Get a Job in Space: An Interview with John Palme

December 15–19, 2014   |   Vol. 121, Week 12

Is your homeschool student interested in outer space? This week on Home School Heartbeat, rocket scientist and homeschooling dad John Palmé gives us a sneak-peek into the international space industry.

”I was lucky. I was able to combine my talents and my passion for space into a career in that field. And I love to go to my job each day.“—John Palmé

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Does your homeschool student love studying outer space? Then join us now as our guest John Palmé gives a sneak peek into the international space industry. That’s next on Home School Heartbeat.

Mike Smith: I’m joined today by John Palmé from International Launch Services. He’s the vice-president of programs and operations there. Welcome, John!

John Palmé: Hi Mike! It’s a pleasure to be on your show.

Mike: John, how big is the space industry, and what kind of work does it involve?

John: Well you know, 60 years ago the space industry was limited to really two countries: the United States and the Soviet Union, which today is known as Russia. But today, most medium to large countries do have a space program.

Obviously the United States and China and the European Union and Russia all have very large space programs. But it would surprise many of you who are not part of the industry to know that there are countries like India and Brazil and Korea that have fairly big programs too. And even countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, and Angola have organized space programs

Now the space industry involves designing, assembling, testing, and launching and operating satellites and rockets—or as we call them, “launch vehicles.” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the value of the space industry involves the services that the owners of the satellites provide, like satellite radio, or direct-to-home television and internet. So it’s quite a global industry, and all told it’s billions and billions of dollars of money each year.

Mike: John, what would you say to homeschool students who are thinking about a career in space? How can they prepare themselves to work in that field?

John: Well, students should have a realistic assessment of their capabilities and their talents. And if they find they have a passion for something, they should really figure it out, and how to meld that all together. Going to a job day in and day out that you’re not passionate about is not going to make you happy in the end.

Now I was lucky. I was able to combine my talents and my passion for space into a career in that field. And I love to go to my job each day.

As for how to prepare, I’d say it depends really on what aspect of space that you want to be involved in. Engineers of all kinds are needed for the designing and testing of the satellites, rockets, and the ground stations and networks. Software engineers are needed in all areas as well. But if you want to be an astronaut, both engineers and scientists are usually chosen. And if finance, legal, or sales and marketing is your passion, all are needed in the space industry too.

All have specific ways to prepare: science and math for engineers, accounting and finance for people who want to go into that section of the field, or even psychology and marketing for those who want to go into sales.

Another way for them to prepare themselves would be to explore ways of getting into a summer job or an internship in that field. Now I did that myself. And you have the opportunity to work with the engineers in the industry, and get first-hand knowledge of what they do day in and day out. It really helps you to determine whether or not that’s the right career choice.

Mike: John, what experiences did you have as a student that got you actually interested in space?

John: Well I’m a second generation rocket and satellite guy. My dad was an engineer on some of the earliest communication satellites, and worked in the industry until his retirement.

And I’ve always been fascinated by space, and wanted to be an astronaut. I wrote letters to Buzz Aldrin, who was the second man on the moon—and I got a personal response back from him, which really ignited my passion.

I’ve always loved taking things apart, putting them back together, and working on cars, so I knew an engineering career would be in my future if I wanted a chance to be an astronaut.

I took advanced science and math courses in high school to prepare, and then majored in mechanical engineering in college. And of course, then I met my future wife, and decided that being a husband and father was even better than an astronaut.

Mike: Well that’s great! So how did you turn that interest into a career in space?

John: Even though space interested me, I was not really sure if I would really like to work in the industry. It was a big unknown. So I was able to get a summer internship job at RCA Astro Electronics after my freshman year in college, and I loved it! I saw my first personal computer and got to work on it—and remember, this was 1983, before the first Mac was even built—as well as mainframe computers and actual flight hardware for satellites. It was pretty cool!

I returned each year until I graduated. And then I was offered a job by General Electric in Valley Forge to work on satellites there.

Mike: John, many of our listeners are teaching math and science courses to their children. Do you have any advice on teaching these subjects?

John: Well our two boys were homeschooled up until high school. It was about 6th grade when my wife knew that our sons were way better at math and science than she was. Now unfortunately I was not able to teach with any sort of regularity, due to being deployed on launch campaigns out in Kazakhstan. So we utilized a local learning co-op that had some really great former math teachers.

So I guess my advice is to have a really realistic assessment of your talents and of your child’s gifts, and try to use the avenue that suits both of you the best. Now, if you can teach math and science, that’s great! But if not, use the local homeschool networks to match teachers with your children.

Mike: John, when you were teaching, did you have a chance to teach science to your students?

John: Yeah, my two sons definitely had a passion for science. My youngest son now just went to George Mason University this week, where he’s going to be studying biology. And we would do experiments. We’d find them on the internet or in some of the homeschool materials and actually physically do them. And that really ignited their passion for exploring the world around them.

Also, because we live in the Washington, DC area, and there’s just amazing numbers of museums near us, we’d take days off the middle of the week and go down to the museum and check out all the things they had to offer, including a lot of children’s programs where they would do hands-on experiments with the kids.

Mike: John, how can homeschool students find mentors and role models in the space industry? And are there any support programs they should know about?

John: Well just like in life, with homeschooling personal connections are always key. If you have a friend or even a friend of a friend who’s in the space industry, drop them a note and ask them if they would consider talking to your student. You’d be surprised at how enthusiastic engineers are about their careers.

My company sends our employees out to many local schools during career days to help stimulate interest in STEM programs, which are known as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. So keep an eye out for these days as well, since many of these schools allow homeschool students to attend as well.

Museums often have space days, especially here in the Washington, DC area. And local astronomy clubs frequently have stargazing parties, where everyone is invited to come at night and look through their telescopes. I can still remember the first time I saw the rings of Saturn through a telescope.

And if there is a certain astronaut or scientist that impresses you or your child, write them a letter, like I did to Buzz Aldrin—and you’ll be surprised at the response you’re likely to get back.

Mike: John, thanks so much for joining us this week—and I think our listeners will really find this helpful! And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

John Palmé

John Palmé has over 25 years of experience in spacecraft and launch vehicle design, integration, testing, launch and operations. For over a decade, he has overseen the reliability and quality programs and the integration and launch of commercial spacecraft for the ILS Proton launch vehicle.

John has previously worked for RCA Astro Electronics, General Electric Aerospace (graduating from the Edison Engineering Program), Martin Marietta, Lockheed Martin, and Orbcomm Global in designing, testing, launching and operating various types of spacecraft, including communications, remote sensing, Earth Science, and advanced test beds.

John graduated from Villanova University with a BSME in 1988 and MSME in 1991.

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