Friday, May 1, 2020

Pursuing Your Space Career Dream as a Non-US-Citizen

This is part 4 in a 4-part series. Click here for part 1, here for part 2, and here for part 3.

“I want to work in the space industry in the US but I’m not a US citizen. What can I do?”

I get this question a lot from students and professionals from all around the world. I still don’t have the best answer for them. I can sense their eagerness to get involved in an industry we love and their frustration at the barriers. It’s especially heartbreaking to hear from non-citizen students studying in the US who want to find a space job and stay, but can’t.

Two years ago, I was quoted in the Orlando Sentinel saying, “It's really frustrating. These were students who came to the U.S., were trained here. So we spend the resources, the time to train people in highly educated, high in-demand fields, and then they take that and leave.”

In most cases, they don’t want to leave. Without a job, they have no choice.

First, some basics. People around the world dream of working for NASA. As a federal government agency, only US citizens can be employed as civil servants at NASA. I know of many NASA employees who became US citizens at some point in their career journeys and now work for NASA.

NASA employs many more contractors than civil servants. These contractors are small and large businesses, suppliers, service providers, universities, and nonprofits. These contractors work at NASA centers and facilities or on NASA projects at their employer’s facilities. I’ve never been a NASA civil servant but I have worked as a contractor or subcontractor at 3 NASA centers.

Citizenship requirements are set by the contractor. Many require US citizenship, especially engineering positions that are restricted by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). But some contractors do not require US citizenship. Universities and research-focused nonprofits are most open to hiring internationally.

Many commercial space companies in the US are restricted by ITAR as to who they can hire. Some of the larger companies with international offices and partnerships may have procedures in place to hire non-US-citizens. Some smaller companies may also hire non-US-citizens if they have no reason to restrict their hiring or if they have ties to another country.

For example, Rocket Lab is an American company with a subsidiary company and significant operations in New Zealand. They have strict citizenship requirements for US-based jobs but more open citizenship requirements for NZ-based jobs.

Consider your home country and surrounding countries. Are there opportunities to get involved in space closer to home which can help you get your foot in the door in the industry? You may find the space career you seek without having to leave your own country or the surrounding region. Or you may find it easier to move around from location to location once you are already working in the industry, building experience, and making connections.

Another option, open to some, is to become a student in the US. This is becoming a more difficult route to take, but if you have the ability to study in a US university with the proper paperwork, you can go down the path of finding a company to help sponsor your green card and give you time to become a citizen. But this brings me full circle back to my quote in the Orlando Sentinel – it’s difficult to find a space job willing to hire a non-citizen student or recent graduate.

Another option, which I generally don’t recommend, is to obtain a non-space job in the US in order to become a US citizen. This would then allow you to more easily find a space job in the future. In part 3 of this series, I describe how to switch from another industry to the space sector.

Please know there may be many places around the world where you can pursue your space career. Some countries have rich histories in space and some newer players have fast-growing space sectors. You may be able to pursue your space career in unexpected places.

As always, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions or if I can assist you. You can learn more about my space career coaching services and the Your Space Career Journey courses at Astralytical.

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