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What Is Aerospace Engineering?

Read Time: 3 minutes

We like to joke and say something is easy because “it’s not rocket science,” but in reality, it takes a lot more than a will and a prayer to get a multi-ton rocket off the ground and into orbit around our little blue marble. That’s where aerospace engineering comes in. What is aerospace engineering, and why is it such a valuable part of the manufacturing industry?

The Definition of Aerospace

We all have a passing familiarity with engineering, even if we’re not working in the field, but what does aerospace mean?

By itself, aerospace encompasses both the atmosphere and space beyond. As an industry, though, it refers to any branch of manufacture that creates aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, rockets and other tools to operate in the air or in outer space.

That means everything from the 747 you flew in on your last vacation to the Falcon 9 rockets SpaceX keeps launching from Cape Canaveral falls under the purview of the aerospace industry.

The History of Aerospace Engineering

Aerospace engineering dates back to the mid-1800s, when Jules Henri Giffard created the first steam-powered airship. Most of our early engineering efforts involved airships, gliders and zeppelins. It wasn’t until 1903 when the Wright Brothers managed the first powered flight by incorporating the four principles of flight — thrust, lift, drag and weight. Their first flight only lasted 12 seconds, and their plane only made it 120 feet from where it took off. Nonetheless, it was the first successful human flight in a powered aircraft in history.

We’ve come a long way since Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Today, we’ve got aircraft capable of carrying hundreds of people at a time across the sky, and spacecraft that will take astronauts to the moon, Mars and beyond.

These may have been the first aerospace engineers, but they’re not the last.

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What Do Aerospace Engineers Do?

Aerospace manufacturing is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. There are more than 624,000 employees in this industry every year, and that number continues to climb — but what do aerospace engineers do?

In general, aerospace engineers work to design, manufacture and test aircraft and other aerospace products. You’ll find them working in every industry, developing aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, rockets, satellites and everything in between. They may specialize and only work on one type of aerospace technology. Alternatively, they can take their skills and move freely throughout the aerospace industry.

In most cases, these engineers will specialize in one of two branches of the aerospace industry — aeronautical or astronautical. The former builds aircraft and related systems for use here on Earth. The latter creates spacecraft and satellites for use in orbit and beyond.

Aerospace engineers will likely become experts in related fields, from aerodynamics and thermodynamics to creating guidance and control systems.

Becoming an Aerospace Engineer

If this career sounds like something you’d be interested in pursuing, how can you become an aerospace engineer? Expect to spend a minimum of five years in college, if you luck into a school that offers a program where you can get your bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the same time. You will need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering or a related field.

With this, you may be able to get your foot in the door and make your way into entry-level aerospace engineering positions. However, to progress any further, you will need to seek out licensing. You will need to pass both the fundamentals of engineering and the professional engineering exams, and obtain a professional engineer license.

Once you have those credentials under your belt, the sky is the limit — unless you choose astronautical engineering. In that case, the sky is just the beginning of your journey.

Looking Toward the Stars

Aerospace engineering is the branch of this field that will take us to the stars and beyond. Talented men and women are designing the aircraft that will help us reach our terrestrial destinations. Others build spacecraft that will carry us to the stars and the satellites that help us communicate here on Earth. If you’re interested in becoming an aerospace engineer yourself, seek out that degree before you start applying for jobs.

What Is Aerospace Engineering?
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Category: Manufacturing & Engineering

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.