What Is Aerospace Engineering?

Required coursework, job prospects, and average salaries for graduates

SpaceX: The Privately Funded Aerospace Company Founded By Elon Musk
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Aerospace engineering is a STEM field focused on the design, development, testing, and operation of aircraft and spacecraft. The field encompasses the creation of everything from miniaturized drones to heavy-lift interplanetary rockets. All aerospace engineers need to have excellent knowledge of physics since all flying machines are governed by the rules of motion, energy, and force.

Key Takeaways: Aerospace Engineering

  • The field deals with things that fly. Aeronautical engineers focus on aircraft while astronautical engineers focus on spacecraft.
  • Aerospace engineering draws heavily upon physics and math; even tiny miscalculations can be fatal when working with aircraft and spacecraft.
  • Aerospace engineering is a highly specialized field, and the major is not offered by all schools with engineering programs.

What Do Aerospace Engineers Do?

In the simplest terms, aerospace engineers work on anything that flies. They design, test, produce, and maintain a wide range of piloted and autonomous aircraft and space vehicles. The field is often broken down into two sub-specialties:

  • Aeronautical engineers work on aircraft; that is, they design and test vehicles that fly within the earth's atmosphere. Drones, helicopters, commercial aircraft, fighter jets, and cruise missiles all fall within the purview of an aeronautical engineer.
  • Astronautical engineers deal with the design, development, and testing of vehicles that leave the earth's atmosphere. This includes a wide range of military, government, and private-sector applications such as rockets, missiles, space vehicles, planetary probes, and satellites.

The two sub-fields overlap considerably in the skill sets they require, and typically both specialties are housed within the same department at universities. The biggest employers of aerospace engineers tend to have products and research that involve both aeronautics and astronautics. This is true of Boeing, Northrop Grumman, NASA, SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), General Electric, and several other companies.

The nature of aerospace engineering jobs varies significantly. Some engineers spend most of their time in front of a computer employing modeling and simulation tools. Others work more in air tunnels and in the field testing scale models and actual aircraft and space vehicles. It is also common for aerospace engineers to be involved in assessing project proposals, calculating safety risks, and developing manufacturing processes.

What Do Aerospace Engineers Study in College?

Flying machines are governed by the laws of physics, so all aerospace engineers have significant grounding in physics and related fields. Aircraft and spacecraft also need to withstand tremendous forces and temperature extremes while remaining lightweight. For this reason, aerospace engineers often will have solid knowledge of materials science.

Aerospace engineers need to have strong skills in math, and required courses will almost always include multi-variable calculus and differential equations. To graduate in four years, students will ideally have completed single-variable calculus in high school. Core courses will also include general chemistry, mechanics, and electromagnetism.

Specialized courses in the field are likely to include topics such as these:

  • Aerodynamics
  • Space Flight Dynamics
  • Propulsion
  • Structural Analysis
  • Control System Analysis and Design
  • Fluid Dynamics

Aerospace engineers who are hoping to advance their careers and earning potential would be wise to supplement their engineering coursework with courses in writing/communication, management, and business. Skills in these areas are essential for high-level engineers who oversee other engineers and technicians.

Best Schools for Aerospace Engineering

Many small engineering programs simply do not offer aerospace engineering because of the highly specialized nature of the field and the need for access to expensive equipment and facilities. The schools below, listed alphabetically, all have impressive programs.

  • California Institute of Technology: Caltech is an unlikely school to appear on this list, for it offers an Aerospace minor, not a major. Students interested in Aerospace engineering will complete the minor requirements in addition to a major in a specialization such as mechanical engineering. Caltech's 3 to 1 student/faculty ratio and excellent Graduate Aerospace Laboratories make it a place where even an aerospace engineering minor can work closely with faculty and graduate students in the field.
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University: While Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach doesn't tend to top the rankings of aerospace engineering programs, its laser-focus on aeronautics and a campus with its own airfield can make it an ideal institution for students with interests in the earth-bound side of aerospace engineering. The university is also more accessible than any of the other schools featured here: SAT and ACT scores that are just a little above average will often be adequate.
  • Georgia Tech: With more than 1,200 aerospace engineering majors, Georgia Tech has one of the largest programs in the country. With size comes many resources including over 40-tenure track faculty members, a collaborative learning lab (the Aero Maker Space), and numerous research facilities that can handle combustion processes and high speed aerodynamic testing.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT has been home to a wind tunnel since 1896, and its AeroAstro is the oldest and one of the most prestigious in the country. Graduates have gone on to top positions at NASA, the Air Force, and many private companies. Whether designing drones or microsatellites, students receive plenty of hands-on experience in facilities such as the Space Systems Lab and Gelb Lab.
  • Purdue University: Purdue has graduated 24 astronauts, 15 of them from the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The university is home to six Centers of Excellence related to aerospace engineering, and students have plenty of opportunities to get involved with research including through SURF, the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program.
  • Stanford University: Stanford is one of the most prestigious and selective universities in the country, and its Aeronautics & Astronautics program consistently ranks among the best in the country. The undergraduate program is project-based, and all students learn to conceive, design, implement, and operate systems related to aerospace engineering. Stanford's location in the heart of Silicon Valley gives it an edge for engineering research related to automation, embedded programming, and system design.
  • University of Michigan: Founded over 100 years ago, Michigan's aerospace program has a long and rich history. The program graduates around 100 undergraduates a year, and they are supported by 27 tenure-track faculty members. The university is home to 17 research facilities that support work in aerospace engineering. These include the Peach Mountain Observatory, a supersonic wind tunnel, and the Propulsion and Combustion Engineering Laboratory.

Average Salaries for Aerospace Engineers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for aerospace engineers in the United States was $113,030 in 2017 (mechanics and technicians who work on aircraft and avionics equipment can expect to make half that amount). PayScale presents a typical early career salary for aerospace engineers as $68,700 per year, and the average mid-career pay as $113,900 per year. Salaries can vary considerably depending on whether the employer is a private, government, or educational institution.

These pay ranges place aerospace engineers in the middle of all engineering fields. Aerospace experts tend to make a little less than electrical engineers, but a little more than mechanical engineers and materials scientists.