Q&A About a Space Studies Graduate Program (Part 1)

The International Space Station over Earth. (Image Credit: STS-132 Crew, Expedition 23 Crew, NASA)

If you know me in person or via the internet, then you’ll know I caught the space bug a few years back. My curiosity couldn’t simply be satiated by watching NASA livestreams or trying to parse out complex space engineering articles – nay, I decided to take the leap into the world of outer space via academia. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to join a Master’s program in Space Studies through the University of North Dakota, and now a couple of years later, I’m happy to report that I’m a newly graduated space scientist.

Thanks to the university department’s distance program, I was able to complete nearly the entire degree remotely from my small apartment in Tokyo, Japan. The whole program was an intriguing experience, especially for someone like me – a biologist who was suddenly thrust into a world of aerospace engineers and NASA folks. Since I started my program around two years ago, a few people have asked me about my experience with the program and what “space studies” actually entails. So I decided to share the details of my journey here, either to satiate curiosities or to help inform prospective students interested in the field. I put out a recent call for questions via my Twitter (@neurostellar) and other social media and received so many questions that I’m actually splitting up this topic into two posts: 1) this first one will be about what it’s like to be in a space studies graduate program in general and 2) Q&A about the actual field of space studies.

Thank you for sending in all of your questions! At anytime, feel free to tweet at me if you want to chat more about this program outside of what’s discussed here or you have more questions. I’m more than happy to answer them.

Let’s get started, shall we?

First things first, what is ‘space studies’?

Space studies actually encompasses a wide variety of topics, some of which are listed below:

  • Planetary and Solar Science (including space weather and related topics)
  • Astrobiology
  • Asteroids and Other Small Bodies
  • Scientific Instrumentation (such as those used aboard spacecraft – an understanding of these is crucial in mission design and interpreting scientific data)
  • Mission Design and Project Management
  • Orbital Mechanics
  • Systems Engineering
  • Space History and Politics
  • Space Law and Policy
  • Space Economics and Commerce
  • Life Support Systems (from both an engineering and biological perspective)
  • Physiological and Psychological Performance in Outer Space
  • Space Archaeology and Sociology*
  • Relationship between Art and Outer Space*

Space studies is a wonderfully interdisciplinary field, integrating areas like mainstream science and engineering with history and law, as well. A lot of popular science exposure about space focuses a lot on rockets and engineering, but in reality, space studies is where everyone’s interests and academic fields come together to create a new step in humanity’s future.

*Outside of formal education, space studies also includes studying the role of outer space in ancient and modern societies, such as examining how space has transformed our cultures through art, film, etc. I have yet to see these topics included in a formal space studies program (if you have, let me know!), but they are also vital to our understanding of how we perceive the universe.

What kind of space studies education programs are available?

University of North Dakota (UND) campus, which has an awesome network of skywalks across buildings.

So my Master’s program was through the University of North Dakota (UND) and their Space Studies department. The same school also offers Ph.D. programs, as well. As of this post, both programs also have distance options, which makes it much easier to pursue if you are geographically separated from campus, work a full or part-time job, and/or have substantial family obligations.

Within the UND Master’s program, there are also two options: thesis and non-thesis. More details can be found on their website, but essentially a thesis student develops their own research during the program and has to fulfill a minimum of one week of academic residency at UND per semester. A non-thesis student, which is the route I chose, still has to perform some kind of independent research project, but this does not have to be original work. It can often times be an in-depth literature review. Non-thesis students also have to take a comprehensive exam and enroll in a Capstone course, which is a big driver for pushing the importance of interdisciplinary work in space studies. During Capstone, I worked with 6 other classmates from different backgrounds to design a mock mission that incorporated historical, legal, scientific, engineering, and societal implications and components. This year, the faculty generated an overarching theme of leveraging existing and future technologies for asteroid-based missions, and each of our 4 teams generated a mission concept to achieve something in asteroid spaceflight, using reasonably developed technologies and ideas. We started work on the project in the fall of 2016 and finished our project in the spring of 2017, during which we were required to spend one week on campus for Capstone presentations and independent research project presentations, as well. So the non-thesis program requires one week of academic residency at UND for the entire program, whereas the thesis program requires one week per semester. (If you want to read another student’s experience with the program, check out Brian Shiro’s blog posts from 2010.)

Since I only participated in the UND Master’s Program, I’m not as familiar with other schools’ programs and how they operate. I have heard of the International Space University (ISU), though, which is another institution that offers a program in space studies. I’ve heard some great things about the program from other space nerds, so if you’re shopping around for programs, it’s worth a look. There are a few other universities that are just starting to develop space studies programs, as well. In general, I’d say it helps to look at the school’s accreditation, program cost, associated travel costs, and breadth of study. Even if you are an engineer, I’d advise against choosing an engineering-heavy space studies program for a Master’s degree. You can still advance your engineering acumen in an interdisciplinary program, and the exposure to other fields will most likely inspire your own thinking in your specialization. As with all things, Google is your friend!

Is it difficult to do a distance program, especially in space studies?

UND’s Inflatable Lunar-Mars Habitat (ILMH). The habitat has been used for short-term simulation missions to test various aspects of extraterrestrial missions and EVAs. In some ways, doing a distance program is like completing a long-term mission from an isolated habitation module. (Photo credit: Jackie Lorentz)

It can be challenging at times. Any kind of online education requires some strong self-discipline. You don’t have to physically show up to lecture and show up in person for exams – it’s all virtual so a lot of the responsibility is on you to watch the recorded lectures, study the material, and be ready in time for the exam or discussion. It can also be challenging because you don’t have immediate, direct access to some of the professors. I’m all about asking questions during a lecture when I don’t understand something, and it can help to be physically present in a class to raise your hand and get immediate engagement with the professor. As a distance student, though, I watch the recorded lecture, have to write down my questions as I go, and either try to figure them out on my own or eventually email my professor. Be advised: not all professors are quick to email back (or at all). Usually, this can be resolved by just showing up to office hours or speaking up in class – but online students don’t have the same opportunity. Seeking out many of the answers for yourself will likely become a skill that you either develop for the first time or hone even further. It also is a graduate level course, where much of the education you receive will likely come from your own search for information.

When it comes to comparing the cost of distance versus on-campus participation in the program, it’ll really depend on a lot of your personal lifestyle factors. Being on campus, you’ll need to look into living expenses and transportation. (For instance, Grand Forks is not really the kind of place where you can walk around everywhere – like Seattle. You’ll likely need a bike or a car.) For distance students, some of the online courses will have an additional course fee. If you’re interested in UND specifically, you can check out the distance/online education website for more info.

Ultimately, though, doing a distance program allows a lot of flexibility. Your lifestyle and your economic status will help guide you whether a distance program is more feasible to do than an in-person program.

Do you have to have a lot of experience in the aerospace industry to pursue space studies at a graduate level?

I imagine that it would be highly beneficial to already be familiar with a lot of the inner workings of the industry. I worked alongside folks who had direct experience with the life support systems of the ISS and other colleagues who were involved with major aerospace corporations and even the military. Their backgrounds no doubt helped them overcome some of the more fundamental things that the rest of us non-aerospace folks had to learn…

But I don’t think it’s an absolute prerequisite. My opinion is that if you’re passionate enough about advancing your knowledge in the field, you can put in the time to learn those fundamentals and bring yourself to a similar level of understanding. Sure, you might not have the psi value of the ISS cabin memorized in your head. It’s fine if, at first, you can’t remember how many kilograms of oxygen a crewmember needs a day. If you keep working with the material intensely and diligently, there’s no doubt these values will grow familiar to you in the process.

I had absolutely zero experience in the aerospace industry when I started my program. Admittedly, I was a little familiar with the Air Force – I could name a few planes and recognize the sound of a few engines…but ultimately, I didn’t know anything about aerospace other than what I read in magazines and books. My undergraduate career was entirely focused around molecular and cellular biology, with neuroscience being my focus.

Along those lines, how does a biologist survive in a space studies program?

UND student, Brittany Zimmerman, performs a plant experiment inside the Lunar/Mars Habitation Module during a 10-day simulated mission with two other crewmembers. There’s a lot of biological sciences in space studies, and having a background in biology can be highly beneficial in understanding biological experiments and the human factors of spaceflight. (Photo credit: Jackie Lorentz.)

It definitely took some adaptation. I’ll admit, I wasn’t as aware of the interdisciplinary nature of space studies when I entered the program. I think the first course I took was mainly about asteroid characterization and the geological science of other related celestial bodies. Another course after that was an engineering-heavy approach to developing life support systems. I was a fish well out of water. Heck, I was so out of the water that I was a fish in outer space, blubbing around the rings of Saturn and staring longingly back at the blue waters of Earth. I was also one of the youngest students in the program (if not the youngest), as well as a woman in a typically male-dominated field. So I’ll be honest with you – imposter syndrome was an uncomfortably close friend for most of the program. The first few quarters of my program, I felt so uncertain about my own knowledge base and how it could contribute to this brave new academic field.

But the faculty kept being supportive and consequent courses integrated a lot of biology into studies on the human factors of spaceflight and the myriad of biological experiments that are performed up in orbit. Getting to know my colleagues better also helped relieve some of that trepidation I had in my early months of the program. When I started, I had no idea what kind of life support systems the ISS used or how many kinds of asteroids there were, which many of my colleagues were more than familiar with. On the other hand, though, some of them weren’t as familiar about cellular biology, signaling pathways, and psychophysiological changes to fluid shifts. We all came from different fields and learned from each other as much as we did from the professors. Again, going back to the interdisciplinary nature of the field – not only are the topics under space studies wide and diverse, the people who are drawn to this kind of field also come from diverse academic and social backgrounds.

What were the best and worst parts of your program, in your opinion?

Best parts of my program:

  • Interdisciplinary approach to space studies. Your education plan already sets you up for integration of social areas and technical areas, combined with a unique opportunity to integrate all these fields into a single Capstone project with other classmates (if you are choosing the non-thesis option).
  • Fantastic access to opportunities in the field. I can’t tell you how many emails the department forwarded to us regarding space-related internships, employment opportunities, and other ways for us to network with folks in aerospace. Being on campus and meeting other Capstone students for that one week in spring was also a great shockwave of exposure to people who are already in the industry or have experience with some aspect of it. The quality of these contacts are also high.
  • Active research in the department. Unfortunately, I was unable to really actively participate in many of the research projects going on at the UND campus – things involving spacesuit design and testing, lunar habitat simulations, isolated and confined environment exposure, lunar rover development and testing, and more. But I love that the department is involved in these projects and often spearheading some aspects of research – I’ve seen professors also make an effort to reach out to distance students to see if they’re interested in participating and if there are ways to achieve that.
UND graduate students, Annie Wargetz and Timothy Holland, work with Dr. Pablo de Leon to test the NDX-1 space suit out at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. The NDX-1 is the only space suit in the US that has been developed by a university. (Photo credit: UND)

Worst seems like a harsh word to use here, so here are some of my least favorite parts of my program:

  • Limited availability of courses every semester. There are some semesters when I would have liked to stack on a couple extra courses that I needed, but they were not being offered at the time. I can understand, though, how this was a challenge for the department considering we have a rather modest amount of faculty members. But what the department may lack in quantity of professors, I would say they definitely make up for in quality.
  • Diversity of faculty. Again, I really do want to emphasize I had some great experiences with the professors in my program. They’re great folks. But I am also looking forward to seeing more women in space studies, in general, and specifically in teaching positions. (Shameless self promotion here – if anyone’s looking for a space studies teacher with a Master’s degree, let a gal know?)

Would you do it all again? Was the experience worth it?

Absolutely. I joined the program at a fortuitous time, when spaceflight seemed to experience another boom in popularity and growth. SpaceX was really starting to beef up their rocket development program and reusable launch vehicles were starting to come into focus. Excitement about various NASA missions like the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) started popping up, and people started getting more interested in the legality of outer space, as well. Can I own a plot of Moon land? What happens if a baby is born in space? Can a baby be born in space? Can you…*ahem*…make a baby in space?

It honestly felt a little like I was living through history, and I think in a way, we all were. Seeing things happening in spaceflight in real time and then turning around to study the details of orbital mechanics, life support, space law, and engineering considerations – it was such a rewarding experience. Plus, it gave me a greater look into how different academic fields can learn from each other and collaborate to accomplish impressive feats. I put a lot of work into this program, largely because I was starting from ground zero with no experience in aerospace whatsoever – I think as a result of all that work, I got a lot of value back out of the program through the courses and the professors. The concept applies to any program. The more you put in, the more you get out.

That feel when potential energy is a metaphor for academic fulfillment. 👌

Also, I’ve mentioned this next observation many times during my program, both online to strangers and in-person to my colleagues: senior members of the aerospace industry always told me that engineers and biologists just can’t get along. My Capstone team was made up of two biologists, two engineers, a teacher, and a cybersecurity expert. Together, we successfully designed three mock sub-missions to utilize asteroid resources to replenish life support systems for a short duration mission. And it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had working in a team, much less across disciplines.

So my experience as a biologist working with a majority of engineers proved that first statement isn’t entirely true. And I think if you go into the world with that mindset, you’re already setting yourself up for failure, already limiting your view and perspective of other people and fields. But getting the real-time opportunity to work with people from different disciplines exposes you to those fields and the worlds those people live in – it makes it easier to collaborate with different people in the future and makes you aware of the incredibly high value of interdisciplinary collaboration and open-mindedness. And honestly, that’s the only really successful way forward in any field, but especially in space studies where every step forward is a brand new challenge masked by several layers of mystery.

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