space sector?

You need to be able to describe and display your value. Space businesses run by engineers and scientists may not understand the need for non-technical positions, when described in traditional terms. That being said, engineers and scientists are very well aware of the administrative tasks that annoy and frustrate them, the tasks that take time away from research and development. Talk to them, ask them, find out what slows them down – usually business development and accounting, for start-ups – and show your value in removing that from their field of view.

You need passion for space. You don’t need to be a science fiction fan – but understand that passion drives space. There’s not much money in space (yet), and half the time your product will literally explode on a launch pad. But you’ll find a lot of people in space are environmentalists, humanitarians, and explorers. These are pursuits that are driven by passion. You don’t need to speak to engineers and astronauts in technical terms – you just need to speak in terms of passion and a love of space.

Finally, the space sector is very small. Networking is crucial to success. Because passion drives space, it’s easy to find conferences and groups worldwide. In New Zealand alone, for instance, there are space enthusiast groups in Wellington and Auckland, and a well-known Space Café down in Christchurch. These aren’t just for space fans – industry professionals and business leaders present and network there on a regular basis. If you’ve got more time and money, consider a short professional development course. International Space University runs a Southern Hemisphere version of their Space Studies Program in Adelaide every year.