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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
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.
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.
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.
Computational Fluid Dynamics
Materials and Processes
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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.
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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:
Mathematics- (Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry)
Sciences- (Physics, Chemistry, and/or Biology) 2 years
History- (including Social Studies) 3 years
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1. first yearEnglish
Analytic Geometry & Calculus
Chemistry (or Physics)
2. SECOND YEARHumanities and Social Sciences
Calculus & Differential Equations
Physics (or Chemistry)
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:
3. THIRD YEARAero/Astro-design Program
Elementary Structural Analysis
Materials and Metallurgy
Advanced Calculus & Analysis
Common to Both Programs
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.
4. FOURTH YEARAero-design Program
Flight Vehicle Design
Vehicle Stability and Control
Spacecraft Dynamics & Control
Common to all programs
Aerospace Propulsion Systems
Boundary Layer Theory
Advanced Mathematical Problems
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.
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.
AIAA offers students a far-reaching range of benefits and services. Check the Student Membership page for a full description.
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