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Practical Answers and Advice from Practicing Engineers

You're considering a career in aerospace, but you still have questions. This is the page where all the answers (or at least most of them) will be revealed. We've consulted with aerospace engineers to answer the questions we hear most from students. They're listed below. Just click on the question to jump to the answer.

The Questions We Hear Most From Students
What's the difference between aeronautics and astronautics engineering?
Why should I be an aerospace engineer?
What does an aerospace engineer do?
The Aerospace Engineer
The Scientist
The Technician
How can I become an aerospace engineer?
What should I consider when I look at colleges?
Does AIAA offer scholarships for aerospace engineering undergraduates?
How can I find out if a particular aerospace program is accredited?
How can I find out which university programs are ranked best?
What do I need to study in order to be an aerospace engineer?
How does AIAA help in my career as an aerospace engineer?
How does AIAA help me as an aerospace engineering student?

What is the difference between aeronautics and astronautics engineering? (Back to Top)

By definition, the aerospace engineering is involved with all phases of research and development in aeronautics and astronautics. Aeronautical engineering works specifically with aircraft or aeronautics. Astronautical engineering works specifically with spacecraft or astronautics. As our technology races forward, the industry that once built aircraft and then spacecraft is now building aerospacecraft such as the Space Shuttle, National Aerospace Plane (NASP), or the single stage to orbit X-33. Thus, two interrelated disciplines have merged into one mature "aerospace" industry. This is not to imply that there is no distinction between aeronautics and astronautics. They are two very separate areas that operate according to completely different natural laws and theories.

Why should I be an aerospace engineer? (Back to Top)

It took thousands of years before technology was sophisticated enough to develop a successful powered aircraft. Yet less than a century later, aircraft fly many times faster than the speed of sound, and spacecraft travel to other planets in the solar system, and beyond. We have come a long way since that windy day at Kitty Hawk. Much of this could have taken place within your lifetime, but more than likely you are on the threshold of even more exciting endeavors. You will see things like an earth orbiting space station, colonization of the Moon or Mars, space-based solar power stations, an active search for extraterrestrial life, and the capability to travel to any point on earth in only a couple of hours. Thanks to aerospace engineering, all of this can happen within your lifetime.

When powered flight began, it was a highly dangerous endeavor for the courageous and farsighted. In less than a century, it has grown into one of the most complex, exacting, and advanced known technologies. An amazing array of equipment and accomplishments followed those first flights, each new advance building on a foundation of previous research, development, testing, and operational experience. The past few decades have seen the aerospace industry and its supporting sciences and technologies expand beyond the Earth’s thin atmosphere to embrace manned and unmanned travel through space to the moon and planets. Plans for the colonization of space are well underway, and you could be a major factor in this development. Aerospace technology has also expanded to involve itself with the design and development of new earthbound vehicles, such as performance automobiles, hydrofoil ships, deep-diving vessels for oceanographic research, and high-speed rail-type systems.

Aerospace engineering and technology are probably the most specialized and yet the most diversified fields there are. Products and spin-offs from aerospace projects are now used in many household items, including Teflon, Velcro, and freeze-dried foods. Aerospace professionals may apply their knowledge to build better aircraft, send a spacecraft to Mars, or design a satellite used in predicting the weather. Yet these same aerospace professionals may use their knowledge to study how the wind will affect a new building in a large urban area, design an energy-conserving skyscraper, or research an artificial heart.

The future of aerospace is as exciting and challenging as its history. It will continue to offer rewarding careers with opportunities for advancement and original contributions to engineering and science.

What does an aerospace engineer do? (Back to Top) With a degree in aerospace engineering, you will meet the qualifications for many different positions. The following engineering fields are only a sampling of available job descriptions and are nowhere near complete. However, they do provide the reader with some insight into basic operations.

There are three basic members of the aerospace team: the engineer, the scientist, and the technician. The following describes positions for aerospace engineers and scientists, and the role of the technician.

the aerospace engineer
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The aerospace engineer is often a specialist in one of the many areas such as propulsion, aerodynamics, fluids, flight mechanics, heat transfer, structures, cost analysis, reliability, survivability, maintainability, operations research, marketing, or airspace management. Aerospace engineers have also applied their knowledge to related fields such as automated mass transportation, bioengineering, medical systems, environmental engineering, communications, and many more. In such applications, specialists in advanced technology are needed to do the job, and the aerospace engineer is the one to do it.

Analytical engineers combine knowledge of mathematical theory and an understanding of fundamental engineering to analyze data from a wide range of research. Stress analysts determine the loads to which various components of the product will be subjected under certain conditions and calculate the distribution of these loads. Analysts also determine the allowable stresses throughout the structure. Aerospace structures are often analyzed with the aid of computers. Complex codes are developed from mathematical models using a finite element mode (FEM).

Computational Fluid Dynamics
Computational fluid dynamics engineers use high-speed computers to numerically solve the nonlinear equations governing fluid motion. This mathematical modeling of flow around an object can save large amounts of time and money, as well as alleviate the potential risk involved with experimental testing. With the rapid advancements in computer technology, the potential uses of CFD are greatly increasing.

The design field offers some of the best opportunities for advancement to an engineer with new and creative ideas. It may be said that all specialists are advisors to the design engineer. Design engineers determine the structure, arrangement, and function of a component or the entire design to meet the specifications dictated by the aerodynamics or astrodynamics, structural, weights, and production engineers. The modern designer will use the computer as well as the drawing board to create designs. CAD/CAM or computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing is a tool that now plays an important role in the design process.

Materials and Processes
The materials engineer tests and evaluates materials, conventional or composite, used in aerospace structures. Material properties such as tensile strength, material density, and rigidity must be considered under the environmental conditions to which the materials will be subjected. The effects of temperature and fatigue are of particular importance.

Systems Software
Systems engineers perform the requirements, analysis, and definition of the overall system and its subsystem. To do this, systems engineers must use an overall knowledge of engineering and mathematics, while interfacing with both the customer and the other engineering disciplines involved in the project.
Aerospace system is controlled by computers, which require programming. The software programs are designed and tested by software engineers.

Manufacturing engineers plan the tooling, construction, and assembly of the product as dictated by the design specifications. Machine tools, design dies, and fixtures are developed to produce individual parts for components or vehicles. Manufacturing engineers work closely with design engineers to secure designs that can be economically manufactured.

Cost Analysis
Before a proposal is initiated and funded for development, it is very important to provide an accurate analysis of all costs involved. An engineer dedicated to cost analysis may determine whether his or her company receives a contract. Which company can supply the best product for the lowest price? How close was this to their projected costs?

When developing a product, the customer’s needs are always one of the top priorities. The user/buyer is concerned with the reliability, maintainability, vulnerability, survivability, and overall supportability of the final product. It is up to an engineer to consider all of these factors during all stages of development.

Flight Test
The flight test engineer uses a wide range of theories, concepts, and equations to analyze and reduce flight test data. From this data, the engineer determines how well design specifications were met in such areas as propulsion, aerodynamics, structures, stability and control, performance, and vehicle systems. Specific duties may include planning the flight test, conducting the flight test program, reviewing the flight test results, reducing and analyzing the flight test data, and preparing flight reports.

Sales engineers inform potential buyers of product performance. They act as liaisons between the customer and industry and insure that the product is delivered according to specification. A knowledge of competitive aerospace products is needed as well as an understanding of sales contract preparation. Sales engineers also determine future needs as far ahead of time as possible and prepare reports to this effect to guide production.

Field Service
Company representatives provide maintenance and service information to customers after the product is delivered. This helps ensure optimum use of the product. Company representatives work closely with manufacturing and engineering to overcome operational difficulties. Field service duties require technical know-how and the ability to deal with people.

Supervision is essential in any type of job. Engineers with experience and leadership qualities may find that they have the ability to deal with human problems, business decisions, and technical activities.

the scientist
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While engineers apply skills to solving specific problems with known facts, scientists probe the unknown. They seek to know "why" rather than "how," – and attempt to present the rules upon which engineers may build. Scientists may choose to work in one of several environments:

Industrial Research and Development

In an aerospace organization, scientists are the key to research and development. They direct the discovery of new products and processes.

Private and Government Laboratories
The goal of scientists in a private or government laboratory is to broaden the state of the art by deriving new theories. Their work may take the form of pure research. They may, however, develop or extend theory to explain specific problems.

Academic Research
If a scientist has the ability to convey knowledge in a clear and concise manner, teaching in a college or university may be a choice. The academic environment provides the perfect setting for the purest form of research. By combining research and education, a scientist not only advances the state of the science, but also encourages others to take on this rewarding task. Research is an intellectual process combining mental discipline, personal insight, analysis of observation, and prediction of future phenomenon. Those who have a deep curiosity about the unknowns of the universe and have the patience for systematic observation may have an aptitude for aerospace science.

the technician
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Technicians support the aerospace engineers and scientists. They are usually people who are primarily hardware-oriented and who may have obtained as much as four years of undergraduate college work. The technician is the third member of the aerospace team.
How can I become an aerospace engineer? (Back to Top)

Start planning your aerospace career studies in high school. If you wait until you have a high school diploma before you begin to think about a college degree and a career, you may be too late. Begin thinking about colleges and universities you might like to attend while you are still in high school. Discuss your career with engineers and scientists. Write to college and university registrars for catalogs to see what they offer. If possible, do this before you select your high school electives so that a college will not reject you because you do not have the required courses. Entrance tests are often required; these may include the standardized College Entrance Examination Board exams, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or achievement tests. You must have a good scholastic average to qualify for admission. This does not mean that you must be a straight "A" student, but neither can you expect to receive much consideration when you have C’s and D’s to show for your high school work.

You will find that most colleges require completion of high school courses in the following subjects as a minimum:

    English-4 years
    Mathematics- (Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry)
    Sciences- (Physics, Chemistry, and/or Biology) 2 years
    History- (including Social Studies) 3 years
Some engineering colleges may allow placement into algebra and trigonometry, but most start the first term with calculus. If you feel that you are not as strong in math as you should be, or you have not had the opportunity in high school to take trigonometry or advanced algebra, it might be wise to consider colleges where the study of calculus is deferred a semester or two.

In some locales, students are able to take college-level courses in high school under the Advanced Placement Program of the College Entrance Examination Board. In certain colleges, advanced placement may be granted to students who have distinguished themselves on the National Advanced Placement Examination. This allows a student to either reduce the total time it will take to obtain a degree, or to elect additional courses throughout the 4 years.

The exact number of high school credits or units required in each of these courses varies. Therefore, see your guidance counselor for advice and ask for information from the college of your choice. This holds true for high school electives also. There are many acceptable electives. College catalogs will give you a good idea about which electives are acceptable and which are not. Your guidance counselor’s experience will be of considerable help.

Many students choose to begin their college education at community colleges or junior colleges, transferring to a 4-year university after completing one to two years of study. Many 2-year colleges have articulation or transfer agreements with 4-year schools, making the transfer process a relatively simple one.

Young people considering this route into a degree program in aerospace engineering or a related program should prepare by first visiting the university or universities to which they may transfer for their B.S. degree and asking officials there about transfer policies and experiences. This can prevent many disappointments later on. It is very important to determine, in advance, how easily courses and programs will transfer from the 2-year to the 4-year institution.

Students considering 2-year college programs should also take care in the selection of programs and courses at those colleges. They should be aware that there are three, often very different, levels of technical study at many two-year institutions: pre-engineering, engineering technology, and technician programs.

The pre-engineering program is designed to lead directly into a four-year accredited engineering degree program. It normally consists of the same courses that would be required in the engineering program of a major university. The beginning math sequence will be all calculus, and the physics and chemistry courses will require calculus as a co- or pre-requisite.

The engineering technology program will normally require less theoretical math and science courses than the engineering program. Where both engineering and engineering technology programs exist, the engineering courses will often be labeled as engineering science courses. One needs to be careful about this distinction, because engineering technology courses will generally not be accepted as transfer credit into an engineering program. Many fine engineering technology 4-year programs are available, and 2-year college engineering technology credit will transfer into these programs. The prospective student needs to be aware that engineering and engineering technology, while similar in many ways, are accredited under different criteria. Accredited engineering programs cannot accept engineering technology credit.

Many 2-year colleges offer technician training. This generally does not lead into any 4-year degree program. Such programs are excellent ways to prepare for work in the aerospace and other industries as a highly trained technician, but they are usually unrelated to either engineering or engineering technology programs. These programs normally do not require calculus, chemistry, or physics at any level.

A community or 2-year college that offers the proper preparation can be an excellent way to begin a study of engineering. This is particularly attractive to the student who wishes to start at a smaller school, stay nearer home, or save money. It is also an excellent choice for people wishing to change careers to "check out" the study of engineering. Community colleges also offer the student who did not perform at his or her best in high school or who, for some other reason, needs to get a fresh start and a chance to build a good academic record. These colleges are also more likely than many major universities to offer evening classes for those working during the day.

What should I consider when I look at colleges? (Back to Top)

Factors to consider in choosing a college are: cost, availability of financial assistance, and type of program offered.

Cost: State universities and city colleges usually offer lower tuition fees. Privately endowed colleges have higher tuition fees. Both may offer an excellent education. For all types of colleges, expenses other than tuition depend on location, available housing, laboratory fees, textbooks, clothing, laundry, traveling and vacation expenses, and social expenditures.

All college catalogs give specific information regarding tuition and expenses. You will, of course, talk with your family about a college education and about particular colleges. Only you and your family know how much can be spent on your education. With your own finances in mind, consult and compare catalogs from colleges you are interested in attending.

Financial Assistance: Many scholarships, cooperative or work-study programs, grants-in-aid and opportunities for part-time jobs help deserving students through college. Also, many colleges and universities have facilities to make non-interest loans to students. Loans usually do not have to be repaid until after graduation. Most college catalogs supply this information. In addition, your guidance counselor usually has information concerning scholarships from industry, government and private foundations. The military services offer scholarship programs through the ROTC and military academies.

Generally speaking very few high school graduates who have good grades are denied a college education because they cannot afford it. A good all around high school record and a sincere interest in your chosen field are essential qualities. Universities tend to consider these factors as well as financial need in awarding grants and scholarships.

Does AIAA offer scholarships for aerospace engineering undergraduate students? (Back to Top)

The AIAA Foundation has scholarships available to any student member enrolled as an undergraduate student at an accredited university or college. Honorariums of $2,000-$2,500 each are available to sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Further information and applications for AIAA Foundation Scholarships may be obtained by writing to: Customer Service, AIAA Foundation Undergraduate Scholarship Program, 1801 Alexander Bell Dr., Suite 500, Reston, VA 20191-4344.

How can I find out if a particular aerospace program is accredited? (Back to Top)

AIAA participates and assists the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) in accrediting Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, Aeronautical Engineering, Aeronautical Science & Engineering, Aeronautics and Astronautics, Aerospace Engineering, Aerospace Engineering & Mechanics, Aerospace Engineering Sciences, Aerospace Option in Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace Science Engineering, Astronautical Engineering, and Technology programs. To request a list of accrediting programs in Engineering and Engineering Technology within the United States, please contact Stephen Brock, AIAA Student Programs.

How can I find out which university programs are ranked best? (Back to Top)

AIAA does not provide advice regarding college, universities, or any of the following: Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, Aeronautical Engineering, Aeronautical Science & Engineering, Aeronautics and Astronautics, Aerospace Engineering, Aerospace Engineering & Mechanics, Aerospace Engineering Sciences, Aerospace Option in Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace Science Engineering, and Astronautical Engineering programs or curricula. AIAA does not rank schools or their respective programs. AIAA does participate and assist the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) in accrediting Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, Aeronautical Engineering, Aeronautical Science & Engineering, Aeronautics and Astronautics, Aerospace Engineering, Aerospace Engineering & Mechanics, Aerospace Engineering Sciences, Aerospace Option in Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace Science Engineering, Astronautical Engineering, and Technology programs. To request a list of accrediting programs in Engineering and Engineering Technology in the United States, please contact Stephen Brock, AIAA Student Programs.

What do I need to study in order to be an aerospace engineer? (Back to Top)

As an aerospace engineering student, your classes will introduce you to propulsion, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, aerodynamics, structures, flight and space mechanics, and so on. Your education may continue with a strong emphasis placed on a distinct area such as structures or thermodynamics. From these classes, you will determine the areas in which you received the greatest understanding and appreciation. This is what will lead you to a professional career.

The following curriculum is for a typical aerospace engineering major. Terminology varies: in some schools the curriculum is designated as Aeronautics and Astronautics, Aeronautical Engineering, Aerospace Sciences, etc.

This program is the result of extensive consultation between university administrators and faculty, key people in the aerospace industry, and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), the agency that accredits engineering curricula at U.S. colleges and universities. Remember the following is "typical." You might not follow it entirely. It is presented to show the flexibility that exists in course structure.

The first 2 years are almost always devoted to the basic physical and engineering sciences, mathematics, and a non-technical subject. The content of these first years is likely to be as follows:

1. first year
Analytic Geometry & Calculus
Chemistry (or Physics)
Humanities and Social Sciences
Calculus & Differential Equations
Physics (or Chemistry)
Engineering Mechanics
Statics & Dynamics

During the junior and senior years you may choose a program devoted primarily to design or a program devoted to research and development as well as an aero or astro option. Such alternative curricula might be the following:
Aero/Astro-design Program

Applied Aerodynamics/Astrodynamics
Elementary Structural Analysis
Materials and Metallurgy
Aero/Astro-research Program
Analytical Mechanics
Electromagnetic Fields
Advanced Calculus & Analysis
Common to Both Programs
Fluid Mechanics
Heat Transfer
Electrical Circuits
Aeronautical/Astronautical Laboratories
Non-technical Courses

It is safe to say that no two curricula in aerospace engineering offer the same subject matter during the fourth year. There is a good reason for this. The advanced courses are built around the interests and abilities of the faculty members in the department. These vary widely from institution to institution. Thus, it would be presumptuous to present a typical fourth-year program. Possible technical electives taken in the fourth year of study are listed below.
Aero-design Program
Flight Vehicle Design
Vehicle Stability and Control
Structural Analysis
Astro-design Program
Spacecraft Design
Spacecraft Dynamics & Control
Space Structures
Aero-research Program
Engineering Mechanics
Vehicle Systems
Flight Mechanics
Trajectory Dynamics
Astro-research Program
Orbital Mechanics
Spacecraft System
Spacecraft Power
Common to all programs
Gas Dynamics
Modern Physics
Aerospace Propulsion Systems
Boundary Layer Theory
Advanced Mathematical Problems

We have already mentioned the importance placed by engineering colleges on excellence in English as a requirement for admission. This emphasis will be continued throughout your college years and during your career as a professional. Engineering requires that you have the ability to express your thoughts. Ideas and opinions that remain locked inside your head contribute very little to your achievements. Grades are not based on what the instructor thinks you know, but what you can show him you know.

Similarly, job promotions and additional responsibilities are not given to engineers or scientists by superiors because they think they may have good ideas, but because of past performance, written and oral reports, and a clear indication of efficient and original work. If an individual cannot express ideas clearly, concisely, and strongly, employers often assume that he or she has few good ideas to express. This is why writing and creating compositions are an integral part of a college curriculum. You should recognize this during your high school years, and apply yourself continuously to your English courses. Some day your diligence will pay off in many unforeseen ways - perhaps in a scholarship, college degree, a good position, and steady promotion. On graduation, it is time to enter the working world through a job you will enjoy and look forward to every day. The exposure you received in school will help determine the career path you wish to follow.

How does AIAA help in my career as an Aerospace Engineer? (Back to Top)

Professionals in a career specialty can be the source of valuable first-hand information. If your career selection is aerospace engineering or if you are interested in aerospace, members of The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) can give you an honest and accurate assessment of aerospace engineering.

The AIAA is a professional society of approximately 31,000 members, making it the largest group of aerospace engineers and scientists in the world.

The AIAA’s technical interests cover 66 specialties ranging from aerodynamic deceleration to underwater propulsion. The AIAA provides effective technical communication to all members of the aerospace community, and stimulates the personal development of individual engineers and scientists. To do this, the AIAA schedules many national and local meetings each year.

The AIAA publishes a monthly magazine, Aerospace America, technical journals, and the AIAA Student Journal. The Institute recognizes outstanding professional achievements through its program of honors and awards. It acknowledges responsibility to the general public, which supports the aerospace program, and helps keep the public aware of aerospace progress and benefits.

There are approximately 66 local Sections and 149 Student Branches of the AIAA.

How does AIAA help me as an aerospace engineering student? (Back to Top)

AIAA offers students a far-reaching range of benefits and services. Check the Student Membership page for a full description.

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The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is the world's largest technical society devoted to the global aerospace community.