What Does it Mean to Study Aerospace Engineering?
The always-evolving field of aerospace engineering is one of the most challenging career paths in the world. Technology is advancing at a rate unparalleled since the Industrial Revolution. Aerospace engineers are at the forefront of that expansion, as they research, design, and develop high-speed transportation vehicles, such as:
- Space stations
- Lunar vehicles
Aerospace engineering majors learn about the analysis, synthesis, and design of aeronautical and aerospace vehicles. Students can specialize in either aeronautics (aircraft design) or aerospace (spacecraft design) at an undergraduate level.
An engineering degree in Aerospace combines the unique tradition of aerospace technology with engineering and management methods from related disciplines. Although very closely related to air transportation and design, aerospace technology is a little more intensive. Some aerospace programs emphasize hands-on training and subsystem design, while others rely more on lectures and fieldwork.
Currently in the United States, only a handful of institutions have earned accreditation to offer degrees in aerospace engineering.
What Kinds of Courses Do Aerospace Engineers Take?
The general academic program for aerospace engineers begins with two years of science and basic engineering coursework. After that, two more years of specialized courses allow students to hone their career paths. Specialized courses cover topics like:
What Kinds of Jobs Can I Expect as an Aerospace Engineer?
After earning their college degrees, aerospace engineering majors can choose from a wide array of careers, including positions in research, design and development, field service, marketing, software development and teaching.
Educational and career goals vary from program to program, centered on the two main branches of aerospace engineering, aircraft/missiles and spacecraft. Some institutions provide a curriculum that covers both areas. Other schools completely separate the two disciplines and offer degree programs in both aeronautics and aerospace engineering. A handful of universities offer only aeronautic or aerospace engineering. Thanks to advances in technology, several universities now offer online master's degrees in aerospace engineering, allowing working professionals to study without leaving their current jobs in this competitive field.
When considering an education in aerospace engineering, prepare to encounter a significant amount of actual design and implementation in addition to coursework. Career choices are nearly limitless, since the entire aerospace field grows at such a rapid pace.
One of NASA's top female aerospace engineers took time to answer questions from students on the NASA website. She explains some of the benefits of her exciting career:
"My work is different every day, and changes from year to year. This is necessary for me since I get bored easily. The work is challenging (which keeps boredom away). You get to work on things that really make a difference to people; it might be a space instrument to measure atmospheric pollution or an improvement to an aircraft that might ultimately allow the price of an airline ticket to go down.
As a NASA aerospace engineer, I get to work on all kinds of projects that are in the news, like shuttle and space station, and everyone on my street wants to know about what I'm doing at work. It is really nice to work on things that people have an interest in, and to work on things that even kids think are interesting (no offense, but high school students are pretty tough critics!)."
- Jill Marlowe, Head of NASA's Mechanical Design Branch
Types of Aerospace Engineering Degrees
To enter a bachelor's degree program in aerospace engineering, you must possess a high school diploma or a GED. In addition, admissions officers review an applicant's transcript to decide whether a student could be a successful aerospace engineering major. Prospective aerospace engineering majors should take as many science courses as possible. Understanding foreign languages, especially German and Japanese, also paves the way for success in this global specialty.
Associate Degrees in Aerospace Engineering
Unlike other engineering specialties, which offer students the opportunity to qualify for apprentice positions by completing an associate's degree program, the aerospace engineering industry encourages job seekers to enroll directly into a four-year bachelor's degree program.
A handful of schools do offer associate degrees in aerospace engineering, but they reserve those positions for engineers who have degrees in related fields. By allowing those engineers to catch up with their colleagues, associate degree programs allow career changers to enter the profession while maintaining the consistency and quality of education for the benefit of public safety.
Bachelor's Degrees in Aerospace Engineering
Most aerospace engineering majors earn their bachelor's degree in four years. In an aerospace engineering degree program, students should expect to enroll in a series of specialized classes. These classes will often include subjects like:
- Structural analysis
- Linear control systems
- Propulsion systems
- Vehicle design
- Aerodynamics/fluid mechanics
- Stability & control
- Flight mechanics
- Wind tunnel testing
- Orbital mechanics
- Spacecraft systems
- Orientation & control
- Power & thermal control
What Can You Do With a College Degree in Aerospace Engineering?
Most careers in aerospace engineering involve designing and developing flight-worthy aircraft. Your education level determines your eligibility for various types of job opportunities. The higher the degree you earn, the more positions you may pursue, and the higher the salary you can expect.
Most aerospace engineers work directly within the aerospace industry. This sector comprises many organizations, such as aerospace prime contractors (and major suppliers), the propulsion industry, academia, NASA, the Department of Defense (and other government agencies) and the airlines. Aerospace industry professionals work in research and development, marketing, computer applications and more.
In order to have an effective career in the research and development industry, a master's degree is recommended. A doctorate is usually required for individuals wishing to teach at a university level or in advanced research.
Not limited to aerospace engineering alone, students have used a bachelor's degree in the field to go on to graduate degrees in medicine, law, and business. Here are a few of the different career paths available to aerospace engineering majors.
Commercial Aerospace Engineers
A quick check of any travel website will prove that the airline business remains one of America's most competitive industries. With rising fuel costs, increased pressure to reduce CO2 emissions, and growing passenger demand for improved amenities, airlines rely on commercial aerospace engineers to develop innovative, efficient new forms of air travel.
Although many commercial aerospace engineers build aircraft that can stand the test of time, the threat of climate change and increased delay at airports (both problems stemming from too many planes in the sky) are forcing designers back to the drawing board. Therefore, expert design firms invest significant resources into developing new aircraft that meet these needs while allowing for creative repurposing in the future.
Military Aerospace Engineers
It's no secret that the U.S. military is stretched thin. As they attempt to do more with less money, military aerospace engineers work hard to develop innovative new tools to combat enemies effectively while minimizing civilian casualties.
In recent years, military aerospace engineers have developed astonishing devices like remote control surveillance aircraft and laser-guided weapons systems. Tools like these allow soldiers to fight wars with less collateral damage on both sides of a conflict.
Job opportunities in this field used to be limited to a handful of potential employers. But advances in technology and worldwide competitions like the X-Prize have revolutionized the space industry. More than ever before, private companies are making plans to send tourists, researchers, and business professionals into space - even if the flights only last a few hours.
Companies like Virgin Atlantic and dozens of smaller countries just launching their own space exploration programs demand more qualified aerospace engineers to (literally) help their ideas get off the ground. Because of the tremendous risks involved, many spacecraft designers spend most of their time working on supercomputer simulations. This new technology significantly reduces expenses for their employers, while assuring the safety for a craft's eventual passengers.
Engineering, Science and Data Processing Managers
As aerospace engineering shifts more of its research and development to simulations running on supercomputers, a new breed of data processing managers has emerged to make these simulations more efficient and more effective. By analyzing data flow and deploying state-of-the-art solutions, these specialists can help significantly reduce the amount of time it takes for a new product to reach the market.
In addition, many data processing managers serve as another fail-safe system in major manufacturing operations. They can monitor and report on data that indicate problems with a project, and their background in aerospace engineering provides the skill to participate in the search for effective solutions.
Inspectors and Compliance Officers
The safety of passengers and people on the ground depends on the quality work of aerospace engineers and their teams. Therefore, many experienced aerospace engineers serve as inspectors and compliance officers, who enforce a wide range of laws and regulations.
Inspectors work for government safety boards as well as for private companies. In fact, aerospace manufacturers employ many in-house inspectors in order to detect potential faults or violations before an official inspection takes place. A growing number of inspectors work as consultants for smaller companies who want to spread their innovation to the public, but have not yet grown the resources to maintain large, in-house compliance staffs.
Mechanical engineers design, research, and develop tools, engines, and machines, including many of the main and peripheral systems used in aerospace engineering. These systems can be as enormous as a rocket propulsion engine or as small as a warning sensor in a space shuttle.
Drafters prepare the technical drawings and specification sheets that are used by production and manufacturing personnel to build spacecraft, aircraft, and more. These drawings must be incredibly detailed, encompassing every facet of the craft and including views from all sides.
Salary Expectations for Aerospace Engineers
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the median annual earnings of aerospace engineers were $94,780 in 2009. According to a Georgetown University report based on 2009 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, workers who held a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering and no further degree earned a median salary of $87,000.
Aerospace Engineering Certification, Licensure and Associations
State and federal governments do not require any specific licenses for aerospace engineers. Most employers rely on the solid foundation of a job seeker's academic credentials. Licensing and certification is reserved for the products designed and developed by aerospace engineers. These certifications, for the most part, come from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and, in the realm of space travel, are self-imposed by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).