Bridging the gap between astronomy and the space industry

Emma Louden is an astrophysicist committed to using space exploration for the common good. As an astrophysics Ph.D. Candidate and Quad Fellow at Yale University, Emma studies the geometry of exoplanetary systems. She is especially interested in the dynamical histories of systems with high stellar obliquities and explores this research interest through observational and theoretical tracks. Emma is the graduate student representative on the AAS Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy (CAPP). She is passionate about bridging the gap between astrophysics and the space industry and was recently awarded a NASA Connecticut Space Grant to study the impact of satellites on astronomy and develop tools to interface between scientists and policymakers. Her passion and expertise have been featured in talks at TEDx, ASCEND, Yale Law School, and the Jasper Dark Sky Festival.

I have created a bank of resources for students interested in learning more about the aerospace industry, which is available here.

You can connect with me @exoplanet_emma.

In 2021 I attended ASCEND, a conference in Las Vegas hosted by the AIAA, the main professional society of the aerospace industry. I was there to speak as one of the Diverse Dozen with Dr. Moriba Jah of Privateer about space traffic management and solutions for the future. Throughout the conference, I was asked what I studied and answered that I am getting my Ph.D. in astrophysics at Yale, exploring the dynamics and architectures of exoplanetary systems. This response was often met with confusion. What was an astrophysicist doing at a conference of aerospace engineers, space industry CEOs, and policymakers? My answer was that an undergraduate summer internship at BryceTech as a Brooke Owens Fellow, opened my eyes to the vast untapped opportunity for collaboration between astrophysicists and the space industry, and I have been interested in the potential of this intersection ever since. Currently, regular and intentional collaboration between astrophysicists and the space industry is minimal. A sustainable, proactive, and productive future of space exploration relies on bridging this gap.

The confusion with which my presence at ASCEND  was met is common. Most astrophysicists don’t know the potential alignment between their skills and scientific interests and the burgeoning multi-hundred-billion dollar space industry. Right now, the space industry is responsible for the growth of earth observation, a sub-field with many purposes including learning more about climate change, the return of human launch capabilities to the United States for the first time since the space shuttle, and investment in the first privately funded space laboratories to be used for research into topics such as cancer. (For more on the recent happenings in the space industry check out this 2022 year in review and https://payloadspace.com or https://spacenews.com

Understanding how our work as astronomers relates to the space industry is a critical advantage for career trajectories beyond academia. Furthermore, most of the space sector is deeply engaged with the engineering academic world. Still, it has yet to be in regular conversation with astrophysicists who approach space science from a different perspective that can stimulate development and growth.  

I returned from ASCEND in 2021, energized to start sharing what I had learned about the excitement of the space industry and the opportunities for astrophysicists within it. I reached out to Joel Parriot, the then-head of the AAS CAPP (Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy). Out of that conversation, Astrophysics and the Space Industry: Idea Exchanges for the Future was born. This program is designed to fill the vacuum of collaboration and facilitate new discussion, encourage powerful and fruitful intellectual partnerships, and support the careers of members of the AAS and AIAA by sponsoring an exchange of ideas through a “conference session swap.” The AAS Winter Meeting in 2023 and ASCEND in October 2022 were the chosen venues for a set of panels featuring leaders in the space industry who came from an astrophysics or physics background and could speak to the opportunities for collaboration between the two sectors.

ASCEND and Engaging Astrophysicists

ASCEND is a conference founded on the “ambition to empower space professionals and organizations to drive the space economy forward together,” with an explicit understanding that people and organizations who look at the space world “from every discipline and industry” need to be represented to drive the field forward. Coming from this commitment,  ASCEND was excited to host the Astrophysics and the Space Industry panel. We had an excellent turnout for the discussion with Caroline Juang, Ph.D. Candidate at Columbia University & Executive Team Member for the Brooke Owens Fellowship, and Dr. Therese Jones, Senior Director of Policy at the Satellite Industry Association. Caroline and Dr. Jones are both leaders of fellowship programs, the Brooke Owens Fellowship and the Zed Factor Fellowship respectively,  that are working to improve representation in the  space industry. Both of them emphasized the power of networking and informational interviews.

The AAS and Non-Academic Career Paths 

The AAS has shown a dedicated commitment to providing resources to students and early-career scientists to learn about non-academic careers and to provide opportunities to learn from those who took non-academic paths, as evidenced by the career services available at meetings, the array of career webinars, and the Committee on Employment. Developing an exchange of ideas through mutual presence at the respective society conferences is a natural continuation of this commitment to supporting young astronomers who want to transition to industry. The AAS met the proposal enthusiastically, and we had a substantial turnout.  At the Winter Meeting of the AAS in 2023, our panelists included Austin Link, co-founder of Starfish Space, and Dr. Sarah Lipscy, Business Development Manager at Ball Aerospace.  Austin emphasized the importance of learning how to think creatively and apply those skills in contexts outside of academics. Dr. Lipscy highlighted the value of learning how to market your skills and their applications in other careers. 

Lessons Learned From the Idea Exchange

In these conversations, we focused on what is most exciting in the space industry right now, lessons in how to talk about the tools we learn as astrophysicists with other sectors, why students might want to transition from academia to industry, what strengths astrophysicists bring to the space industry and ways for current students and early career scientists to get involved with the industry.  Some of the examples that came up in conversation were joining the Space Generation Advisory Council, reading SpaceNews regularly, learning the difference between a CV and a resume, and applying for internships in the space industry. (If you are interested in getting involved in the space industry/learning more about it, I have created a bank of resources based on my experience and the conversations during the conference swap for students interested in learning more about the aerospace industry, which is available here.)

One key conclusion from both conversations was that this is not the first time this type of discussion has happened, but it is now taking place in a fundamentally different landscape. There have been advocates trying to bridge this gap for the past 20 years, including Dr. Lipscy. But now, we live in a world where the space industry is valued at over $350B and expands beyond traditional aerospace ventures. In this world, we need astrophysicists to talk to every part of the space industry to ensure sustainable growth for both sectors that will advance humanity’s understanding of the cosmos.

Conclusion

I am excited to have turned the awkward questions about my career at the 2021 ASCEND conference into a deliberate creation of conversations promoting a collaborative future of astrophysics and astronautics. I look forward to growing the program in future years and building these networks to bring the two sectors closer together. As astrophysicists in 2023, we have a tremendous opportunity to get involved with the burgeoning aerospace industry and create a future of exploration that will reach the most ambitious scientific goals and ensure a sustainable future of astrophysics. 

Astrobite edited by Isabella Trierweiler

Featured image credit: Astrobites

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