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Space exploration is all over the media these days and everyone is getting excited. The U.S. is the centre of it, with private companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin leading the way. And as you see the cool stuff these companies do, like sending the rockets up and then landing them down safely or announcing colossal plans to colonize Mars, you start searching for jobs – you would be totally thrilled to work on such marvellous projects, right?

So let’s say you pull up the careers section of SpaceX’ website and while looking at the vacancies, you notice this:

To conform to U.S. Government space technology export regulations, applicant must be a U.S. citizen, lawful permanent resident of the U.S., protected individual as defined by 8 U.S.C. 1324b(a)(3), or eligible to obtain the required authorizations from the U.S. Department of State.

And then you realize that for those of you being from abroad, working for a U.S. space company is an unachievable dream. Or is it?

What Is ITAR

The term dual use describes technology that can be used for both military and peaceful goals. Rockets belong to that category too – they may be used to launch scientist to the Earth’s orbit as well as to deliver nuclear warheads to the other side of the world. Rocket technology has long been concentrated in the US and protecting information about it is a matter of national security (or at least that’s what many congressmen keep saying). Therefore, the U.S. government during Cold War introduced ITAR – International Traffic in Arms Regulations. ITAR simply regulates who can and cannot work on certain parts of space technology. While by doing so it prevents bad guys from getting hands on ballistic missiles, it also makes life pretty difficult for foreign applicants looking for jobs in this field.

OPTION #1: Find a job – get a Green Card – get a citizenship

The most obvious choice is to become a U.S. citizen through the regular application. This is a difficult and lengthy process and might take years to complete. There are different types of visa schemes The one that you need as an aspiring space engineer is H1B – that is a type of visa that enables you to work in the U.S. if your job required a bachelor’s degree or higher and if you hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a field related to the job. Getting a green card is an intermediate step in this process and you can get it via a program H1B sponsored by an employer and get a green card. This will put you on a track to obtain U.S. citizenship – the process known as naturalization.

However, even with a green card, you cannot work on ITAR technology – yet. Remember, you must have the full U.S. citizenship status. What’s the point of getting the Green Card then? It is simply to put you on the right track for the citizenship in the years to come. And it is worth noting that this might take a couple of years to accomplish.

If you already have your degree, try to find jobs in the areas that are excluded from ITAR – aerospace, aerodynamics, jet engines or software. While working in these jobs, you will be on the right track for both the citizenship and for your future career in one of the space companies. Once the times comes, and you obtain your full status, you can start applying. Your citizenship status will allow you to apply and your previous experience in the aerospace industry – though not working on rocket technology – will make you a fully qualified and eligible candidate.

If you don’t have the degree yet, try to choose one that aligns with the demand – e.g. software or similar and also work towards this during your studies. Network with U.S. companies and try to get yourself into position where you will easily get a Green Card sponsorship upon graduation. Once you start working for a U.S. company, the rest of the process is the same.

OPTION #2: Marry a U.S. citizen – get a Green Card – get a citizenship

This is not a joke – finding an American spouse and getting a citizenship is a real and feasible option.

But it’s going to be difficult and probably expensive. Marrying an american is thoroughly scrutinized by the authorities. The immigration officers have to be really convinced that you married bona fide – i.e. for love and not because of the citizenship. It certainly helps to have a lawyer to navigate through all the legal hurdles of the process that goes as far as checking your personal correspondence or wedding pictures.

Showing some financial commitments also helps. Immigration looks very favourably on taking a mortgage together or similar type of shared debt. Still, the process might take many years to accomplish.

OPTION #3: Get an exception

Though this one sounds like a simple solution, getting an exception is highly unlikely. But it had happened on few occasions in the past and in fact, you can check yourself how many people were granted the waiver each year.

In any case, you have to be a really interesting, potentially even a crucial person for the space company in order for them to go through all the hassle to arrange the exception. You would probably have to hold a PhD in a certain critical area of space technology coupled with many years of practical experience. Remember that US has world class engineering universities and it’s highly unlikely that there is a field they couldn’t find an expert on.

In fact, Elon Musk himself says that this happened only on a few occasions and that the process to appoint non-US citizens is very difficult.

OPTION #4: Work as a scientist

One possible route would be to become a space scientist. Then you can work on space science and space science instruments that get put on spacecraft by someone else. For example, there are many foreign nationals at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for example that do space science. However they are not permitted access to all buildings or information portals, again due to ITAR.

If you want to work at NASA’s facilities, you don’t have to be the US citizen in all cases either. There are foreign nationals, working for foreign space agencies that are collaborating with NASA. These often serve as liaisons an NASA’s facilities.

That’s another opportunity to get closer to cutting-edge space research. NASAs International Space Partners (ISP) collaborate with NASA on various space activities, such as foreign missions to the space station.


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