As the youngest Millennials are nearing 30 and establishing themselves in their careers, Generation Z is entering the workforce. According to a recent study by the World Economic Forum, nearly one-third of the workforce will be Gen Z by 2025. Younger generations will shake up the global working world, and the space industry is no exception.
In this feature, Via Satellite talks to six young professionals under 30 in the space industry about what keeps them interested in space, their career development, and how the industry might evolve during their lifetimes.
At 21, Audrey Scott is already a strong voice in the space industry. Scott has been chair of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), as well as a student at the University of Chicago studying astrophysics and anthropology. She is a big believer in the power of space-based solutions. When asked for one area where she thought space could make a huge difference to humanity, her response is bullish: “Give me one area where it can’t!”
Scott grew up in Houston, and in a twist of fate, her first job was in a commercial at Space Center Houston. “I had a first career in film and television, and at the same time I began thinking about what other areas I may want to have a future in, the commercial space industry was experiencing a major boom in public consciousness,” she says. “Maybe it was always that way and I just started paying attention, but seeing commercial rocket launches, groundbreaking deforestation images, satellite constellations, and planet-crashing probes and rovers all seem to materialize within a small window of time blew my mind.”
Scott applied to the NASA High School Aerospace Scholars program and her story in space began. “Having that non-traditional background, I became attached pretty early on to this idea that I could bring an interdisciplinary perspective — I double major in astrophysics and anthropology, aside from my odd work experience — to the table, something to generate new ideas and ways of thinking.”
Thinking about the type of company she might like to work for in the future, Scott says the mission isn’t always the driving factor, because a lot of companies have strong missions. She adds, “I care more about values and vision for the future. Aside from practicing what you preach when it comes to inclusion of underrepresented groups, I pay strong attention to investment in employee growth. Career development opportunities both within and outside of a specific job, as well as accessibility of continuing education, will make a company stand out among job-seeking Gen-Z.”
As she heads into her senior year, she says she can sometimes be disillusioned with how diversity, equity, and inclusion issues are handled. While it’s more than just a space and satellite industry issue, it is clear she feels more could be done here.
“You will go to an event and there will be a DEI panel that has speakers from marginalized identities, but you’ll never see them on a panel other than the DEI one, regardless of their expertise. It seems sort of patronizing, that an individual can be propped up as an example of diversity or a voice of their demographic but then they’re shelved until it’s time to celebrate a month,” she says.
In the future, her vision is to be a decision-maker either in industry or government, laying out her ideology, which she describes as “moving forward and upwards while staying rooted in the place and people we call home.”
She sees an astronaut application in her future, too. “Trust me – once I meet the minimum requirements, I’m tossing in an astronaut application. If I can meet the bare-bones asks – and encourage myself to do a couple push-ups while I’m at it – then I know I’m doing something amazing,” Scott says.
Making predictions for the next decades of the future industry, Scott sees renewed interest in megastructures, orbital or otherwise. “Let’s get an utterly giant telescope on the Moon, I know we can do it,” she says. “A super long particle accelerator at the very least? I’m also interested to see how interests and alignments may change regarding nuclear power for spacecraft or off-world structures.”
Alex Merker has long been inspired by aviation and space — his father was a fighter pilot and his grandfather built airplanes as a hobby. In school, he studied political science in college and had internships in election administration. But he kept his dream of working in the space industry, and was able to get an internship at the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which led to his career in space research and consulting.
Merker, 29, now lives in Washington, D.C. and is a government contractor for Guidehouse, where he supports federal agencies involved in the commercial space industry. He provides management consulting expertise to support complex multi-agency processes that enable the safe planning and executing of launch and re-entry missions by commercial space companies.
“I’ve been following the Commercial Crew program and other SpaceX things since I was in high school. I remember watching the initial Starship reveal at IAC [International Astronautical Congress] back in 2016 and it filled me with hope for the future of space travel,” he says. “Having even the small role that I do in such historic developments is something that’s immensely fulfilling on a deep personal level.”
One thing that was essential that allowed him to break into the industry was financial support from his parents, which helped him move to D.C. for his internship. Afterward, he advocated that the organization pay interns more so that more people can have that kind of opportunity.
“I was pretty blunt,” he says. “At the end of my tenure, even as I was getting the job, I was pretty upfront [and said] ‘You need to be more competitive. If you want top talent, you have to pay for top talent.’ I don't think everyone is going to have the resources that I did to help me live for a summer in D.C.”
Having a non-technical background, Merker talks about the importance of different types of roles in the space industry, and that everyone is working toward the same goal whether in a business, engineering, policy function, etc. However, he jokes among his friends in space policy that their non-technical roles are not as in-demand in the industry as engineers are.
Looking to the future, Merker is excited about the Artemis Program’s goal to go to Mars, and the possibility of on-orbit habitation in the future. He’s inspired by seeing young founders in the space industry, like Tim Ellis of Relativity Space.
“I see at a conference there's other people who are young who are doing these things. It gives me confidence,” he says. “The industry is inadvertently showcasing the best motivator you could have of CEOs in the industry [that are] young professionals.”
While he sees a lot of general interest in the space industry, Merker thinks many people are intimidated by the complexity of space and may not realize they can apply their skill sets in the industry.
“Software engineers, chemical engineers, really smart people may not think that space is in their reach,” he says. “I might not have considered space if it wasn't my passion. It would be hard to go tell a classroom full of poli-sci majors they could be part of NASA. So, I think the industry could do a better job of advertising how you can get from middle school [to a career]. It really starts in high school — selective courses lead into the sort of programs that you could get into in college. You have to start connecting with people a lot younger than the senior year of college.”
Clémence Poirier is a research fellow at European Space Policy Institute (ESPI). Poirier’s path to the space industry is a little different from most, and stems from her love of debating societal issues.
Poirier, 27, grew up in France on the shore of Lake Geneva. She took part in Model UN conferences where students put themselves in the shoes of diplomats, representing countries and ideas and debating them.
She took part in many space-based debates, which struck a chord. “I participated in several Model UN committees on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), and the Disarmament Conference on space-related issues and from there, I fell in love with space. I highly recommend college students to take part in these conferences, regardless of their professional objectives," she says.
It was from taking part in these debates that led Poirier to a career in space. She is already speaking at industry events like CySat. Her story showcases a different background and way to get into space. “The space sector is one of those sectors where you definitely need to understand engineering, science, international relations, economic policy, business, military strategy, and law in order to attempt to understand underlying issues and trends. This is very stimulating and challenging,” she says.
Poirier believes that the satellite industry can have a “tremendous impact” on society, climate change monitoring, armed conflicts, etc. She talks about how critical infrastructures rely on satellites. “The impact of space systems is mostly invisible for the average citizen. The impact on space is such that I think there is a pervasive dependence to space-based systems for all activities in society’s daily lives. It is considered that if the GPS would stop working, the U.S economy alone would lose $1 billion dollars per day in GDP,” she says. “To illustrate this impact, regarding climate change, more than 50 percent of essential climate variables come from space and most of IPCC reports, which underpin all climate policies in most countries, rely on space-based data.”
The industry often wrestles with the question of what role it will play in a super connected society. Poirier talks of the integration of satellites in 5G mobile networks being “relatively limited.” However, it could change with the onset of 6G. “6G is expected to enable services that are more likely to rely both on terrestrial and space-based connectivity such as precision healthcare, sensor web, smart cities, smart robotics, haptic communications, holographic communications, immersive telepresence, etc. This is also up to the satcom sector to stand up for its role in the next generation of mobile networks and ensure the proper transition between the decreasing demand for satellite broadcast and the increasing demand for internet broadband and capture new markets in new verticals,” she says.
When asked to name one thing we might see the space industry do over the next 10 to 20 years, Poirier points to space-based solar power. She also thinks space can make a huge difference for humanity. “[In] life sciences, hopefully space can help generate ground-breaking research in medicine, agriculture, life in extreme environments, the origin of life,” she says.
Irwin Alcantara is literally buzzing with excitement for the space industry. This summer he is participating in the Patti Grace Smith fellowship, and living in Seattle while doing his first internship at commercial space station company Gravitics.
Alcantara spoke Via Satellite in July just after the Patti Grace Smith summit, which brought this summer’s fellowship class to Washington D.C. to network with industry leaders. The fellowship connects Black students with space industry internships and a mentorship community. The summit was “electrifying,” he says.
“People are really, really excited to meet you — you’re not expecting [it] from superstars in this industry. They're excited to connect with you, and you get to talk about aerospace topics that they’re currently working on,” he says.
Meeting the other fellows was just as impactful. “This amazing class of people that are as interested as you in the same kind of career. We all feel that same passion for space and space exploration,” he says.
Alcantara, 22, is from Puerto Rico, and entering his final year at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez. The university does not have an aerospace engineering program, so he is studying mechanical engineering. But he says there is a strong community around aerospace at the university. For the past two years, Alcantara has been a part of a team from his university to participate in NASA’s annual Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) competition. This year, the Mayagüez team competed in the finals in Orlando, Florida, and took second place for developing a human exploration to Mars.
Alcantara has a lot of pride in Puerto Rico’s aerospace heritage, and says he was heartbroken when the Arecibo Observatory was destroyed in 2020. He would love to see Puerto Rico grow into an aerospace hub, and says his university recently secured funding to start an aerospace degree.
“There’s change happening slowly, and I'm really grateful for that. I'm really excited to see how that eventually snowballs into a big aerospace community on my island,” he says. “It’s good to see there’s some opportunities in Puerto Rico, but there's always a space for more. I want to be part of that evolution to [make] Puerto Rico a bastion for the aerospace community.”
As much as he loves his home of Puerto Rico, Alcantara says he will need to move to the mainland United States after college to pursue his career in space.
“I've been asked a lot if I'm going to move outside of Puerto Rico for my career and sadly, my answer always is ‘Yes.’ Right now, there's no way I can fully develop and reach my career goals in Puerto Rico,” he says. “The aerospace community is there, it exists, but it's not as developed right now. I would love to see the community in Puerto Rico and Latin American countries flourish and grow.”
Alcantara is extremely passionate about space exploration, and his goal is to impact humanity’s knowledge of space. “My goals are fulfilled if I help humanity learn more about space by developing new technology that teaches us more about Mars, about the moon, about our solar system,” he says.
“We're living in an era that I think our parents would have never thought to be possible,” Alcantara adds. “[There is a] motto ‘Space is for everyone.’ I think we're really going to start seeing that. Your average astronaut or space tourist that gets to fly to space will be just as average a person as I am.”
Ray Elliott had his mind set that he wanted to pursue a career in engineering for either missiles or fighter jets. But while studying at the University of Alabama, he had the opportunity to dip his toe into the space industry with an internship at Airbus U.S. Space & Defense, and found he was “blown away” by working on space capabilities. His main project that summer was working on a tool that calculated external disturbances to spacecraft, which was completely new to him.
“Just getting to dive into that world and learn more every day about what I was doing — it was like a light switch went off in my head,” he recounts. “I enjoy doing it, and I knew it was something that I could see myself doing for the rest of my career.”
After his senior year, he accepted a full-time job with Airbus U.S. Space & Defense and now has been with the company for over a year. Elliott, 24, says it’s been a huge learning experience moving from an internship to full-time employment and he’s thankful there have been people that he feels comfortable reaching out to to ask questions and for feedback.
“All throughout undergrad you touch the surface of a lot of stuff. But to really get in the weeds, it’s not something you do until you take that first job,” he says, adding it's important to be vulnerable and ask questions. “I'll be honest, there are people on my team that have a lot more experience from me. So being able to reach out to them and ask questions, and have them provide feedback to me has been one of the largest contributors to my career.”
He is currently looking into pursuing a master’s degree, exploring programs to see what would be a good fit. He’s considering a technical masters in controls, aerodynamics, or propulsion, or taking the business route with an MBA.
In the long-term, Elliott’s goal is to work his way up to leadership. “Serving others is really a passion of mine. I'm fortunate enough to have so many great people here at Airbus U.S. and other places that have invested in me and have been crucial to my development as an engineer, and as a person,” he says. “Once I get my master's degree and a few more years of experience under my belt, I would like to take on a leadership position, reverse the roles and start investing in other people.”
He talks about what an exciting time it is to work in the space industry, with the number of rockets and satellites being launched on a regular basis. At the same time, he’s concerned about space safety and the risk of collision and space debris, and interested in technology development in this area.
“It’s important for your spacecraft to be able to deorbit safely and effectively to ensure mission success — not only for satellites that are currently in orbit, but for future programs as well,” Elliott says. “It’s exciting because a lot of developments are taking place right now like electric propulsion that will provide the opportunity and ability for future spacecraft to be able to deorbit safely and mitigate this risk.”
Sneha Manimurugan is on the cusp of a major change. This summer, she is moving from Singapore to the United States to start her doctorate in aerospace engineering at Cornell University.
Manimurugan, 27, has an impressive research background so far that she will be continuing with her doctorate. She has a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering and recently worked in the
Satellite Technology and Research Centre (STAR) lab set up at the National University of Singapore.
Manimurugan says she’s always been passionate and curious about space, but two experiences during her undergrad catalyzed her focus. One was an event called the Southern Hemispheres Space Studies Program, through the International Space University. Hearing that series of talks about the space industry and how engineers can get involved inspired her.
"Since I was young, I was passionate and curious about space, just by watching rocket launches on the news," she says. "But I didn't have a clear picture of how I was going to pursue a career. Attending those talks and talking about what the space industry was like and how engineers can work in space and get involved really sparked new forms of interest in me and set some directions to my dreams."
Then, as part of her undergraduate thesis, she worked on an automated mount for a telescope for tracking and observing, and loved that hands-on experience.
At the STAR lab at her university, Manimurugan recently worked on flight software development for three satellites that will be part of a formation-flying mission, set to launch toward the end of this year. She’s interested in solving challenges related to guidance, navigation, and control (GNC), and AI for advanced applications like space robotics for in-orbit servicing, or interplanetary missions.
Manimurugan also has a passion for using space to benefit life on Earth to defend against the effects of climate change. She has previously worked with NASA Harvest, a research group out of the University of Maryland that works to solve agricultural problems with geospatial imagery.
“I worked on a crop localization problem. We used images of crops in sub-Saharan Africa, trying to localize the groups to use as geo-references on maps. Knowing the location of crops will then help you understand in years to come [about] climate patterns and study their yields and things like that would benefit or harm the local people,” she says. “This is an area that I hope to see grow in the future and something that I'm excited about. I hope that I get to work on many more projects related to this.”
One challenge she’s aware of as she prepares to move to the United States is citizenship requirements for International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which many space capabilities are subject to. That’s a major factor she considers when thinking about what type of research or work she might do after her PhD, mentioning NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an example of an organization that allows for non-U.S. nationals.
Despite potential barriers, she is optimistic. “I do understand why there's such regulations, trying to be confidential in some matters related to defense. But since the space industry is very multidisciplinary and is still young in some ways, collaboration with many countries, people, and researchers from other countries, would really develop the industry in more interesting ways, in my opinion. I really hope this collaboration can be encouraged.” VS