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Space exploration is defined as beginning in the early 20th century with the launch of the first rocket, a vehicle propelled by the ejection of gases. The United States reorganized and expanded its space exploration efforts in 1958 with the development of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA began conducting space missions shortly after its creation in response to early Soviet success with its launch of the first manmade Earth satellite.
Many professions contribute to space travel efforts and space exploration draws on a wide variety of technologies. Aerospace careers include engineers, scientists, technicians, computer programmers, pilots, mechanics, graphic artists, and administrators. Careers specific to space exploration include those in the sciences such as physics, biology, and chemistry. Specialized engineering jobs in this industry include: applications engineers, chemical engineers, control dynamics engineers materials engineers, and navigation systems engineers. Engineers are assisted by astronautical and aerospace technicians.
Astronauts, while among the most high-profile professionals in space exploration as the pilots and crew of spacecraft, are employed in fewer numbers. In the years from 1959 through 2014, only a few more than 560 astronauts have been selected for the job from around the world. Other professions in space exploration and the aerospace industry are astronomers and astrophysicists. Both astronomers and astrophysicists may apply their findings to aerospace manufacturing and space research and flight.
NASA is the major employer of space exploration professionals in the U.S., but it often contracts with a company or companies to build spacecraft to their specifications. A manufacturer also may develop a technology on its own and then try to sell NASA on its usefulness. Space exploration technology is just one sector of the aerospace industry, which also covers the larger industry of commercial aircraft production. Although there are only 50 or so major aerospace manufacturers, thousands of subcontractors, from very large to very small companies, provide parts, supplies, materials, and subassemblies to the principal contractors. Manufacturers generally compete for contracts for military, commercial, and space aircraft.
Potential setbacks for space exploration, as well as a possible hindrance on the future growth of career opportunities in this industry came with the announcement in 2010 that funding for the human spaceflight program scheduled to succeed the space shuttle would be discontinued. This was followed in 2011 with the end of the space shuttle program. NASA's budget also has been cut more frequently than it has been maintained or increased, and the agency underwent a restructuring and streamlining program that included a goal of reducing its civil-servant staff.
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