Aerospace engineering is the field of engineering concerned with the design, development, testing, and production of aircraft, spacecraft, and related systems and equipment. If it’s a flying machine of any kind, it was imagined and designed by an aerospace engineer.
In addition to creating vehicles for atmospheric and space flight, aerospace engineers deal with the problems surrounding heavier-than-air powered flight. These include creating techniques and methods for overcoming atmospheric pressure and temperature extremes, as well as dealing with changes in gravity and the impact of structural loads during gravimetric changes.
Aerospace engineers work on highly complex problems, and as such, there is often a great deal of overlap in responsibilities and workloads between engineers and scientists in aerodynamics, propulsion, avionics, structural analysis, manufacturing, and materials science. Designing flight vehicles requires sophisticated and complex knowledge, and most aerospace engineers work in design teams that are specialized in various areas of aerospace design.
Aerospace engineers also have to balance the physical stability, vehicle specifications, available technology, and economic feasibility of their designs to produce their prototypes and eventually, their aircraft.
Aerospace engineering has two major branches that do often overlap: Aeronautical engineering and astronautical engineering.
Aerospace Engineering Fields
Aeronautic engineering focuses on a suborbital flight. This includes designing airplanes, but it also encompasses drones, autonomous aerial vehicles, missiles, and other flying machines that stay within Earth’s atmosphere.
Astronautic engineering focuses on orbital navigation and launching systems. Engineers in this subfield design satellites, rockets, space probes, and other spacecraft.
Both types of aerospace engineers work with each other and with other fields of engineering to put their products in the air or in space. Astronautic systems often require aeronautical systems to get them into orbit, so there’s substantial overlap between the two fields.
Aerospace Engineering History
In order to fully understand the interdependence of the two branches of aerospace engineering, and to understand exactly how the field works, a little bit of the field’s history is good to know. As for terminology, aerospace engineering first was used in the 1950s, during the “Space Race” between the United States and the Soviet Union.
During this time, the first definition of aerospace engineering appeared to consolidate the ideas of both the Earth’s atmosphere and the space above it for the development of flight vehicles.
Aerospace engineering is usually considered to have truly begun during the 19th century when the Wright brothers sustained heavier-than-air powered flight in their Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk. However, this design and engineering accomplishment did have predecessors as early as the Italian Renaissance.
Leonardo Da Vinci had two different designs for flying machines. One of these, the aerial screw, created design principles that led to the modern helicopter.
The other design, an ornithopter that created lift by having wings that flapped like a bird’s, never really took off as a potential design.
The next major development in aerospace engineering didn’t occur until 1799 when English designer Sir George Cayley created an airplane design that incorporated a fixed-wing for lift, horizontal and vertical tail surfaces for stability and control, and a separate propulsion system. This, however, was problematic as engine development was virtually nonexistent, and nothing simultaneously light enough and strong enough for powered flight existed.
However, Cayley’s work with gliders was successful, and he constructed his first fully functional glider in 1849. It was this glider design that helped establish the data that the Wright brothers used to develop their airplanes.
Since 1903, aerospace engineering has seen continuous and considerable growth. Both consumer and military demand for aircraft improvements, and while space was once the sole purview of national space agencies like NASA, the private sector has recently made critical expansions into spaceflight.
These developments have led to agencies like SpaceX collaborating with the national agencies and even international efforts to further explore space, launch satellites, and even provide commercial suborbital flights.
However, today’s space advances would not have been possible without the postwar advances in commercial aviation. Before we could go to space, we had to get more comfortable with our own atmosphere.
Civilian aviation boomed after Charles Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight in 1927, and by 1949, the British de Havilland Comet was offering the first commercial jet transportation flights. By 1958, Boeing’s ultra-successful 707 was offering nonstop transatlantic flights for commercial passengers.
Today, the industry is one of the most developed and lucrative. Its economic importance spans other industries as well, with sales in the US alone coming to over $909 billion in 2019.
Now, private companies are putting humans into suborbital flight alongside national space agencies, as well as launching satellites.
Aerospace engineering continues to boom in research and development, manufacturing, and implementation.
Aerospace Engineering Careers
Aerospace engineering is a big business that spans several market sectors. One of the largest of these is military spending; in 2021, the United States’ aerospace and defense industry reported $874 billion dollars in revenue and the hiring of 2.09 million workers.
The commercial airline industry, while having taken a major hit from the 2019 COVID-19 pandemic, reported revenue of $130.85 billion.(To put this in perspective, one year before travel was limited, the industry’s overall revenue was $248 billion.)
It is clear that these industries cast a wide shadow and have great career potential– but these careers are somewhat different based on what each engineer is designing and for whom they are designing it.
Aerospace Engineering Career Overview
Aerospace engineers work in various settings within the aerospace industry. They may work at systems and software suppliers, manufacturing plants, corporate labs, universities, or government facilities.
Their skillset has to be extremely broad and multidisciplinary, and their experiences with wider system architects and engineers give them authority in numerous manufacturing and design sectors.
Per Penn State’s evaluation of Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the industries that employed the most aerospace engineers are as follows:
- Aerospace product and parts manufacturing: 38%
- Engineering services: 14%
- Federal government, excluding postal service: 13%
- Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences: 12%
- Navigational, measuring, electromedical, and control instruments manufacturing: 5%
The exact kind of work an aerospace engineer does depends not just on what branch their work is in, but who they’re working for. Civil and military demands for aerospace engineers are quite different in their scope and design principles.
The general transport and general aviation configurations of civilian aircraft haven’t actually changed much since then. Instead, aerospace engineers have focused on the different aspects that make up these planes, rather than changing the basic design principles.
While great leaps in engine technology, materials science, and other aspects of the plane design have been made, the general layout of commercial planes is similar to what they were in 1960. Technological improvements have allowed aircraft to grow in size, carrying more cargo faster and over longer distances.
And as aircraft are becoming safer and more efficient, they are also becoming more complex. Today’s commercial aircraft are highly sophisticated and more technologically advanced than their predecessors, even if the basic layout is the same.
The exact opposite is true for military aircraft designs. These vary immensely from year to year, with an emphasis on speed and stealth.
Military aerospace engineers are often not actually designing planes– today’s modern military strategies often involve unmanned aerial vehicles which are piloted remotely. Drone designs don’t have to take things like pilot comfort (or even fitting a pilot) into account, and so these designs are simpler in some ways and more complex in others.
Military aerospace engineers are also responsible for designing missiles and missile defense systems, as well as the systems and technologies that
Designing for space is another type of work an aerospace engineer may undertake. Designing satellites, rockets, payload systems, capsules, and other spacecraft entails enormous materials science work and understanding of how very high forces during launch and then very low forces during orbit, as well as rapid temperature and pressure changes, affect the craft you’ve worked on.
For unmanned spacecraft like satellites and probes, the control systems are entirely remote, which is a different challenge than engineers designing for piloted aircraft have to face.
Aerospace Engineering Careers
There are many exciting careers in aerospace engineering. These include but are not limited to the following.
Mechanical Engineers and Designers
Many parts of aircraft and spacecraft can be improved upon. Mechanical aerospace engineers design and research advances in existing technology or invent new ones.
From tiny sensors to colossal rockets, these engineers develop technology for current and future needs.
Data Science Engineering
Aerospace testing produces a lot of data, and much of this testing has moved to simulations run by supercomputers before the manufacturing process or even prototyping begins. This has led to faster, cheaper research and larger data collection policies.
Engineers are needed to process the data collected in these simulations and determine how to use it to deploy new solutions and get them to market faster than ever before.
Military Aerospace Engineers
Militaries around the world invest heavily in aerospace research to make combat more effective and efficient and to ideally decrease collateral damage. In addition to the actual craft used by various militaries, targeting and control systems are areas of heavy demand.
Inspection and Compliance Engineers
Some aerospace spends their time investigating the safety protocols and adherence to safety laws of other firms and designers. Aerospace and aviation manufacturers employ these engineers as well as companies that provide air or space travel.
This is also a government position, as most of the laws dictating aircraft safety are federal.
These engineers do hands-on work with aerospace equipment. They are responsible for installing, maintaining, testing, and repairing equipment that is being used in the field or during the development process.
They may also be responsible for physically creating and testing prototypes, both conventional and rapidly produced. Technicians are vital for research teams, as well as for manufacturers and airlines.
Because aerospace engineering is such a broad field, the types of facilities that employ aerospace engineers vary widely. They can be offices, labs, manufacturing plants, or other facilities. It all depends on what the job entails.
Aerospace Engineering Facilities
Systems and software development may occur in fairly unspecific office buildings. These workspaces require powerful computer equipment, which can be brought into a variety of office layouts.
However, because this work is so complicated, the office itself should be optimized for efficiency and employee productivity– which may call for custom furniture and computer stations, rapid prototyping machinery like 3d printers and CNC milling machines, and a really good break room to help keep those creative juices flowing. Depending on what systems the software is being developed for, aerospace engineering offices may also require some more specialized equipment.
This includes flight simulators to test control systems software and to allow the virtual testing of aircraft design before the money is spent on costly manufacturing.
Aerospace laboratories, no matter what size and scope, need highly complex equipment to help test designs. One of the most important features of any aerospace lab is the wind tunnel, where designs are proved against high wind forces or even g-forces for space vehicles.
Flight simulators are required here as well to get engineers familiar with how various parts of the aircraft come together and function in the machine. Wind turbines are highly desirable to test blade and wing function, and other mechanical stress tests may be necessary depending on what the lab produces.
These labs also often need clean rooms and other specialized facilities, depending on what types of materials testing occur during the research process.
Need Help Designing Your Aerospace Engineering Facility?
There is a great demand for aerospace engineering facilities for civilian aircraft, military development, and academic research. Starting one of these facilities may be difficult, especially if you’re trying to find plane-sized laboratory space, but it’s an endeavor with great potential dividends.
OnePointe Solutions can help you get started with either a new space or a renovation of an existing space. Whether you’re looking for custom-designed workbenches, lab furniture, and casework, anti-vibration balance tables to protect sensitive equipment or even need help with your foundational laboratory design, our expertise and experience make the process easy.