What does space science involve in terms of career opportunities?
Space science includes all fields that involve research in space such as astronomy, aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering and so on. But here’s the important part—we will soon have to form a base in some other solar system. So by the time the current crop of students graduate, we’ll need to figure out how future generations can live on another planet or, most likely, on the moon. This involves architecture, space law, space psychology, medicine and even the arts. It’s a new frontier; a new place to colonise and we have to start from scratch.
What are the educational qualifications students need to make the cut?
A solid background is a must, no matter where you study. So if you’re doing engineering or science, have a firm knowledge of physics and mathematics. Students whose basic concepts are clear, are automatically at an advantage. Then you can choose to get your master’s or PhD in a specialised field.
What personality traits do employers look for in a student of space science?
The most important trait is that a student be able to work in a group with people from different disciplines. This is why I focus on collaborated student projects at my programme. Space science is not an isolated field. So while being a leader is an admirable trait, that’s not something I would look for in a student.
The second quality an employer will look for is a student’s passion to actually create something. You can get technical knowledge in the classroom, but building something is a much-needed hands-on experience, whether it’s a small instrument used to launch a weather balloon, or a whole satellite, which many students in India are already doing. You don’t have to be the class topper to be a part of this industry, but you need to feel the joy of creating something, and be able to do so in a group.
Where do Indian universities stand?
It’s a myth that students need to go to the US or other countries for a space science degree. This June, Nasa launched an international competition called Lunabotics that required students to build a simple robot that can excavate lunar dust from the moon. There were 10 teams from India and they came from universities I’ve never heard of, but they were there. The students applied online and raised funds themselves. Perhaps compared to international students, those studying in India have to go one step further to come to the same level, but I think students and professors are more proactive now than they were when I graduated. So it’s not a reason to despair if a student can’t go abroad as an undergraduate. For now, I would recommend doing your master’s or PhD from the States simply so that you can study and work at the same time because an outfit like Nasa outsources most of its science projects to universities.
What is the future of this field in India and abroad?
In the future, we have to search for life on Mars. We haven’t found any evidence of carbon-based life as we know it anywhere yet, but astronomers believe it is out there. We also have to look at stars like the sun and planets the size of the earth where water is available. I also think we are likely to settle on the moon in the near future as the earth’s resources get depleted. India is heading towards a very robust space programme and has plans to go to the moon, which is exciting. I believe that any society that does not explore will die out and India’s Chandrayaan programme proved that the spark is present here.
There will be a time when space science professionals, possibly children in Class 6 or 7 at present, will not have to study and work in other countries, but in India itself.
* Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, Thiruvananthapuram
* Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in the Asia Pacific Region, Dehradun
* Gandhi Institute of Technology and Management, Hyderabad
* Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad
* Space Time Research Institute, Pune
* Andhra University, Vishakhapatnam