Is There a Case for Jobs in Space?

by Don Willmott

Last Thursday I was surprised to see this headline out of London: "Space Could Offer Thousands of Jobs in Technology." The article claimed that Britain could expect to see 100,000 new technology jobs created in extraterrestrial endeavors. Extrapolate that estimate for an American-sized population, and perhaps we could expect 500,000 new jobs here. Really? The article went on to say that the global space market will grow to $680 billion by 2030, and Britain wants ten percent of it.

Now, before we all start dreaming about troubleshooting wide area networks in biodome colonies on Mars, it should be pointed out that there’s more to "space" than rockets and stars. As the director of UKSpace said, "When we talk about space we talk about quite a broad portfolio…a lot of what we’re calling space is enabled through the infrastructure, but we don’t really think of these as space jobs. For instance, direct to home broadcasting, GPS communications, building [satellite navigation systems], and things like this. So a lot of the jobs are really based within the electronics, software, and IT industry."

That’s right. While the Cold War was great for technological development both on the ground and in the heavens (Star Wars!), those days are long over, and budgets for starry-eyed dreamers both at NASA and at the Pentagon are getting slashed, with jobs in peril in Houston, Florida, and in the aerospace centers of southern California and the Pacific Northwest. The space shuttle program is winding down (the final night launch was last week), the President has called for an end of funding for NASA’s 2020 moon exploration project, and all the big contractors are bracing for more cuts along these lines.

However, we all love our smartphones, we’ve come to depend on GPS in our cars, and we continue to demand more TV channels. That means much of that $680 billion is going to be spent on galaxies of satellites twinkling in the night sky and yes, thousands of jobs down below taking care of them and managing their communications capabilities for billions of ravenous consumers.

In fact, the search term "GPS" yields 161 hits at Dice.com, and the search term "satellite" returns 348 results. At Dice’s ClearanceJobs.com, there are another 194 listings under "satellite," and I’d wager there’s some really interesting stuff happening behind those veils of secrecy.

Anyone who has played with a smartphone in the past year knows that we’re only just beginning to grasp what it means to have our current location connected to useful applications thanks to the 31 current global-positioning satellites orbiting more than 12,000 miles up and the GPS apps that work with them. The possibilities, as they say, are endless for clever app developers. One example that’s been around for years already: Loc8or Plus, which lets you tag children, pets, or elderly relatives for constant tracking, delivering a whole lot a lot of peace of mind for $169. Fire up your imagination at the U.S. Government’s official GPS site, which helpfully explains how GPS improves productivity in 11 industries from aviation to recreation, or read what cantankerous PCMag.com columnist John C. Dvorak had to say recently about the future of GPS apps.

Come to think of it, this new 21st-century space race is emblematic of the overall American condition: manufacturing (mainframes, rocket engines, Skylabs) giving way to services (real-time traffic maps, on-demand high-def football games, battlefield data analysis). Is our future written in the stars? Maybe, but all the interesting work is going to happen right here on Earth.  

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