From airplanes and spacecraft to missiles and satellites, aerospace engineers design and manufacture some of humanity’s most fascinating technologies. Aerospace engineers possess the unique combination of skills necessary to innovate new products that are integral to our economy and national defense. An aerospace engineer requires exceptional attention to detail, a comprehensive understanding of fundamental engineering topics, and robust creativity.
The aerospace industry is not only rapidly growing but also diversifying. Thanks to privatization, space travel is experiencing a renaissance. Space is no longer a realm reserved for a select few astronauts. In the not-so-distant future, private citizens will have a chance to escape earth’s gravity. Billionaires such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson are in the throes of a 21st-century space race, but this rivalry is not simply a PR stunt. These industry leaders want to make space travel available to a large portion of the population, seemingly blurring the lines between science fiction and reality.
Commercial air travel is also undergoing a long-overdue technological leap. Aviation startups such as Boom Technologies are creating the next generation of supersonic aircraft reminiscent of when concord jets made transatlantic journeys. But unlike concords, these startups wish to make supersonic air travel accessible to all, not just the elites.
Defense spending accounts for roughly 3.2 percent of the United State’s GDP. A sizable portion of this spending goes into designing and developing military aircraft, satellites, and missiles. There is an ongoing rivalry between the United States and other nations to get the upper hand militarily and rule the skies. As a result, new military technologies are constantly being innovated, from the next generation of fighter jets and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to ballistic missiles and intelligence-gathering satellites.
Aerospace Engineering Degree
As is the case with many professional careers, the first step of becoming an aerospace engineer will be getting accepted into an undergraduate program. This discipline is a little more niche than mechanical, electrical, or civil engineering, so options might be limited for selecting your university. However, plenty of schools have excellent aerospace engineering programs to choose from.
The curriculum will include courses covering applied math, physics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and other topics related to aerospace technology. You may have noticed that many of these courses are commonly taken by mechanical engineering students. This is no coincidence, as aerospace and mechanical engineering have a great deal of overlap. There will also be many courses specific to aerospace engineering that other disciplines do not cover.
Examples of such courses include:
- aerospace flight mechanics
- mechanics of aerospace structures
- aerospace dynamical systems
- aerospace control systems
- aerospace propulsion
A bachelor’s degree is sufficient for most entry-level positions in this field. However, those who wish to further their education and begin their careers with a higher salary may choose to complete a master’s in aerospace engineering.
Completing one of these programs solidifies the knowledge obtained from undergraduate learning and ensures a more thorough understanding of important subjects.
Although earning a degree in aerospace engineering is the most straightforward way to work, studying mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, or material science may also be options. However, there might be some knowledge gaps if studying these other subjects is chosen, which will have to be compensated for on the job.
Learn more about what is required to get an aerospace master’s degree in our complete guide.
How to Become an Aerospace Engineer
The timeline for becoming an aerospace engineer will depend on whether one will obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree in this subject. An undergraduate program for aerospace engineering will typically take four years to complete while completing a master’s will take an additional two years to complete for a total of six years. Another option available to students is completing a bachelor’s degree, finding a job in the industry, and then completing a master’s degree while employed through online classes. With this option, the pace at which the master’s degree portion is completed will depend on the student.
Aerospace Engineering Career Paths
Once completing your education, the next step towards becoming an aerospace engineer is being hired for an entry-level position. Many organizations, both large and small, hire aerospace engineers. The most high-profile ones are NASA, SpaceX, Boeing, Airbus, Raytheon, and Lockheed – Martin.
Most entry-level aerospace engineering positions depend on the organization itself and current labor demands. You may start as an aerospace engineer right off the bat, especially if you have completed a master’s program. However, often one must complete some form of internship with the company or start as a “junior engineer.”
Internships usually take place during summer breaks for students in between school years. These work experiences are typically part-time and offer an excellent opportunity for future employees to test the waters of their new career and obtain experience in the real world. A junior engineer position takes place after graduation and involves working under the guidance of a senior engineer who will provide proper training and insights from their own experience. If your employer is a military contractor (which is likely in this career field), you may have to jump through additional hoops to complete security clearance.
The first years of your aerospace engineering career will likely entail doing much “grunt” work. This typically includes technical writing, CAD modeling, data analysis, and running tests and simulations. Since aerospace engineers usually work on large and complex projects, collaborating with a large team of other engineers, scientists, and technicians should be expected.
Aerospace engineering is a broad field so many entry-level positions will be available. Designing individual small components for aircraft or spacecraft is one example of an aerospace engineering job. This type of position will require extensive CAD modeling and technical writing. Collaboration and teamwork skills are essential for such a position because groups and individuals will design specific components that must seamlessly fit together.
The second example of entry-level work is product testing. This would mean working on a team and conducting tests and simulations. One could expect lab tests on specific aerospace components and test material properties such as tensile strength, hardness, durability, heat resistance, and aerodynamics. Due to recent technological advances, conducting simulations using software programs has replaced a lot of real-life testing. Creating virtual models and running preprogrammed simulations is commonplace in this industry.
The manufacturing side of aerospace engineering may also be an exciting starting point for your career. Designing a new aircraft or spacecraft is one thing, but mass production is another story. Manufacturing some of the modern marvels thought up by SpaceX and Boeing will be more complex than for other products. Aircraft and Spacecraft have thousands of components that need to fit together perfectly. Creating these components is exceedingly complex as many are made from unique materials and have atypical geometry. Newer manufacturing processes such as 3D printing will likely be used. Aircraft and spacecraft manufacturers often have their proprietary equipment that requires teams of highly skilled professionals to operate, including aerospace engineers.
After a few years of work, an aerospace engineer will likely gain the title of senior engineer, which means more responsibility and a higher salary. Further down the career path, a promotion to a senior management position may also be possible. At this point in your career, you will no longer be doing the technical grunt work but instead managing others who will. One fantastic benefit of being an aerospace engineer is that the field itself is broad. This means that switching jobs will be easier than in other areas if one experiences mid-career burnout.
Aerospace Engineer Career Outlook
As of May 2020, the median annual pay for aerospace engineers was $118,610, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The job outlook for this career field is three percent which matches the cumulative national growth rate for all careers. An aerospace engineer will generally work in an office or laboratory setting and make frequent trips to manufacturing and testing facilities.