What is an Aerospace Engineer?

If you are interested in designing and building machines that fly, working as an aerospace engineer may be the right career choice for you!

An aerospace engineer designs, tests, and manages the manufacturing of aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, and missiles. They also test prototypes to make sure they function properly according to design, and develop new technologies to be used in space exploration, aviation, and defense systems.

Aerospace engineers can specialize in a specific type of aerospace product, such as missiles and rockets, military fighter jets, spacecraft, helicopters, or commercial aircraft. Or they may choose to specialize in specific areas, such as instrumentation and communication, navigation and control, structural design, guidance, or production methods.

They work mostly in analysis and design, manufacturing, industries that perform research and development, and the federal government.

What does an Aerospace Engineer do?

An aerospace engineer looking at drawings and designs.

Aerospace engineers design, analyze, test, troubleshoot and develop advanced technology in defense systems, spacecraft, and aviation. They develop the standards for quality control and design processes, identify issues for products that aren't working properly, and try to find solutions to fix those issues.

Aerospace engineers may choose to specialize in areas such as aerodynamic fluid flow, structural design, guidance / navigation and control, instrumentation and communication, robotics, or propulsion and combustion.

They can specialize in designing different types of aerospace products, such as commercial and military airplanes and helicopters, remotely piloted aircraft and rotorcraft, spacecraft, including launch vehicles and satellites, and military missiles and rockets.

They often become experts in one or more related fields: aerodynamics, thermodynamics, celestial mechanics, flight mechanics, propulsion, acoustics, and guidance and control systems.

Duties and responsibilities of aerospace engineers:

  • Assess proposals and design requirements
  • Determine if projects are technically and financially feasible
  • Go over budgets, timescales and specifications with clients
  • Do theoretical and practical research
  • Evaluate designs to confirm that products meet engineering principles
  • Ensure designs meet customer requirements
  • Direct, coordinate, produce and implement design, manufacture and test procedures
  • Measure and improve performance of aircraft, systems, and components
  • Assist in assembling aircraft
  • Test, evaluate, modify and re-test products
  • Determine if proposed projects will result in safe aircraft and parts
  • Ensure that projects meet quality standards
  • Inspect malfunctioning or damaged products
  • Identify sources of problems and possible solutions
  • Write reports, manuals and documentation
  • Provide technical advice
  • Analyze and interpret data
  • Work towards completion dates and deadlines

Aerospace engineers can apply their knowledge to any part of the engineering process: design, analysis, integration, testing, deployment, or maintenance. They can also hone in on the analysis areas, such as: mechanical / structural design, dynamics, programming, and electronics.

Aerospace engineers are typically well-suited to project engineering, systems engineering, and business roles - these are roles where system-level knowledge as well as math and science knowledge is needed to make, and back up, any decisions.

Aerospace engineers can choose to specialize in one of two types of engineering: aeronautical or astronautical.

Aeronautical Engineer
An aeronautical engineer uses his/her technical knowledge to study an aircraft's aerodynamic performance. This includes the aircraft's materials, propulsion system, and aircraft design.

Aeronautical engineers design, develop, manufacture and maintain both civil aircraft and military aircraft, aeronautical systems and aeronautical components in order to improve fuel efficiency and improve flight safety. They also keep in mind the importance of reducing costs and lowering the environmental impact of air travel.

Astronautical Engineer
Astronautical engineering deals primarily with overseeing the entire process for the development of spacecraft that functions outside the atmosphere of Earth (versus an aeronautical engineer who deals primarily with aircraft that functions inside the atmosphere of Earth).

An astronautical engineer, also known as a rocket scientist, studies spacecraft and focuses on areas that include thermodynamics, aerodynamics, celestial mechanics, propulsion, guidance systems, and flight mechanics.

Spacecraft may include products such as: rockets, remote sensing satellites, missiles, space launchers, space vehicles, navigational systems, planetary probes, and communication / direct broadcasting / reconnaissance satellites.

Are you suited to be an aerospace engineer?

Aerospace engineers have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also realistic, meaning they’re independent, stable, persistent, genuine, practical, and thrifty.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if aerospace engineer is one of your top career matches.

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What is the workplace of an Aerospace Engineer like?

Aerospace engineers work in offices, laboratories, or manufacturing environments where they design or build aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, or systems for national defense. They work for either private companies or the federal government where they can engage in manufacturing, analysis and design, and research and development.

Typical employers include:

  • Aerospace and aero-engine companies
  • Airline operators
  • Research and development organizations
  • Contract agencies
  • Consultancies
  • The Civil Service
  • The armed forces
  • Government agencies such as The Ministry of Defence
  • Universities

Aerospace engineers typically spend a considerable amount of time in office environments, working with computers and sophisticated software programs in order to assist with design elements. These software programs build virtual models, and it is up to the aerospace engineer to run test simulations and perform evaluations before the manufacturing process begins.

Frequently Asked Questions

In what areas can aerospace engineers work?

The aerospace engineering industry is very intriguing, dynamic, and exciting, especially in our modern times. Individuals that have a thirst for scientific and mathematical knowledge are often drawn to this industry, especially those that are curious about things that fly and those who have a desire to improve our current technology.

Aerospace engineers can work in a variety of areas and industries, such as in the technology, defense or aircraft/space industry, or for the federal government.

There are many opportunities available for individuals that choose this career, both in finding positions that will suit their interests and in advancement opportunities.

Aerospace engineers discussing design elements of a flight vehicle.

Aerospace Engineering and NASA
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government. It is responsible for the civilian space exploration program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research.

NASA hires 20 different types of engineers, with the most common types being aerospace, general, and computer engineers. Some of the best aerospace engineers in the country work for NASA, and many who aspire to become aerospace engineers say that working for NASA is their ultimate goal.

Aerospace engineers that work for NASA are researchers and developers of technologies and theoretical experiments, astronautical manufacturers, programmers, and designers. They produce hardware and software that ensure the design process is safe enough for flight by testing, analyzing and running spacecraft flight systems inside and outside the atmosphere.

Some NASA aerospace engineers are responsible for researching near-space Astronautics and Deep Space Probes which reach beyond the Solar System. Some design flight vehicles and fix any errors in those already designed and built.

Aerospace Engineering and Aircraft Manufacture/Testing/Repair/Maintenance
Many aerospace engineers work for companies that specialize in manufacturing, testing, repairing and maintaining flight vehicles and their various components. Often, large airline operators have their own repair and maintenance sections.

Aerospace engineers that work in this industry supervise the assembly and installation of equipment, such as airframes and engines. They conduct tests to make sure the design specifications and requirements are met, and test to measure the performance of a part or of an aircraft.

When engines or engine components fail, they investigate the reasons why and develop procedures and schedules for the repairs. They often participate in flight test programs so as to measure things like take-off distances, rate of climb, stall speeds, manoeuvrability and landing capacities.

Aerospace Engineering and Defense
There are many positions in the defense industry for aerospace engineers, as most countries around the world have branches of the Department of Defense.

Responsibilities may include:

  • Creating prototypes of aircraft and missiles
  • Testing flight vehicles for performance and structural stability
  • Checking for on-going air worthiness-
  • Designing innovative and experimental aircraft
  • Choosing and overseeing contractors’ operations
  • Checking and monitoring the design and construction of new flight vehicles
  • Monitoring production costs
  • Keeping up with in-service support and maintenance
  • Making sure the quality of the equipment is up to code
  • Working on missiles and other important facets of defense

The duties of an aerospace defense engineer will vary depending on the specific job title. Positions for those interested in this field include aerospace defense design engineer, aerospace defense test engineer, and aerospace structural design engineer:

Aerospace Defense Design Engineers create designs and prototypes of missiles, defense systems, and aircraft by using flight simulation software and CAD (computer-aided design).

After meeting with clients and understanding their product needs, aerospace defense design engineers develop design criteria by coordinating with structural and research departments on the planning stages. They also create methods for testing purposes, monitor production costs, and standardize specifications.

Aerospace Defense Test Engineers specifically focus on planning and implementing operational stress tests for their clients to ensure high quality standards and excellent performance.

They do this by auditing the design process, analyzing specifications, developing inspection procedures, following international standards of quality management, and making certain things are in compliance with government regulations.

Aerospace Structural Design Engineers research, analyze, and approve materials that are going to be used by defence companies and the Department of Defense.

Some of their duties and responsibilities include: using CAD (computer-aided design) to analyze an aircraft's structure and optimize it's design; preparing technical reports that document analysis, observation, and recommendations; evaluating product data, production costs, loading conditions, and project durations; designing specifications; and drafting reports.

Aerospace Engineering and Software Development
It makes sense to have aerospace engineers involved in the development of software specific to the aerospace industry, since they use this type of software for many of their tasks.

Aerospace startups like Space X, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are examples of technology and aerospace merging together and requiring specific software. As air and space travel become more and more popular with consumers, technology will have an even more important part to play in the aerospace industry.

Aerospace engineering companies need software developers and consultants that are familiar with the aerospace industry's processing and data requirements.

Because of the highly advanced systems that airplanes and spacecrafts now need in order to function properly, software designers and computer programmers are needed to create and develop special programs (and flight simulators) specific for that industry.

Aerospace Engineering and The Travel, Transportation, and Space Industry
Flying makes a lot of sense when travelling long distances because of its convenience, time efficiency, and cost savings. Flight also makes sense when it comes to the exchange of goods and services, making the world a much smaller and more accessible place.

Aerospace engineers are needed to build and improve on all sorts of things when it comes to aircraft, from more fuel efficient wing designs to better navigation systems.

There are many places of employment in the travel and transportation industry for aerospace engineers including positions at the US Department of Transit, and the Federal Aviation Administration (the FAA oversees air traffic control and aviation safety).

The field of aerospace engineering is also expected to ramp up in the future to include space tourism and travel, and many more aerospace engineers will be needed to fuel this growth and to launch the first adventurous space tourists into space.

Richard Branson's company, Virgin Galactic, is just one of a few companies at the forefront of this field, and has launched its spacecraft, the USS Unity, into space twice already. Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, and his company, Blue Origin, has also had successful launches, and plans to set up a base on the moon. He hopes to work together with NASA to do so.

The space industry is seamlessly tied to aerospace engineering, as aerospace engineers are needed to both get people to space, and get them back to planet Earth. In the past, space programs, including the Apollo missions, and the Hubble telescope, have gained international acclaim. Aerospace engineers made all of these projects possible.

Two recent space missions in the US include maintenance and research at the International Space Station, and the Curiosity Rover mission.

The International Space Station (ISS) brings together astronauts from various countries to collaborate in discovering the differences between earth and space life.

The Curiosity Rover is a car-sized rover designed to investigate the Martian climate and geology and assess whether the environmental conditions are favourable for microbial life. As of June 27, 2019, Curiosity has been on Mars for 2516 total days since landing on August 6, 2012.

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Aerospace Engineers are also known as:
Aeronautical Engineer