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Aerospace engineer
Apollo 13 Mailbox at Mission Control.jpg
NASA engineers, like the ones depicted in Apollo 13, worked diligently to protect the lives of the astronauts on the mission.
Names engineer
aerospace engineer
Type profession
Activity sectors aeronautics, astronautics, science
Competencies technical knowledge, management skills
Education required see professional requirements
Fields of employment technology, science, military

Aerospace engineering is the branch of engineering behind the design, construction and science of aircraft and spacecraft. It is broken into two major and overlapping branches: aeronautical engineering and astronautical engineering. The former deals with craft that stay within Earth's atmosphere, and the latter deals with craft that operate outside of Earth's atmosphere.

While aeronautical engineering was the original term, the broader "aerospace" has superseded it in usage, as flight technology advanced to include craft operating in outer space.[1] Aerospace engineering, particularly the astronautics branch, is often informally called rocket science.[2][3]



Modern flight vehicles undergo severe conditions such as differences in atmospheric pressure, and temperature, with structural loads applied upon vehicle components. Consequently, they are usually the products of various technologies including aerodynamics, avionics, materials science and propulsion. These technologies are collectively known as aerospace engineering. Because of the complexity of the field, aerospace engineering is conducted by a team of engineers, each specializing in their own branches of science.[4] The development and manufacturing of a flight vehicle is extremely complex and demands careful balance and compromise between abilities, design, available technology and costs.


Alberto Santos-Dumont, a pioneer who built the first machines able to fly, played an important role in the development of aviation. Some of the first ideas for powered flight may have come from Leonardo da Vinci, who, although he did not build any successful models, did develop many sketches and ideas for "flying machines".

Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the Wright Flyer I, the first airplane, on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The origin of aerospace engineering can be traced back to the aviation pioneers around the late 19th century to early 20th centuries, although the work of Sir George Cayley has recently been dated as being from the last decade of the 18th to mid 19th century. One of the most important people in the history of aeronautics,[5] Cayley was a pioneer in aeronautical engineering[6] and is credited as the first person to separate the forces of lift and drag, which are in effect on any flight vehicle.[7] Early knowledge of aeronautical engineering was largely empirical with some concepts and skills imported from other branches of engineering.[8] Scientists understood some key elements of aerospace engineering , like fluid dynamics, in the 18th century. Only a decade after the successful flights by the Wright brothers, the 1910s saw the development of aeronautical engineering through the design of World War I military aircraft.

The first definition of aerospace engineering appeared in February 1958.[1] The definition considered the Earth's atmosphere and the outer space as a single realm, thereby encompassing both aircraft (aero) and spacecraft (space) under a newly coined word aerospace. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was founded in 1958 as a response to the Cold War. United States aerospace engineers launched the first American satellite on January 31, 1958 in response to the USSR launching Sputnik in October 4, 1957.[9]


Some of the elements of aerospace engineering are:[10][11]

Wernher von Braun, with the F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage at the US Space and Rocket Center
  • Fluid mechanics - the study of fluid flow around objects. Specifically aerodynamics concerning the flow of air over bodies such as wings or through objects such as wind tunnels (see also lift and aeronautics).
  • Astrodynamics - the study of orbital mechanics including prediction of orbital elements when given a select few variables. While few schools in the United States teach this at the undergraduate level, several have graduate programs covering this topic (usually in conjunction with the Physics department of said college or university).
  • Statics and Dynamics (engineering mechanics) - the study of movement, forces, moments in mechanical systems.
  • Mathematics - in particular, calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra.
  • Electrotechnology - the study of electronics within engineering.
  • Propulsion - the energy to move a vehicle through the air (or in outer space) is provided by internal combustion engines, jet engines and turbomachinery, or rockets (see also propeller and spacecraft propulsion). A more recent addition to this module is electric propulsion and ion propulsion.
  • Control engineering - the study of mathematical modeling of the dynamic behavior of systems and designing them, usually using feedback signals, so that their dynamic behavior is desirable (stable, without large excursions, with minimum error). This applies to the dynamic behavior of aircraft, spacecraft, propulsion systems, and subsystems that exist on aerospace vehicles.
  • Aircraft structures - design of the physical configuration of the craft to withstand the forces encountered during flight. Aerospace engineering aims to keep structures lightweight.
  • Materials science - related to structures, aerospace engineering also studies the materials of which the aerospace structures are to be built. New materials with very specific properties are invented, or existing ones are modified to improve their performance.
  • Solid mechanics - Closely related to material science is solid mechanics which deals with stress and strain analysis of the components of the vehicle. Nowadays there are several Finite Element programs such as MSC Patran/Nastran which aid engineers in the analytical process.
  • Aeroelasticity - the interaction of aerodynamic forces and structural flexibility, potentially causing flutter, divergence, etc.
  • Avionics - the design and programming of computer systems on board an aircraft or spacecraft and the simulation of systems.
  • Risk and reliability - the study of risk and reliability assessment techniques and the mathematics involved in the quantitative methods.
  • Noise control - the study of the mechanics of sound transfer.
  • Flight test - designing and executing flight test programs in order to gather and analyze performance and handling qualities data in order to determine if an aircraft meets its design and performance goals and certification requirements.

The basis of most of these elements lies in theoretical mathematics, such as fluid dynamics for aerodynamics or the equations of motion for flight dynamics. However, there is also a large empirical component. Historically, this empirical component was derived from testing of scale models and prototypes, either in wind tunnels or in the free atmosphere. More recently, advances in computing have enabled the use of computational fluid dynamics to simulate the behavior of fluid, reducing time and expense spent on wind-tunnel testing.

Additionally, aerospace engineering addresses the integration of all components that constitute an aerospace vehicle (subsystems including power, aerospace bearings, communications, thermal control, life support, etc.) and its life cycle (design, temperature, pressure, radiation, velocity, life time).

Aerospace engineering degrees

Aerospace engineering

Aerospace (or aeronautical) engineering can be studied at the advanced diploma, bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. levels in aerospace engineering departments at many universities, and in mechanical engineering departments at others. A few departments offer degrees in space-focused astronautical engineering. The Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands offers one of the top European aerospace educational and research platforms, while the programs of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rutgers University are two such examples.[11] In 2009, U.S. News & World Report ranked the undergraduate aerospace engineering programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Michigan as the top three best programs for doctorate granting universities in the United States. The other programs in the top ten were Purdue University, California Institute of Technology, University of Maryland, University of Illinois, Stanford University, University of Texas at Austin, and Virginia Tech in that order.[12] The magazine also rates Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the United States Air Force Academy, and the United States Naval Academy as the premier aerospace engineering programs at universities that do not grant doctorate degrees.[13] Wichita State University is renowned for its Aerospace Engineering program and also has the third highest research budget for Aerospace Engineering in the United States.[14][15]

In the UK, Aerospace (or aeronautical) engineering can be studied for the B.Eng., M.Eng., MSc. and Ph.D. levels at a number of universities. The top universities include University of Cambridge, University of Surrey, University of Bristol, University of Southampton, University of Sheffield, Newcastle University, University of Bath, Imperial College London, Loughborough University and University of Nottingham.[16] The Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London is noted for providing engineers for the Formula One industry,[17] an industry that uses aerospace technology.

Aerospace can be studied at University of Limerick in Ireland. In Australia, the RMIT University offers Aerospace (or aeronautical) engineering and has more than 60 years teaching experience in this profession. Monash University, University of New South Wales, University of Sydney, University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology also offers Aerospace Engineering.

European universities that are renowned for their teaching and expertise in aerospace engineering include TU Delft in the Netherlands, ISAE and ENAC in France, RWTH Aachen, TU München, the University of Stuttgart, TU Berlin and TU Braunschweig in Germany. In Spain the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid and Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya both offer the course, while in Italy there also several universities where aerospace engineering can be studied including the Politecnico di Milano, the University of Pisa and the Politecnico di Torino. In Eastern Europe they are the University of Belgrade, the Warsaw University of Technology in Poland and University of Technology Brno in Czech Republic.

In India IIT Kanpur possesses its own flight test aircraft and airfield for students in the discipline, while the other IITs also offer degrees in this discipline, while in China Nanjing Aeronautics and Astronautics University is a regional leader in the field of aerospace engineering education. In Pakistan Aerospace Engineering can be studied at NUST National University of Sciences and Technology at (CAE), College of Aeronautical Engineering in Risalpur. In 2002, Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, (SUPARCO) established Institute of Space Technology (IST) which is a federally chartered public sector institute offering under graduate and graduate degree in Aerospace Engineering. The MS degree at IST is being offered in collaboration with BUAA, China and SEOUL National University, South Korea

Popular culture

The term "rocket scientist" is at times used to describe a person of great intelligence as "rocket science" describes something requiring great technical ability, especially mathematical ability. Aerospace engineering has also been represented as the more "glittery" pinnacle of engineering. The movie Apollo 13 depicts the ground team as a group of heroes in a Hollywood fashion highlighting the intelligence and competence of white shirt and tie professionals. This was later extended in more detail in the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. Other exemplary films include Space Cowboys, Race to Space, The Aviator, The Astronaut Farmer, and Challenger. In Fracture, the main character is a meticulous aeronautical structural engineer. The miniseries Meteor depicts heroic JPL rocket scientist Dr. Chetwyn. In The Big Bang Theory, a show that focuses on geniuses, the character Wolowitz is an aerospace engineer with a masters from MIT that works in the Department of Applied Physics at Caltech. Also, the TV series Joey featured a brilliant Caltech PhD candidate in Aerospace Engineering who specializes in applied thermodynamics. Prodigies in animation often turn their talents toward rocketry. The protagonist of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius constructs space vehicles regularly, Family Guy's Stewie Griffin at one point works on a "quantum theory of molecular propulsion" and Phineas and Ferb of the titular cartoon series have designed and built rockets. In Marvel Comics both superheroes Mister Fantastic of the Fantastic Four and Iron Man are aerospace engineers, and science fiction in general features a plethora of astronautics experts such as in Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Mass Effect, and EVE Online but especially famous in Star Trek. Therein, the engineers are usually depicted as geniuses who save the day with their mastery of overwhelming futuristic technology. Star Trek: Enterprise shows a collection of imagery in its opening theme depicting the history of aviation and spaceflight, presenting aerospace engineers as noble explorers.

See also


  1. ^ a b Stanzione, Kaydon Al (1989). "Engineering". Encyclopedia Britannica. 18 (15 ed.). Chicago. pp. 563–563. 
  2. ^ Rocket science, Rocketry.
  3. ^ Dream Jobs: Rocket Scientist
  4. ^ "Career: Aerospace Engineer". Career Profiles. The Princeton Review. Retrieved 2006-10-08. "Due to the complexity of the final product, an intricate and rigid organizational structure for production has to be maintained, severely curtailing any single engineer's ability to understand his role as it relates to the final project." 
  5. ^ "Sir George Carley". Retrieved 2009-07-26. "Sir George Cayley is one of the most important people in the history of aeronautics. Many consider him the first true scientific aerial investigator and the first person to understand the underlying principles and forces of flight." 
  6. ^ "Sir George Carley (British Inventor and Scientist)". Britannica. Retrieved 2009-07-26. "English pioneer of aerial navigation and aeronautical engineering and designer of the first successful glider to carry a human being aloft." 
  7. ^ "The Pioneers: Aviation and Airmodelling". Retrieved 2009-07-26. "Sir George Cayley is sometimes called the 'Father of Aviation'. A pioneer in the field, he is credited with the first major breakthrough in heavier-than-air flight. He was the first to identify the four aerodynamic forces of flight - weight, lift, drag, and thrust - and their relationship and also the first to build a successful human carrying glider." 
  8. ^ Kermit Van Every (1988). "Aeronautical engineering". Encyclopedia Americana. 1. Grolier Incorporated. 
  9. ^ A Brief History of NASA
  10. ^ "Science: Engineering: Aerospace". Open Site. Retrieved 2006-10-08. 
  11. ^ a b Gruntman, Mike (September 19, 2007). "The Time for Academic Departments in Astronautical Engineering". AIAA SPACE 2007 Conference & Exposition Agenda. AIAA SPACE 2007 Conference & Exposition. AIAA. 
  12. ^ America's Best Colleges 2009: Aerospace / Aeronautical / Astronautical (where doctorate is highest degree).
  13. ^ America's Best Colleges 2009: Aerospace / Aeronautical / Astronautical (where doctorate not offered).
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ University Rankings League Table 2009
  17. ^ The Imperial College

External links


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