Once upon a time, if you wanted to have anything to do with space exploration in this country, you went to work for NASA because they were it. Sixty years after the start of the Space Age, that is no longer entirely the case. If you are interested in working directly for NASA, I recommend my recent two-part discussion of places to work within the U.S. space agency (Part 1, Part 2). However, the space industry has broadened a bit in 60 years. If you’re interested in alternatives, read on!
Working for NASA in the Private Sector
You can, in fact, “work for NASA” and not collect a government paycheck as a civil servant. This article will concentrate on the private-sector contractors that support the agency but are not, technically, NASA employees. Some of my space industry friends would nitpick this and say that if you’re a NASA contractor, you are not “outside” the agency. Fair enough: when I was a NASA contractor, I told people I worked for NASA because they were my only customer and the content I wrote was agency content. And quite frankly, if I’d used my employer’s name, most people wouldn’t have known who I was talking about.
That said, there are civil servants and contractors within every NASA Directorate or department. The civil servants and contractors have a symbiotic relationship, where the government employees ensure that national policies are implemented well, on budget, and on time, while the contractors are often responsible for delivering the hardware, software, or services that meet those policies.
Large Contractors (“Big Aero”)
Once upon a time, the government was the only organization that had interest in or could afford to pay for the rockets to go into space. And the only companies capable of building space hardware at the time (1950s-1980s) were large organizations that were already in the business of making things that could fly or go boom–in short, defense contractors. There were more of them in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo days, but they have gradually coalesced until there are now only a very small group of these “Big Aero” legacy manufacturers that do it.
Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK were the three major prime contractors for Space Shuttle. Boeing was the prime contractor for assembling the U.S. portions of the International Space Station (ISS). A Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint venture, United Launch Alliance (ULA), provides launch vehicles (rockets) for NASA, the Department of Defense, and occasionally commercial customers. Boeing and Lockheed Martin and are now leading the efforts to build SLS and Orion, with Boeing handling the SLS core stage, Lockheed Martin building the crewed Orion spacecraft, and Orbital ATK building the solid rocket boosters.
On the uncrewed spacecraft side, Boeing, Lockheed, Orbital, and other companies such as Ball Aerospace and Space Systems/Loral also compete (or collaborate, depending on the situation) to build satellites and other spacecraft. Depending on the purpose of the spacecraft, these large manufacturers might collaborate with a NASA engineering team, a smaller, specialized engineering firm, or an academic institution to design and build the specific instruments the spacecraft is designed to carry (scientific instruments, radars, telescopes, imagers, spectrometers, sensors, communications arrays, etc.).
Other NASA Contractors
The “Big Aero” contractors get the biggest jobs, most attention, and most money in the NASA economic ecosphere. However, there are numerous midsize and smaller businesses that support the big guys–providing parts of the rockets, for example–while some contractors support specific types of operations, such as performing engineering studies, handling ground servicing and launch operations, managing NASA facilities or equipment, or supporting NASA public outreach content. It was in this last category that I have worked.
Another avenue for getting into writing for NASA is by working for a space-focused small business. There are small aerospace, avionics, and other engineering firms full of bright people hoping to make a difference in space. A lot of them pursue NASA (or Defense Department) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding opportunities to develop a cool widget they want to try. SBIRs and Small Business Technology Transfer Research (STTR) opportunities are government-funded contracts to help small companies fund technologies that could solve agency problems or turn existing NASA tech into something that could be used for non-space purposes here on Earth.
Otherwise, poke around again through my articles on NASA’s organization. If you see a topic that piques your interest, odds are there’s a contractor somewhere in the infrastructure charged with writing about it.
But wait, there’s more!
Believe it or not, that’s not the full story on the space business. If you’re ready to jump in and seek a job with a NASA contractor, you might start with this list. On the other hand, if you’re curious about the “NewSpace” world, in my next entry I’ll talk about some of the other directions that sector is going and what sorts of opportunities they might open for the space-minded technical communicator.