What Does an Aerospace Engineer Do

Unfortunately, I've never found a really good book or website that, in my opinion, does a thorough job of explaining what aerospace engineering is. Although you may not realize it, the field is very broad and aerospace engineers may work on projects typically associated with mechanical, electrical, computer, civil, or even nuclear engineering. Some delve into robotics, automobile design, lasers, software development, or ship design. However, aerospace engineers predominantly work in one of two major branches of the field: aeronautical engineering or astronautical engineering. Aeronautical engineering includes projects related to the design, development, and use of aircraft while astronautical engineering focuses on projects related to the design, development, and use of spacecraft.

Some common tasks an aeronautical engineer might work on include performing wind tunnel tests on an aircraft model or designing and analyzing the structure of an airplane wing. One aeronautical engineer might take data from a flight test to study how a new component works or how it can be improved while another might build and test engines or rocket motors for a new airplane or missile. Still others use computers to predict the aerodynamic behavior of a new aircraft design or create flight control systems to make planes easier and safer to fly. Aeronautical engineers might also predict performance characteristics, like maximum range and maneuverability, of aircraft or missiles, or they may create flight simulators to train pilots or model the flight characteristics of various aircraft.

Typical projects an astronautical engineer might be involved with include designing systems to provide power to a satellite over its 20 year lifetime or analyzing spacecraft structures to ensure they are strong enough to survive their journeys. Astronautical engineers also develop communications systems to provide contact with distant space probes. Others design new rockets and reusable space vehicles to carry people and equipment into space. Still more plan future space missions, develop the hardware and skills needed to make them succeed, or design and test robotic systems for use on those vehicles. Some astronautical engineers develop new forms of propulsion to speed spacecraft to their destinations while others compute optimum trajectories to reach those destinations quickly and economically.

These lists are just a small sample of some of the more common tasks engineers work on. To get a good picture of what aerospace, aeronautical, and astronautical engineering are like, you really need to read about or talk to people working in some of these diverse areas. Below are a few good websites that give some basic information about the field.

Other good sites feature interviews or biographies of individual engineers. These sites are useful because they describe the kinds of backgrounds needed to do different types of work in the aerospace field. Additional information about a variety of careers available in the aerospace industry can be found in the biographical profiles of our very own Aerospaceweb.org staff members.
- answer by Jeff Scott, 18 March 2001

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