30 Colleges That Are Contributing to Space Exploration

Space exploration is one of the most innovative areas of scientific discovery. New technologies and solutions to the mapping of the universe are constantly being created. And thanks to the efforts of a number of American colleges, these technologies and solutions have resulted in humanity significantly increasing its knowledge of how the universe functions. This article is going to highlight 30 of the most important US colleges when it comes to the past, present, and future of exploring and understanding space.

As the first country to land humans on the moon, to conduct the first untethered spacewalk, and achieve a number of other pioneering advancements, America has been the leading nation for space exploration for decades. Behind these achievements is the tireless work of thousands of individuals. Many of these individuals attended American colleges. This article is going to highlight the colleges that educated a high proportion of these people.

Space exploration is also a lucrative and rapidly growing industry in the present day. In fact, in 2020, Morgan Stanley estimated that in 2040, the space industry could generate $1 trillion in revenue. The Bank of America, however, believes that this industry will become a $1.4 trillion market by the year 2030. And while the speed of the space industry’s growth is uncertain, these estimates indicate that it will expand rapidly either way. This means that attending a college that has strong connections to the space industry is a sensible financial decision.

Any one of the 30 colleges ahead is a strong choice for a student who wants to attend one of the best colleges in America for space exploration. But it’s also possible that none of the colleges ahead are right for you. If that’s the case, then this ranking can still be a vital resource in your college search. Each ranking includes a detailed summary of how that college is contributing to space discovery. These have been included for you to compare and contrast with your own college options. If any college that you’re considering is investing in space exploration like the 30 colleges ahead, then that’s a strong sign that it’s a college worth attending.

Methodology

The sources that contributed to this ranking indicate that colleges are leading in space exploration in a number of ways. Some sources highlight colleges that have recently expanded their connections to NASA. Others reveal which colleges have produced the most astronauts, which are part of leading space research groups, and which have highly regarded space science degrees. These sources are as follows:

After identifying the most consistently cited colleges from these above sources, we then conducted further research to discover other means in which they were advancing space exploration. This research formed the basis of the final inclusion in the ranking.

The ranking criteria for the following colleges are as follows: Evidence of having a range of space exploration resources, evidence of innovating the space exploration industry, evidence of intending to expand its space exploration opportunities in the future and aggregated ranking/mentions on the methodology lists.

The ranking, from 30 to one, is as follows:

30. University of California, Davis

Davis, California

Website

logo for UC Davis

A significant proportion of the space exploration work that takes place at the University of California, Davis is due to the Habitats Optimized for Missions of Exploration Space Technology Research Institute. One of its current projects is investigating human autonomy in an aerospace research simulator. The college also benefits from having Dr. Stephen K. Robinson among the faculty, who had a 36-year career at NASA, which included participating in four shuttle missions. NASA notes that the University of California, Davis is a partner in its Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space. US News considers the college to be the 61st best in the world for space science.

29. Yale University

New Haven, Connecticut

Website

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In 2021, Yale University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences published a study that, “could have crucial implications for the future of space travel.” Specifically, this study focused on predicting weather patterns on other planets. The college is integrating space exploration into a number of fields of study that few would currently consider. For instance, its School of Architecture offers a course that challenges students to consider construction challenges on the Moon, Mars, and other space outposts. Part of this course includes a flight on an aircraft that emulates zero gravity. US News considers Yale University to be the 30th best college for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

28. Colorado School of Mines

Golden, Colorado

Website

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In the 1990s, the Colorado School of Mines opened the Center for Space Resources. This center is dedicated to studying planetary and space resources through creating technologies that prospect, drill and extract them. This center is currently working on a number of projects, including a Moon probing mission which is due to launch in December 2022. The college has eight laboratories focused on space exploration, including the Planetary Robotics Laboratory and the Instruments and Sensors Laboratory. It is also collaborating with a number of leading space organizations, including NASA, the European Space Agency, Blue Origin, and SpaceX. In 2021, NASA announced that the Colorado School of Mines had been selected to design ideas for future Moon and Mars missions. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

27. Columbia University

New York City, New York

Website

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The space exploration efforts of Columbia University are benefited by its close association with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. This institute was initially based a few blocks away from the college but has been based in Columbia University’s Armstrong Hall since the late 1960s. In 2022, this institute published a study that highlighted that Mars could have supported life for a longer time than scientists had previously believed. And in late 2021, the college also revealed that it had been selected by NASA to send bacteria to the International Space Station. US News considers Columbia University to be the 37th best college in the world for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

26. Princeton University

Princeton, New Jersey

Website

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Princeton University is currently creating the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, which is due to launch in the year 2025. This probe will investigate two of the most pressing matters in present-day space physics, energetic particle acceleration and solar wind interaction in an interstellar medium. And scientists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory recently demonstrated how a plasma-based propulsion system could increase the lifetime of a rocket while producing high amounts of power. US News considers Princeton University to be the eighth-best college in the world for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

25. Michigan Technological University

Houghton, Michigan

Website

Michigan Technological University

The Planetary Surface Technology Development Lab at Michigan Technological University was only opened in 2019, and yet it has already won the top honors at NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing Idea Challenge, which also awarded the college team working on the project $163,000. In addition to this laboratory, the college also has the Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences Institute; and the Michigan Tech Aerospace Engineering Research Center. NASA has selected a Michigan Technological University faculty member, Gregory Odegard, to lead its Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

24. Florida State University

Tallahassee, Florida

Website

logo Florida State University

In late 2021, Florida State University announced that it had designed a low gravity simulator that would offer new opportunities in the future of space research. This new design is 1,000 times larger than currently existing low gravity simulators. Also in late 2020, the college announced that it would gain access to NASA’s 1,600 technology patents, which will enhance student entrepreneurs’ ability to learn about commercialization and licensing opportunities. NASA has also stated that Florida State University is a partner in its Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design. US News considers the college to be the 159th best in the world for space science. The college is an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

23. Auburn University

Auburn, Alabama

Website

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The Small Satellite Program at Auburn University both researches space and acts as a workforce development opportunity for students. It allows students to design, construct, test, and operate small satellites. In recent years, the college has also managed to strengthen its space exploration activities. For example, in 2019, NASA awarded the college a $5.2 million contract to improve liquid rocket engine performance. US News states that Auburn University has graduated the joint seventh-highest number of astronauts. Universities Space Research Association notes that the college is an oversight member.

22. University of Minnesota

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Website

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In February 2022, the University of Minnesota held its fourth annual Space Fest. This four-day festival featured a number of expert talkers from the Smithsonian and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The college’s own space research has been extensive, with the college conducting, “a wide variety of theoretical and experimental projects.” NASA states that the University of Minnesota has been selected to be a partner in its Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design and also notes that it is the director of the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium. US News considers the college to be the 94th best in the world for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

21. Utah State University

Logan, Utah

Website

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The Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University can be traced back to the earliest days of American Space Exploration. Initially, it was known as the Upper Air Research Laboratory and opened at the University of Utah in 1948. It later frequently collaborated with the Electro Dynamics Laboratories at Utah State University and eventually moved to this college in 1970, with all the laboratories merging into the Space Dynamics Laboratory in 1982. The college is still pushing the boundaries of space exploration in the present day. For example, in late January 2022, it successfully launched a CubeSat from the International Space Station. NASA notes that the Utah State University is a partner in its Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

20. University of California, Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California

Website

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Some of the most notable recent work that the University of California, Los Angeles has conducted into space exploration involves Mars probes. This includes a professor, “leading an experiment to collect soil samples,” on Mars. The college’s department of Earth, Planetary & Space Sciences has also had a long history of building magnetometers, with their devices being used on satellite missions since the 1960s. One of the most recent college-built magnetometers was used in SpaceIL’s Beresheet lunar lander in 2019. US News states that the University of California, Los Angeles has graduated the joint eighth number of astronauts of any American college and that it is the 41st best college in the world for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

19. The Ohio State University

Columbus, Ohio

Website

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In late 2021, The Ohio State University announced that it had been selected as the lead college partner in developing the next generation of human-occupied space stations. The college stated that this was a result of its strengths in research in the fields of in-space/terrestrial agriculture, materials/manufacturing for spaceflight, artificial intelligence, and space-based remote sensing. The college’s Aerospace Research Center has also grown from having $2.8 million in research expenditures in 2017 to $7.7 million in 2020. US News considers The Ohio State University to be the 16th best college in the world for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

18. University of Michigan

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Website

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In 2021, NASA selected the University of Michigan as a leading institution for its Joint Advanced Propulsion Institute. This institute exists to explore high-power electric propulsion solutions. The college was partially selected for this role due to its work in pioneering Nested Hall Thrusters, which can move spacecraft much more efficiently than conventional chemical rockets. Also in 2021, the college’s Space Physics Research laboratory celebrated 75 years of existence. A more recent space exploration-focused division of the college is the Space Institute, which was formed in 2019, with the intention of bringing college-wide space research together. US News considers the University of Michigan to be the 25th best college for space science. NASA states that the college is the director of the Michigan Space Grant Consortium. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

17. University of Florida

Gainesville, Florida

Website

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In late 2020, the University of Florida announced that NASA had awarded it a $12.5 million contract to create the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, which will take place until the year 2025. The final antenna will be used as part of a gravitational wave telescope that will look for answers to a number of astrophysics questions. The college’s Astronomy Department also has access to a large number of observatories and space telescopes, with the ground observatories ranging from being located on the main campus to Australia. NASA notes that the University of Florida is a partner in the Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space. US News names the college the 93rd best in the world for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

16. Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Website

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In 2021, Harvard University’s collaboration with the Smithsonian resulted in the first image of a black hole’s magnetic fields. Later in the year, the scientists employed by the college’s Center for Astrophysics celebrated a spacecraft that they had built and monitored, the Parker Solar Probe, successfully entering the corona of the sun for the first time in history. The college’s medical school also runs the Consortium for Space Genetics, which aims to guide humanity’s health as it transitions beyond the Earth. US News considers Harvard University to be the second-best college in the world for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

15. The University of Chicago

Chicago, Illinois

Website

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In early 2022, The University of Chicago announced that NASA had approved its $20 million balloon experiment. This experiment will use Antarctic ice to detect extremely energetic particles in space. One of the primary centers for space exploration at the college is the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, which has been in existence since 2001. The college’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics also has access to a number of state-of-the-art telescopes both on the Earth and in space, including one based in the South Pole and the Hubble Telescope. Additionally, the college’s Enrico Fermi Institute exists to promote interdisciplinary research in a number of areas, including space exploration. US News considers The University of Chicago to be the seventh-best college for space science. The college is also a member of the Universities Space Research Association.

14. California Institute of Technology

Pasadena, California

Website

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The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology currently has 40 active NASA missions. These include the Mars Perseverance Rover, which aims to return Mars samples to the Earth, and the Cold Atom Laboratory on the International Space Station, which is observing quantum phenomena in space. California Institute of Technology has been working on rocket propulsion since the 1930s. The college also has a number of other space exploration-focused institutes, such as the Science & Data Center for Astrophysics & Planetary Sciences and the Keck Institute for Space Studies. US News considers California Institute of Technology to be the best college in the world for space science. It is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

13. Pennsylvania State University

University Park, Pennsylvania

Website

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In 2021, Pennsylvania State University announced that its Vertical Lift Research Center of Excellence had been awarded a further five years of funding from the US Army, Navy, and NASA. This funding totaled $7.5 million and will go into 10 new vertical lift projects. Later in 2021, the college also gained an additional $193,000 of funding from NASA to explore how concrete behaves on moon-like gravity. NASA states that the Pennsylvania State University is also a partner in its Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design and is the director of the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium. US News considers the college to be the 33rd best in the world for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

12. Purdue University

West Lafayette, Indiana

Website

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US News states that Purdue University has graduated the fourth-highest number of astronauts of any American college. The college states that it has taught 27 astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. In the present day, alumni of Purdue University continue to innovate space exploration. For instance, 25 alumni are currently working for the space company Blue Origin. And in late 2021, the college announced its first faculty member to go to space, Professor Steven Collicott, who will be flying into space on a Virgin Galactic craft. The college is also certain to expand its space exploration activities in the future. One example of this is its recent establishment of a partnership with the US Space Force. Additionally, the college is an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association, and NASA notes that it directs the Indiana Space Grant Consortium.

11. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Champaign, Illinois

Website

logo for University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In 2021, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s connections to the space industry increased thanks to the hiring of Assistant Professor Robyn Woollands to the faculty. Prior to joining the college, Woollands had worked for four years in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA, as a design engineer. The college’s Laboratory for Advanced Space Systems is also conducting its own space exploration work. It launched its first satellite in 2018, and it has since developed a number of other satellites. US News states that the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign has graduated the joint seventh-highest number of astronauts of any American college and also considers it to be the 27th best college in the world for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association and NASA states that it is the director of the Illinois Space Grant Consortium.

10. University of Maryland

College Park, Maryland

Website

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In May 2021, the University of Maryland announced that its Center for Research and Exploration in Space Science & Technology had reached an agreement with NASA to extend its existing partnership until the year 2027. This agreement also provided an extra $178 million to the college. The center itself employs around 100 scientists and offers students a range of involvement opportunities with space projects. NASA also selected the University of Maryland to develop Moon and Mars mission design ideas. US News considers the college to be the 24th best in the world for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

9. Georgia Institute of Technology

Atlanta, Georgia

Website

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In late 2021, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the US Space Force agreed to create a partnership program. This partnership will advance, “science and technology to build the next generation of space capabilities while developing the workforce of the future.” And since 2013, the college has had the Center for Space Technology and Research. This center has formed partnerships with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Air Force and other government organizations involved in space research. NASA notes that Georgia Institute of Technology is a partner in the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design and that it is the director of the Georgia Space Grant Consortium. US News considers the college to be the 181st best in the world for space science. The college is an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

8. University of Washington

Seattle, Washington

Website

log for University of Washington

13 laboratories at University of Washington are key parts of the college’s work on space exploration. These include the Aerospace Thermal Lab, the Multiscale Analysis of Materials & Structures Laboratory, and the Space Propulsion and Concepts Engineering Laboratory. This diversity of space exploration research has led to some innovative work. For instance, in 2019, the college’s researchers identified a potential means of reducing the impact force of landing a rocket via origami-inspired foldable metamaterial. US News notes that University of Washington has graduated the joint eighth highest number of astronauts of any American college and considers it to be the 26th best college for space science. The college is an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association. NASA notes that the college is the director of the Washington Space Grant Consortium.

7. University of Colorado, Boulder

Boulder, Colorado

Website

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In 2021, the University of Colorado, Boulder announced that its researchers would be leading the new $15 million Advanced Computational Center for Entry System Simulation Institute, which is funded by NASA. But the college’s association with American space exploration stretches long before this. In fact, it first started making instruments and experiments that have reached outer space in the 1940s. US News states that the University of Colorado at Boulder is the American college that has graduated the joint sixth highest number of astronauts. The source also states that it is the 57th best college for space science. Universities Space Research Association names it an oversight member. NASA states that it is the director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium and that the college system is a partner in the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design.

6. The University of Texas at Austin

Austin, Texas

Website

logo for University of Texas at Austin

The US Space Force and The University of Texas at Austin signed an agreement in 2021 for the college, “to provide advanced research and workforce development.” The college’s Center for Space Research has also conducted a number of important missions. An example is the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, which launched two satellites into orbit in 2002 and which has provided new information about the distribution of mass within the Earth’s surface system. US News notes that The University of Texas at Austin has graduated the joint seventh-highest number of astronauts of any American college and considers it to be the joint 31st best university for space science in the world. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association. NASA notes that it is the director of the Texas Space Grant Consortium.

5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Website

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The Space Exploration Initiative at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is aiming to democratize the exploration of space. It is doing this by bringing together, “artists, scientists, engineers, and designers to co-create the human (and robotic) lived experience of space.” In addition to this institute, the college also runs the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. This institute has been in existence since 1965 (while the Space Exploration Initiative dates to 2017,) and it focuses on detecting dark matter, observing extra-solar planets, studying the dark ages of the universe and researching gravitational astrophysics. US News states that Massachusetts Institute of Technology has graduated the fifth-highest number of astronauts of any American college. The other US News source states that it is the ninth-best college in the world for space science. Universities Space Research Association lists it as an oversight member. NASA states that it is the director of the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium and is also a member of the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design.

4. Stanford University

Stanford, California

Website

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The Aeronautics & Astronautics Department at Stanford University currently has over 20 labs and centers, with examples of these including the Aerospace Computing Lab, the Extreme Environment Microsystems (Xlab) and the Space Environment and Satellite Systems Laboratory. The college is also successful in gaining funding for conceptual space exploration research. For instance, in May 2021, college faculty members gained NASA funding for two ambitious space exploration technologies, namely a spaceship that uses a laser beam to manipulate a smaller probe craft and a robot that has extendable arms to climb into caverns on Mars. US News states that Stanford University is the college that has graduated the joint sixth highest number of astronauts and that it is the 13th best university in the world for space science. Universities Space Research Association lists the college as an oversight member. NASA notes that the college is a partner in its Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space.

3. Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, Maryland

Website

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The Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University has the distinction of being responsible for capturing the first photograph of the Earth from Space. It also invented satellite navigation and has been responsible for dispatching spacecraft across the solar system. In the present day, the college is leading a number of space projects, such as missions that test the ability of humanity to defend itself against asteroids. The college is also currently constructing a wide range of spacecraft, such as the Electrojet Zeeman Imaging Explorer. NASA states that Johns Hopkins University is a partner in its Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design and that it is the director of the Maryland Space Grant Consortium. US News considers it to be the 22nd best college in the world for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

2. The University of Arizona

Tucson, Arizona

Website

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In December, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope, which contains a University of Arizona designed and developed infrared camera, launched into space. Additionally, the college is also heavily involved in the asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx, which won a 2022 Swigert Award for Space Exploration and is scheduled to return asteroid samples to Earth in late 2023. In addition to participating in space missions, the college also runs a number of laboratories and research centers, which maintain many world-class telescopes. In fact, the college’s space exploration efforts are responsible for the discovery of 52% of all known near-Earth asteroids and comets. NASA stated that in 2021, The University of Arizona had been selected to design ideas for future Moon and Mars missions. The source also states that the college is the director of the Arizona Space Grant Consortium. US News names The University of Arizona the 10th best college in the world for space science. The college is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association.

1. University of California, Berkeley

Berkeley, California

Website

logo for University of California - Berkley

Since its beginning in 1959, University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory has maintained strong connections with NASA. It has participated in more than 50 space missions, and its instruments and detectors are currently being used on over a dozen orbiting spacecraft. And in late 2021, the college announced an important new chapter in its partnership with NASA. The space agency had selected the college’s scientists to lead the development of its next space telescope. This project has a budget of $145 million, and the launch is scheduled to take place in 2025. US News states that University of California, Berkeley has graduated the joint eighth highest number of astronauts of any American college and also considers it the third-best college for space science in the world. It is also an oversight member of the Universities Space Research Association. NASA states that a University of California, Berkeley faculty member, Adam Arkin, is leading the Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space.

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