Can freelancers help NASA and rocket science?

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“Is it a plane? Is it a bird?

No… it’s the Falcon 9 making its way back to the earth!”

It’s been an altogether thrilling week for rocket science, as it were. The Indian Space Research Organization launched a record-breaking 104 satellites on 15 Feb,  followed by the first private rocket launch by SpaceX from the NASA pad on . The awe-inspiring landing of the rocket on the launchpad had the world abuzz with all kinds of possibilities in space research.

  

The successful launch of any rocket into space, as one would imagine, takes years of painstaking work and collaboration among people with various skillsets who bring their experience and knowledge together to work as a team. The International Space Station itself is the joint venture of five participating agencies across countries. 
 
Space agencies traditionally have been recruiting in-house talent, but there are thousands of techies who would jump at an opportunity to work with them remotely. In 2015, NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) ventured into the freelance market by partnering with Freelancer.com to hire specialists for specific-projects. Posting ‘challenges’ on the website, which has over 16 million registered users, it crowdsourced solutions from engineers all over the world. The winner received prize money ranging from $50 to $3000. NASA has also used TopCoder to source specific algorithms for detecting asteroids in telescopic images. Ten organizations, on a contract with NASA, facilitate crowdsourcing and collaborative innovation on a variety of challenges that NASA faces, from designing a free flying robot  to designing handrails for space walk.

Surprisingly, the number of telecommuting jobs in space research is increasing, with organizations slowly opening up their doors to the public. A job offer on Flexjobs, a reputed telecommute job site, posted an opening for a Senior Spacecraft Mechanical Engineer while the European Space Agency recruits freelance consultants for various short-term projects. Considering the wide range of academic disciplines and skillsets that make up a team in a space research organization, this is unsurprising. As outlined in this article, “The most frequently hired academic disciplines include aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, software engineering but also astrophysics, astronomy, physics and mathematics. The successful candidates most usually have a master’s level degree. The remaining 20% often have advanced degrees in business administration or law.” In fact, some astronauts and space engineers even come from backgrounds as diverse as deep sea diving and gaming. Fast Company quotes Elon Musk as saying,

“”We actually hire a lot of our best software engineers out of the gaming industry,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, when Fast Company posed this question during the May 29 Dragon V2 unveiling. “In gaming there’s a lot of smart engineering talent doing really complex things. [Compared to] a lot of the algorithms involved in massive multiplayer online games…a docking sequence [between spacecraft]is actually relatively straightforward. So I’d encourage people in the gaming industry to think about creating the next generation of spacecraft and rockets.””

Given that it is not easily to build a team that comprises all the above expertise in one single organization, the freelance economy has huge scope here. It is only natural that these companies will look to marketplace websites to hire experts from diverse backgrounds for specific projects. Space organizations also hire science writers on a remote basis.

 
spacex

 

The future of research lies in collaboration between individuals, organizations and countries. Perhaps companies will follow NASA’s example and start working with individuals and teams without a location or policy restriction. In the process, they will also end up saving the time and cost it takes to recruit specialist talent in-house for only short-term projects. The bigger the collaboration, the brighter the innovation.  Only then can we reach for the stars, literally!

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