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What is Aerospace Engineering? History & Top 7 Career Prospects


This post covers the following topics:

What is Aerospace Engineering?

Different Aspects of Aerospace Engineering

Where Can An Aerospace Engineer Work?

What Do I Need to Study Aerospace Engineering?

Some Milestones in Aerospace Engineering History.

What is Aerospace Engineering?

Aerospace engineering is one engineering discipline that immediately turns heads when mentioned. While I was studying the course, I cannot count the number of times people would ooh and aah at the mention of my course.

I was studying “rocket science”, the most common metaphor for anything difficult in pop culture. Aerospace engineering, though, is not just rocket science. In this post, I will explain the meaning, origins, and applications of aerospace engineering which will address the question what is Aerospace Engineering?

What is Aerospace engineering?
What is Aerospace engineering?

Aerospace engineering is the combination of aeronautical engineering and astronautical engineering. To answer the question; what is Aerospace Engineering? properly, The former has to do with a flight within the earth, while the latter has to do with the technologies that operate outside of the earth’s atmosphere.

Aerospace engineering deals with the development – study, testing, design, and construction – of aircraft and spacecraft. “Aircraft” in this context refers to any vehicle that flies, including airplanes, helicopters, missiles, drones, etc. Spacecraft refers to rockets, satellites, rovers, etc.

Aeronautical engineering was initially the umbrella term for all engineering that had to do with flight, but as humans started exploring outer space, there was a need for a more general term. Thus “aerospace engineering” was coined in the late 50s. Did the above explanation answer the question; What is Aerospace Engineering? if NO continue reading to understand better.

What is Aerospace Engineering?: Different Aspects of Aerospace Engineering

Having known what is Aerospace Engineering? it is time to explain different aspects of this lucrative field of engineering.

Aerospace engineering is a very broad engineering discipline. Aerospace engineers often work in teams of several engineers with their own different specializations; a single aerospace engineer cannot master all there is to know about aircraft and spacecraft.

What is Aerospace Engineering?: Some of the aspects of aerospace engineering are:

  1. Aerodynamics- this is the study of airflow interaction with moving bodies and is an aspect of fluid mechanics. Aerodynamics is also relevant in automotive engineering – cars are also streamlined, although not nearly as much as aircraft for obvious reasons.
  2. Astrodynamics- the study of orbital mechanics, for spacecraft.
  3. Propulsion- the study of engines and other means for flying vehicles to generate and sustain thrust. A large part of the development of piston and  gas turbine engines has to do with thermodynamics.
  4. Engineering mathematics- especially calculus, linear algebra and differential equations.These calculations are used in several areas in aerospace engineering.
  5. Avionics- this is a clever coinage between aviation and electronics. It has to do with the design and programming of electronic systems used in aircraft and spacecraft. Modern aircraft cannot work without avionics. Some universities offer avionics engineering as a program on its own.
  6. Aircraft structures- this has to do with the design of the frame of aircraft. Aircraft must have enough structural integrity to withstand the strong aerodynamic forces they encounter during flight.
  7. Materials science- the materials used in the construction of aircraft must be light-weight but still have significant strength. This is why a lot of effort is put into developing materials that improve the design of aircraft, especially composite materials which have specific properties tailored for use in different parts of aircraft.

There are several other elements that are combined in the development of spacecraft and aircraft.

In aerospace engineering, – just like other engineering disciplines really – compromise must be made in order to have an overall optimal aircraft or spacecraft.

All the different members of engineering teams that work together must be ready to compromise on some qualities their specialization concerns.

For example, the radar transponders placed on aircraft pose some disturbance to the aircraft’s aerodynamics by introducing skin drag but they are necessary for communication and navigation, so they can’t be gotten rid of.

The most that can be done is to design the casing of the transponders to be as aerodynamic as possible and not place them on key parts of the wings. Engine nacelles also induce some drag but an aircraft definitely needs its engines!

What is Aerospace Engineering?: How rockets are propelled into space
What is Aerospace Engineering?

Where Can An Aerospace Engineer Work?

Because of the broad nature of the field, an aerospace engineer can work in various engineering capacities that are not exclusive to the aerospace industry.

Some of the areas trained aerospace engineers can work inside and outside of the aerospace sector are:

What is Aerospace Engineering?: Top 10 Areas Where Aerospace Engineers work

  1. Aircraft and parts manufacturers- this includes everything from civil aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus to fighter aircraft manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and so on.
  2. Defence systems manufacturers- aerospace engineers can work at companies like Raytheon Technologies which develop missiles, surveillance equipment/vehicles and so on.
  3. Engine manufacturers- aerospace engineers can also work at companies that manufacture aircraft engines, e.g. Rolls Royce. Even though aircraft have specific accompanying aircraft, aircraft manufacturers do not typically make aircraft engines, since an aircraft engine is such a complicated structure on its own. Separate companies invest the time, human resources and capital that the development of engines requires and then sell those engines to aircraft manufacturers. Some aircraft even have 2 engine options from different manufacturers, so the airline which purchases the aircraft can choose its preferred engine from the beginning.
  4. Airlines- with adequate additional training, an aerospace engineer can work for an airline as an aircraft technician or maintenance engineer. Aerospace engineers can also develop unique design modifications to the airline’s aircraft. For example, a way Emirates sought to improve weight reduction was to make the galleys with lightweight composite materials instead. This involves the materials science aspect of aerospace engineering.
  5. Airport- aerospace engineers can also work as air traffic controllers or in administrative aviation roles if they have adequate management and industry knowledge – a usual component of the aerospace engineering course.
  6. Research and development- think NASA!
  7. Engineering consultancy- national aviation bodies typically consult aerospace engineers for relevant technical knowledge when needed.
  8. The communication industry- since aerospace engineering also involves the development of satellites which are used for communication.
  9. The energy sector- aerodynamics is increasingly applied to the design of windmills, turbine engines and so on.
  10. Automotive engineering- as I said earlier, aerodynamics principles are also applied in cars so an aerodynamicist cam also work in this field. Lighter aircraft use piston engines which are also used in cars, so an aerospace engineer who specialises in such engines can work in automotive engineering.
How Aircraft Fly, Forces acting on an Aircraft during flight
What is Aerospace Engineering?: Forces acting on an aircraft during flight

What is Aerospace Engineering?: What Do I Need to Study Aerospace Engineering?

If you’re considering studying aerospace engineering in the university, you should have good knowledge of physics and mathematics (especially advanced maths).

Some universities might also expect you to have good IT knowledge. This is likely because of the various design, simulation, and coding software you will use during your program. The coding isn’t too intense though. I only used MATLAB software for coding during my program.

It’s a type of coding software that was specifically designed for engineers. If you’re considering studying aerospace engineering for a postgraduate degree, it would only really be feasible, in my opinion, if you studied an engineering or science degree for your Bachelor’s.

Amongst other engineering disciplines, I think mechanical engineers would have the least trouble delving into aerospace engineering. In some universities, aerospace engineering is even under the mechanical engineering department.

Non-Academic Qualities

As for the non-academic qualities, I would say an aerospace engineer definitely has to have a curious and innovative mind. Aerospace engineers are constantly thinking of how to improve and push the bounds of the industry, so anyone who wants to get into this should have a similar mind that wants to push and constantly asks “what more?” or “what if?”.

The program is pretty intense so I would also say resilience and determination are necessary qualities. One should get ready to put in a lot of work and manage their time properly!

A typical aerospace engineering program involves writing theses, reports, projects, and group work as well as lab and workshop sessions. The importance of group work cannot be overstated in aerospace engineering, so an aerospace engineer must be a team player.

What is Aerospace Engineering?: Some Milestones in Aerospace Engineering History

These are some of the key dates and developments that birthed the aerospace engineering we have now.

1480’s– Leonardo DaVinci made the earliest sketches of flying vehicles. Yes, Leonardo Davinci, the famous “Monalisa” painter and Italian polymath of the Renaissance era was also an aviation enthusiast.

One of Da Vinci’s sketches was an ornithopter, a wooden machine that was meant to fly by flapping its wings like birds – his inspiration was bats.

What is Aerospace engineering?
Leonardo Davinci’s sketch of an ornithopter. Image source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Another one was of an aerial screw, the conceptual predecessor to the helicopter. DaVinci’s sketches were largely impractical, but they were a dream that would set the tone for future flight endeavors.

What is Aerospace engineering?
Leonardo Davinci’s sketch of an aerial screw. Image source:

1783- 3 centuries later, manned flight was first achieved by Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, 2 French brothers. They were able to fly using a hot air balloon, a lighter-than-air aircraft since the density of the “hot air” used in the balloon was lower than that of actual air.

1799- Sir George Cayley, an English baron, drew a sophisticated aircraft that incorporated a fixed-wing, an empennage, and a separate powerplant in its design.

This design could not be implemented as there was little development of engines at the time, so Cayley ended up building the first successful manned glider in 1849. Gliding flights served as a valuable basis for the study of aerodynamics and aircraft design.

1852- Another French man, Henri Gifford improved on the hot air balloon idea by including a propulsion system in its design. This allowed for forwarding movement of the hot air balloon (not just flying up).

1903- The Wright brothers performed the first successful flight of powered heavier-than-air aircraft controlled by the pilot. The flight only saw a duration of 12 seconds, a range of 36 meters, and a peak altitude of 6 meters above ground, but it was still a remarkable feat for its time.

The aircraft was powered using a four-cylinder piston engine. In 1905, they also made and flew the first practical airplane called the “Wright Flyer”. These American brothers are some of the most prominent figures in aviation history, often regarded as the fathers of modern-day aviation.

What is Aerospace Engineering? History & Top 7 Career Prospects
The Wright Brothers’ first controlled powered aircraft. Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

1914-1919-The first World War saw major pushes for the development of fighter aircraft in the major players in the war. After the war, many of these aircraft were developed and served as the basis for a lot of civil aircraft which followed.

1926- American Robert H. Goddard, built, developed, and flew the first successful rocket powered by a liquid propellant – as opposed to the gaseous propellant (air) used in aeronautical engineering. Goddard proved the possibility of supersonic flight.

1933- the design of the first all-metal monoplane, built-in 1910 by German Hugo Junkers, was approved and entered into service.

1938- James Hart Wyldbuilt the first regeneratively cooled liquid rocket engine in the United States. It wasn’t until 1947 that Wyld’s engine powered the first supersonic research aircraft.

1939- the first flight using an aircraft powered by a gas turbine (jet) engine was made. It wasn’t until 1944 that the first jet aircraft entered into service. By 1945, jet-powered aircraft were more common. The second world war also sped up the development of aviation.

1957- the USSR launched the world’s first manmade satellite, Sputnik 1.

1969- Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin Jr. landed on the moon.

1981- launch of the space shuttle, a reusable low-orbital-altitude flight vehicle.

The future of the aerospace engineering industry still has so much to offer, with the development of increasingly sophisticated aircraft, drone and space technology and even flying cars which are currently in the works. It is definitely an exciting industry to be a part of.


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