Aerospace engineering

Aerospace Engineer

NASA engineers, seen here in mission control during Apollo 13, worked diligently to protect the lives of the astronauts on the mission.
Names Aerospace engineer
Occupation type
Activity sectors
Aeronautics, astronautics, science
Competencies Technical knowledge, management skills
Education required
Bachelor's Degree[1][2]

Aerospace engineering is the primary field of engineering concerned with the development of aircraft and spacecraft.[3] It is divided into two major and overlapping branches: aeronautical engineering and astronautical engineering.

Aeronautical engineering was the original term for the field. As flight technology advanced to include craft operating in outer space, the broader term "aerospace engineering" has largely replaced it in common usage.[4] Aerospace engineering, particularly the astronautics branch, is often colloquially referred to as "rocket science".[5]


Flight vehicles are subjected to demanding conditions such as those produced by changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature, with structural loads applied upon vehicle components. Consequently, they are usually the products of various technological and engineering disciplines including aerodynamics, propulsion, avionics, materials science, structural analysis and manufacturing. The interaction between these technologies is known as aerospace engineering. Because of the complexity and number of disciplines involved, aerospace engineering is carried out by teams of engineers, each having their own specialized area of expertise.[6]


Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the Wright Flyer in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The origin of aerospace engineering can be traced back to the aviation pioneers around the late 19th to early 20th centuries, although the work of Sir George Cayley dates from the last decade of the 18th to mid-19th century. One of the most important people in the history of aeronautics,[7] Cayley was a pioneer in aeronautical engineering[8] and is credited as the first person to separate the forces of lift and drag, which are in effect on any flight vehicle.[9] Early knowledge of aeronautical engineering was largely empirical with some concepts and skills imported from other branches of engineering.[10] Scientists understood some key elements of aerospace engineering, like fluid dynamics, in the 18th century. Many years later 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.[4] 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. In response to the USSR launching the first satellite, Sputnik into space on October 4, 1957, U.S. aerospace engineers launched the first American satellite on January 31, 1958. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was founded in 1958 as a response to the Cold War.[11]


Wernher von Braun, with the F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage at the US Space and Rocket Center
Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft engineered for descent by parachute

Some of the elements of aerospace engineering are:[12][13]

A fighter jet engine undergoing testing. The tunnel behind the engine allows noise and exhaust to escape.

The basis of most of these elements lies in theoretical physics, such as fluid dynamics for aerodynamics or the equations of motion for flight dynamics. 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. Those studying hydrodynamics or Hydroacoustics often obtained degrees in Aerospace Engineering.

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, lifetime).

Degree programs

Aerospace engineering may 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. Some institutions differentiate between aeronautical and astronautical engineering. Graduate degrees are offered in advanced or specialty areas for the aerospace industry.

A background in chemistry, physics, computer science and mathematics is important for students pursuing an aerospace engineering degree.[15]

In popular culture

The term "rocket scientist" is sometimes used to describe a person of great intelligence since "rocket science" is seen as a practice requiring great mental ability, especially technical and mathematical ability. The term is used ironically in the expression "It's not rocket science" to indicate that a task is simple.[16] Strictly speaking, the use of "science" in "rocket science" is a misnomer since science is about understanding the origins, nature, and behavior of the universe; engineering is about using scientific and engineering principles to solve problems and develop new technology.[5][17] However, the media and the public often use "science" and "engineering" as synonyms.[5][17][18]

See also

At Wikiversity, you can learn more and teach others about Aerospace engineering at the Department of Aerospace engineering


  1. "Required Education". Retrieved 2015-06-22.
  2. "Education, Aerospace Engineers". Retrieved 2015-06-22.
  3. Encyclopedia of Aerospace Engineering. John Wiley & Sons. October 2010. ISBN 978-0-470-75440-5.
  4. 1 2 Stanzione, Kaydon Al (1989). "Engineering". Encyclopædia Britannica. 18 (15 ed.). Chicago. pp. 563–563.
  5. 1 2 3 NASA (2008). Steven J. Dick, ed. Remembering the Space Age: Proceedings of the 50th Anniversary Conference (PDF). p. 92. The term “rocket scientist” is a misnomer used by the media and in popular culture and applied to a majority of engineers and technicians who worked on the development of rockets with von Braun. It reflects a cultural evaluation of the immense accomplishments of the team but is nevertheless incorrect. ...
  6. "Career: Aerospace Engineer". Career Profiles. The Princeton Review. Archived from the original on 2006-05-09. 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.
  7. "Sir George Cayley". ?. 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.
  8. "Sir George Cayley (British Inventor and Scientist)". Britannica. n.d. 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.
  9. "Sir George Cayley". U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. Retrieved 31 January 2016. A wealthy landowner, Cayley is considered the father of aerial navigation and a pioneer in the science of aerodynamics. He established the scientific principles for heavier-than-air flight and used glider models for his research. He was the first to identify the four forces of flight--thrust, lift, drag, and weight—and to describe the relationship each had with the other.
  10. Kermit Van Every (1988). "Aeronautical engineering". Encyclopedia Americana. 1. Grolier Incorporated.
  11. "A Brief History of NASA". NASA. Retrieved 2012-03-20.
  12. "Science: Engineering: Aerospace". Open Site. Retrieved 2006-10-08.
  13. 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.
  14. "Aircraft Structures in Aerospace Engineering". Aerospace Engineering, Aviation News, Salary, Jobs and Museums. Retrieved 2015-11-06.
  15. "Entry education, Aerospace Engineers". Retrieved 2015-06-22.
  16. Bailey, Charlotte (7 November 2008). "Oxford compiles list of top ten irritating phrases". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-11-18. 10 - It's not rocket science
  17. 1 2 Petroski, Henry (23 November 2010). "Engineering Is Not Science". IEEE Spectrum. Retrieved 21 June 2015. Science is about understanding the origins, nature, and behavior of the universe and all it contains; engineering is about solving problems by rearranging the stuff of the world to make new things.
  18. Neufeld, Michael. Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (First ed.). Vintage Books. pp. xv. There has been a deep-rooted failure in the English-speaking media and popular culture to grapple with the distinction between science and engineering.

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