Aerospace engineering

Last updated
Aerospace engineer
Apollo 13 Mailbox at Mission Control.jpg
NASA engineers, seen here in mission control during Apollo 13, worked to ensure the safety of the operation and astronauts onboard
NamesAerospace engineer
Occupation type
Activity sectors
Aeronautics, astronautics, science
CompetenciesTechnical knowledge, management skills
(see also glossary of aerospace engineering)
Education required
Bachelor's degree [1] [2]
Fields of
Technology, science, space exploration, military

Aerospace engineering is the primary field of engineering concerned with the development of aircraft and spacecraft. [3] It has two major and overlapping branches: aeronautical engineering and astronautical engineering. Avionics engineering is similar, but deals with the electronics side of aerospace engineering.


"Aeronautical engineering" was the original term for the field. As flight technology advanced to include vehicles operating in outer space, the broader term "aerospace engineering" has come into use. [4] Aerospace engineering, particularly the astronautics branch, is often colloquially referred to as "rocket science". [5] [lower-alpha 1]


Flight vehicles are subjected to demanding conditions such as those caused 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, Air 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. [7]


Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the Wright Flyer in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. First flight2.jpg
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 the mid-19th century. One of the most important people in the history of aeronautics [8] and a pioneer in aeronautical engineering, [9] Cayley is credited as the first person to separate the forces of lift and drag, which affect any atmospheric flight vehicle. [10]

Early knowledge of aeronautical engineering was largely empirical, with some concepts and skills imported from other branches of engineering. [11] Some key elements, like fluid dynamics, were understood by 18th-century scientists. [12]

In December 1903, the Wright Brothers performed the first sustained, controlled flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft, lasting 12 seconds. The 1910s saw the development of aeronautical engineering through the design of World War I military aircraft.

Between World Wars I and II, great leaps were made in the field, accelerated by the advent of mainstream civil aviation. Notable airplanes of this era include the Curtiss JN 4, the Farman F.60 Goliath, and Fokker Trimotor. Notable military airplanes of this period include the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the Supermarine Spitfire and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 from Japan, United Kingdom, and Germany respectively. A significant development in aerospace engineering came with the first operational Jet engine-powered airplane, the Messerschmitt Me 262 which entered service in 1944 towards the end of the Second World War. [13]

The first definition of aerospace engineering appeared in February 1958, [4] considering the Earth's atmosphere and outer space as a single realm, thereby encompassing both aircraft (aero) and spacecraft (space) under the newly coined term 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. In 1969, Apollo 11, the first human space mission to the moon took place. It saw three astronauts enter orbit around the Moon, with two, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, visiting the lunar surface. The third astronaut, Michael Collins, stayed in orbit to rendezvous with Armstrong and Aldrin after their visit. [14]

A F/A-18F Super Hornet in flight, 2008 F-18F after launch from USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72).jpg
A F/A-18F Super Hornet in flight, 2008

An important innovation came on January 30, 1970, when the Boeing 747 made its first commercial flight from New York to London. This aircraft made history and became known as the "Jumbo Jet" or "Whale" [15] due to its ability to hold up to 480 passengers. [16]

Another significant development in aerospace engineering came in 1976, with the development of the first passenger supersonic aircraft, the Concorde. The development of this aircraft was agreed upon by the French and British on November 29, 1962. [17]

On December 21, 1988, the Antonov An-225 Mriya cargo aircraft commenced its first flight. It holds the records for the world's heaviest aircraft, heaviest airlifted cargo, and longest airlifted cargo, and has the widest wingspan of any aircraft in operational service. [18]

On October 25, 2007, the Airbus A380 made its maiden commercial flight from Singapore to Sydney, Australia. This aircraft was the first passenger plane to surpass the Boeing 747 in terms of passenger capacity, with a maximum of 853. Though development of this aircraft began in 1988 as a competitor to the 747, the A380 made its first test flight in April 2005. [19]


Wernher von Braun, with the F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage at the US Space and Rocket Center S-IC engines and Von Braun.jpg
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 Expedition 42 Soyuz TMA-14M Landing (201503120102HQ).jpg
Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft engineered for descent by parachute
A fighter jet engine undergoing testing. The tunnel behind the engine allows noise and exhaust to escape. Engine.f15.arp.750pix.jpg
A fighter jet engine undergoing testing. The tunnel behind the engine allows noise and exhaust to escape.

Some of the elements of aerospace engineering are: [20] [21]

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 the fluid, reducing time and expense spent on wind-tunnel testing. Those studying hydrodynamics or hydroacoustics often obtain 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. [23]

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 technically and mathematically. The term is used ironically in the expression "It's not rocket science" to indicate that a task is simple. [24] 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] [6] The more etymologically correct version of this phrase would be "rocket engineer". However, "science" and "engineering" are often misused as synonyms. [5] [6] [25]

See also


  1. However, "rocket science" is a misnomer as aerospace engineers are not scientists, [5] [6] and do not necessarily work on rocket propulsion.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aeronautics</span> Science involved with the study, design, and manufacturing of airflight-capable machines

Aeronautics is the science or art involved with the study, design, and manufacturing of air flight–capable machines, and the techniques of operating aircraft and rockets within the atmosphere. The British Royal Aeronautical Society identifies the aspects of "aeronautical Art, Science and Engineering" and "The profession of Aeronautics ."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aerodynamics</span> Branch of dynamics concerned with studying the motion of air

Aerodynamics is the study of the motion of air, particularly when affected by a solid object, such as an airplane wing. It involves topics covered in the field of fluid dynamics and its subfield of gas dynamics, and is an important domain of study in aeronautics. The term aerodynamics is often used synonymously with gas dynamics, the difference being that "gas dynamics" applies to the study of the motion of all gases, and is not limited to air. The formal study of aerodynamics began in the modern sense in the eighteenth century, although observations of fundamental concepts such as aerodynamic drag were recorded much earlier. Most of the early efforts in aerodynamics were directed toward achieving heavier-than-air flight, which was first demonstrated by Otto Lilienthal in 1891. Since then, the use of aerodynamics through mathematical analysis, empirical approximations, wind tunnel experimentation, and computer simulations has formed a rational basis for the development of heavier-than-air flight and a number of other technologies. Recent work in aerodynamics has focused on issues related to compressible flow, turbulence, and boundary layers and has become increasingly computational in nature.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aerospace</span> Term used to refer to the atmosphere and outer space

Aerospace is a term used to collectively refer to the atmosphere and outer space. Aerospace activity is very diverse, with a multitude of commercial, industrial and military applications. Aerospace engineering consists of aeronautics and astronautics. Aerospace organizations research, design, manufacture, operate, or maintain both aircraft and spacecraft.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Flight</span> Process by which an object moves, through an atmosphere or beyond it

Flight or flying is the process by which an object moves through a space without contacting any planetary surface, either within an atmosphere or through the vacuum of outer space. This can be achieved by generating aerodynamic lift associated with gliding or propulsive thrust, aerostatically using buoyancy, or by ballistic movement.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Theodore von Kármán</span> Hungarian-American mathematician, aerospace engineer and physicist (1881–1963)

Theodore von Kármán, was a Hungarian-American mathematician, aerospace engineer, and physicist who worked in aeronautics and astronautics. He was responsible for crucial advances in aerodynamics characterizing supersonic and hypersonic airflow. The human-defined threshold of outer space is named the "Kármán line" in recognition of his work. Kármán is regarded as an outstanding aerodynamic theoretician of the 20th century.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Astronautics</span> Theory and practice of navigation beyond the Earths atmosphere

Astronautics is the practice of traveling beyond Earth's atmosphere into outer space. Spaceflight is one of its main applications and space science is its overarching field.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stephen Robinson</span> American astronaut (born 1955)

Stephen Kern Robinson is an American former NASA astronaut.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">German Aerospace Center</span> German research center for aerospace and power engineering

The German Aerospace Center is the national center for aerospace, energy and transportation research of Germany, founded in 1969. It is headquartered in Cologne with 35 locations throughout Germany. The DLR is engaged in a wide range of research and development projects in national and international partnerships. DLR also acts as the German space agency and is responsible for planning and implementing the German space programme on behalf of the German federal government. As a project management agency, DLR coordinates and answers the technical and organisational implementation of projects funded by a number of German federal ministries. As of 2020, the German Aerospace Center had a national budget of €1.261 billion.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hugh Latimer Dryden</span> American aeronautical scientist and civil servant (1898–1965)

Hugh Latimer Dryden was an American aeronautical scientist and civil servant. He served as NASA Deputy Administrator from August 19, 1958, until his death.

This is an alphabetical list of articles pertaining specifically to aerospace engineering. For a broad overview of engineering, see List of engineering topics. For biographies, see List of engineers.

Applied mechanics is the branch of science concerned with the motion of any substance that can be experienced or perceived by humans without the help of instruments. In short, when mechanics concepts surpass being theoretical and are applied and executed, general mechanics becomes applied mechanics. It is this stark difference that makes applied mechanics an essential understanding for practical everyday life. It has numerous applications in a wide variety of fields and disciplines, including but not limited to structural engineering, astronomy, oceanography, meteorology, hydraulics, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering, nanotechnology, structural design, earthquake engineering, fluid dynamics, planetary sciences, and other life sciences. Connecting research between numerous disciplines, applied mechanics plays an important role in both science and engineering.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harry Julian Allen</span> American aeronautical engineer

Harry Julian Allen, also known as Harvey Allen, was an aeronautical engineer and a Director of the NASA Ames Research Center, most noted for his "Blunt Body" theory of atmospheric entry which permitted successful recovery of orbiting spacecraft. His technique is still used to this day.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John D. Anderson</span> American curator (born 1937)

John D. Anderson Jr. is the Curator of Aerodynamics at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Professor Emeritus in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Prahlada (scientist)</span>

Prahlada Rama Rao is an Indian missile scientist, former vice chancellor of Defence Institute of Advanced Technology and a former director of Defence Research and Development Laboratory, the largest of the Defence Research and Development Organization laboratories in India, known for his contributions to Indian space programme. He was honoured by the Government of India in 2015 with Padma Shri, the fourth highest Indian civilian award.

Tumkur Seetharamaiah Prahlad is an Indian aerospace scientist and the former director of the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), Bengaluru, known as a specialist in Aerodynamics and Aerospace Design. His contributions are reported in Indian civil aircraft development programmes of Hansa and NAL Saras and light combat aircraft development programme. The Government of India awarded him the civilian honour of the Padma Shri in 2004, The same year, he received the H. K. Firodia Award from H. K. Firodia Memorial Foundation.

This glossary of aerospace engineering terms pertains specifically to aerospace engineering, its sub-disciplines, and related fields including aviation and aeronautics. For a broad overview of engineering, see glossary of engineering.

The Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences is a department within the College of Engineering & Applied Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, providing aerospace education and research. Housed primarily in the Aerospace Engineering Sciences building on the university's East Campus in Boulder, it awards baccalaureate, masters, and PhD degrees, as well as certificates, graduating approximately 225 students annually. The Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences is ranked 10th in the nation in both undergraduate and graduate aerospace engineering education among public universities by US News & World Report.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ivy Hooks</span> Mathematician and engineer

Ivy Fay Hooks is an American mathematician and engineer who worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She joined NASA after graduating from the University of Houston with a master's degree in mathematics and physics in 1965. Her first assignment was with the Apollo program, where she worked on the modeling of lighting on the Moon and the dynamics of the launch escape system, among other projects. She then went on to play an important role in the design and development of the Space Shuttle, being one of only two women engineers assigned to the original design team for the orbiter.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Andrew J. Stofan</span> Engineer

Andrew John Stofan is an American engineer. He worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at the Lewis Research Center. In the 1960s he played an important role in the development of the Centaur upper stage rocket, which pioneered the use of liquid hydrogen as a propellant. In the 1970s he managed the Atlas-Centaur and Titan-Centaur Project Offices, and oversaw the launch of the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 probes to Jupiter and Saturn, the Viking missions to Mars, Helios probes to the Sun, and the Voyager probes to Jupiter and the outer planets. He was director of the Lewis Research Center from 1982 to 1986.


  1. "Required Education". Retrieved 2015-06-22.
  2. "Education, Aerospace Engineers". Archived from the original on 2015-06-22. Retrieved 2015-06-22.
  3. Encyclopedia of Aerospace Engineering. John Wiley & Sons, 2010. ISBN   978-0-470-75440-5.
  4. 1 2 Stanzione, Kaydon Al (1989). "Engineering". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 18 (15 ed.). Chicago. p. 563.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  5. 1 2 3 4 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. 1 2 3 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.
  7. "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.
  8. "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.
  9. "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.
  10. "Sir George Cayley". U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. Archived from the original on 24 February 2014. 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.
  11. Kermit Van Every (1988). "Aeronautical engineering". Encyclopedia Americana. Vol. 1. Grolier Incorporated.
  12. John D. Anderson Jr. (2010). "Brief History of the Early Development of Theoretical and Experimental Fluid Dynamics". Encyclopedia of Aerospace Engineering. Retrieved April 2, 2023. The fundamental advances in fluid dynamics that occurred in the 18th century began with the work of Daniel Bernoulli (1700–1782).
  13. "Messerschmitt Me 262 A-1a Schwalbe (Swallow)" . Retrieved November 20, 2022.
  14. "A Brief History of NASA". NASA. Archived from the original on 2010-11-18. Retrieved 2012-03-20.
  15. German, Kent. "Boeing 747: Queen of the Skies for 50 years". CNET. Retrieved 2019-09-11.
  16. "Boeing 747-100 - Specifications - Technical Data / Description". Retrieved 2019-09-11.
  17. Zhang, Benjamin. "The Concorde made its final flight 15 years ago and supersonic air travel has yet to recover — here's a look back at its awesome history". Business Insider. Retrieved 2019-09-10.
  18. Guy, Jack (February 28, 2022). "World's largest plane destroyed in Ukraine". CNN. Retrieved November 20, 2022.
  19. "History of the Airbus A380". 2019-03-31. Retrieved 2019-09-11.
  20. "Aerospace Engineering definition" (PDF). Atlantic International University. Retrieved April 30, 2023.
  21. Gruntman, Mike (September 19, 2007). "The Time for Academic Departments in Astronautical Engineering". AIAA SPACE 2007 Conference & Exposition Agenda. AIAA SPACE 2007 Conference & Exposition. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Archived from the original on October 18, 2007.
  22. "Aircraft Structures in Aerospace Engineering". Aerospace Engineering, Aviation News, Salary, Jobs and Museums. Archived from the original on 2015-11-09. Retrieved 2015-11-06.
  23. "Entry education, Aerospace Engineers". Archived from the original on 2015-06-22. Retrieved 2015-06-22.
  24. Bailey, Charlotte (7 November 2008). "Oxford compiles list of top ten irritating phrases" . The Daily Telegraph . Archived from the original on 2022-01-11. Retrieved 2008-11-18. 10 - It's not rocket science
  25. 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.

Further reading