Aerospace engineering is the field that deals with the design and development of aircraft, spacecraft and even missiles. The branch of aerospace engineering that deals with aircraft is sometimes called aeronautical engineering, and the branch dealing with spacecraft is called astronautical engineering. Aerospace engineers may be employed in commercial positions or in government agencies and defense groups. The engineering skills developed in an online aerospace engineering program may also be useful in related areas such as the automotive industry or a career as a technical sales engineer. Depending on the career chosen, responsibilities may include some or all of the following:
- Analyzing and testing existing technologies and prototypes
- Developing, analyzing and testing new technologies
- Using computer-aided design (CAD) programs
- Collaborating with specialists and non-specialists to complete projects
- Leading research teams
Careers in this field do not generally require professional certification. However, positions at federal government agencies may require security clearances that include a background check and proof of U.S. citizenship. Many aerospace engineers have, or go on to earn, advanced graduate degrees.
Coursework in Aerospace Engineering Degree Programs
While required coursework depends on an individual's eventual career goals as well as the university and program selected, there are subjects common to online aerospace engineering degree programs.
Degrees in aerospace engineering may require calculus, differential equations and linear algebra courses. Calculus courses generally cover differentiation and integration of simple algebraic and exponential functions as well as applications to graphing, marginal analysis, optimization, areas and volumes.
Differential equations seek to relate physical qualities with their rates of change in various circumstances, and linear algebra deals with vector spaces and linear mappings. In order to succeed in calculus and other advanced math courses, students may need to take prerequisites that include college algebra or geometry, particularly if no advanced mathematics courses were taken in high school.
The word physics means knowledge of nature, and it is the study of matter and its motion through space and time. Students in physics courses learn about research methods as well as the laws of nature, including the mechanics of motion, forces, energy, momentum, wave motion and heat, and their application to a range of professions. Physics courses may include laboratory components.
Aerospace engineers work with sophisticated computer programs to develop and analyze spacecraft, aircraft, missiles and their various components. In addition to the craft themselves, guidance and navigation systems, control systems, communication systems and other types of instrumentation all have to be developed and integrated into the final product. For this reason, learning a programming language such as C++ or Fortran may be required or recommended, depending on a student's goals. Learning how to work with computer-aided design (CAD) programs may also be required.
Although physics is one of the natural sciences, depending on their career goals, aerospace engineering students may take courses in one or more of the other natural sciences such as chemistry, astronomy or meteorology. Chemistry is a physical science that addresses the composition, structure, properties and change of matter. Astronomy is the science of objects and phenomena outside the earth's atmosphere. Meteorology is the study of phenomena within the earth's atmosphere. Many natural sciences courses contain both lecture and lab components.
The bulk of upper-division coursework in an online aerospace engineering degree program will be engineering courses. Required course topics may include the following:
Many programs allow or encourage students to specialize, and common specializations are chemical, civil, computer, electrical, environmental, industrial, mechanical, petroleum, plastics, safety and systems engineering.
Many of these subjects are considered challenging by many people. If one is pursuing an online aerospace engineering degree, having strong study habits is especially essential to success. While people may be drawn to these careers because they are passionate about space exploration or national defense, it is important to remember that this is a highly technical field that can be very fast paced. Having a strong background in math and science is important, especially for those interested in pursuing an advanced degree. In addition to coursework, workplace experience is very important, so students should be prepared to seek out internships or similar opportunities while in school.
Interview With an Aerospace Engineering Professor
We spoke with Tom I-P. Shih, Ph.D., who is a professor and head of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University. He discussed how to strategically pursue a degree in aerospace engineering.
What are the skills, interests and personality traits necessary for a student to be successful in the field of aerospace engineering?
“As in any engineering discipline, the skill sets needed are (1) a strong background in physics, mathematical and experimental methods of analysis, and English, and (2) the ability to think critically and creatively to solve engineering problems as well as the ability to keep learning.
“The physics needed in aerospace engineering include fluid mechanics/aerodynamics to determine the shape of the aircraft that will minimize drag and maximize lift; solid mechanics and materials to determine the structure that will hold the shape of the aircraft and withstand all of the forces exerted on the aircraft during flight with minimum weight; thermodynamics, combustion and propulsion systems to design the engines for the aircraft; and the flight mechanics and stability to control the aircraft from takeoff to landing.
“If the interest is the spacecraft and its mission design, then one must understand astrodynamics, space weather, rocket propellants and propulsion, thermal management of spacecraft, control of spacecraft for all kinds of maneuvers in space with gravitational pulls by the earth, the moon and sun, space communication, and more. The mathematics needed include calculus as well as analytical and numerical methods for solving ordinary and partial differential equations.
“Strong command of the English language is critical since aerospace engineers work in teams to address huge problems such as the design of an entire aircraft or spacecraft with all of its complexities, where precise, concise and clear communications are essential.”
What is the most rewarding part of a career in aerospace engineering? Why should students pursue a career in this field?
“The most rewarding part is seeing the fruits of your work that inspire generations and/or have huge impact on humankind. Imagine if you were on the team that designed NASA’s Apollo spacecraft, NASA’s space shuttle, Boeing's 787, the F22, or the joint Strike Fighter. You can sense the pride.”
What advice would you give to students who are considering earning a degree in aerospace engineering?
“There are two parts. The first part is to develop a strong background in the fundamentals in mathematics, science and English. Ask yourself and the teachers tough questions. Do not accept an answer readily. Technologies change quickly, but the fundamentals that will be used to develop the technologies do not change that quickly. Thus, you must understand the fundamentals well.
“The second part is to dream. Dream of things that you want to do but cannot today because the technology isn’t there yet or hasn’t been invented yet because no one thought about it. Your dream is your vision, which could be a product for the future. Many ideas from science fiction books and movies such as Star Trek are now realities because people get inspired by their ideas and vision and work on them to make them into a reality. You must have dreams to come up with visions worthy of your efforts.”
Career Outlook for Professionals With Aerospace Engineering Degrees
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Employment Statistics and Occupational Outlook Handbook, job growth and salary projections for careers in this field are as follows:
Employment of aerospace engineers is projected to grow 7 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. Growth will be driven by national defense concerns and increased regulation of commercial aircraft. Average salaries generally range from $66,110 to $155,240 per year, with a median annual wage of $105,380, according to 2014 data. States with the highest employment in this profession include California, Washington and Texas.
Aerospace engineering and operations technicians
Employment of aerospace engineering and operations technicians is projected to show little or no change from 2012 to 2022. This is primarily due to budgetary restrictions in the government agencies employing such individuals as well as technological advances that lead to increased productivity among existing workers. In 2014, salaries generally ranged between $38,440 and $93,340 per year, with a median annual wage of $63,780. States with the highest employment in this profession include California, Texas and Georgia.
Employment of sales engineers is projected to grow 9 percent from 2012 to 2022, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. Growth will be driven by the increase in technologically advanced products requiring industry expertise to market and sell to the appropriate audience. In 2014, salaries generally ranged between $55,850 and $160,250 per year, with a median annual wage of $96,340. States with the highest employment in this profession include California, Texas and Illinois, though many in this industry travel for work.
Employment of materials engineers is projected to show little or no change from 2012 to 2022. Despite slow growth, job prospects may be good as more advanced workers will be promoted or retire, leaving openings at the entry level. Average salaries generally range from $53,290 to $138,450 per year, with a median annual wage of $87,690, according to 2014 data. States with the highest employment in this profession include California, Texas and New York.
Aerospace engineers, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/aerospace-engineers.htm#tab-1
17-2011 Aerospace Engineers, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes172011.htm
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