Astronautics is the branch of Engineering directly concerned with vehicles (predominantly spacecraft) and machines that exit the earth's atmosphere, or that work entirely outside our atmosphere. Astronautics (as a practical science) didn't really come into its own until the 20th Century, despite the basics math behind it being worked out by Isaac Newton in the 17th Century1.
Hazards and Requirements
One large facet of Astronautics involves making vehicles and machines that will (while simultaneously coming in on budget and not being too heavy to launch efficiently) survive the following rigors, hazards, and obstacles:
Low Earth Orbit
Van Allen Belts
Many of those dangers are summarized on our Space Exposure page.
See also Interstellar Terrain, for specific hazards you might fly into (or near).
Game and Story Use
- If a Time Traveler messes with Netwon, Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, or Van Braun, it could seriously delay the development of spacecraft. See Point Of Divergence and Alternate History.
- Eventually, the sun will expand and consume the earth. On a shorter scale, numerous threats (natural, man-made, or extraterrestrial) could wipe out humanity or all of life on The Earth. From a certain point of view, getting off this rock is the best shot our species has at surviving.
- Astronauts combine scientific knowledge, military training, and piloting and technical skills into a single package that has to be physically fit to pass all the tests required to get there. In other words, astronauts make awesome Player Characters. Sure, this page is about the engineering of spaceships, but I'd be a fool to overlook the Cool Factor of those who fly the rockets and shuttles.
- Currently spacecraft crews tend to be drawn from amongst the ranks of aircraft drivers - for longer voyages, it would probably make sense to recruit from amongst the crews of ballistic missile submarines … people used to spending a long time sealed in a container in a hostile environment.