Aerospace engineering deals with designing and building machines that fly. It is one of the newest branches of engineering, and began in the 19th century with the first experiments in powered flight. As technology progressed, two specialties emerged; aeronautical engineering, which involves designing aircraft such as powered lighter-than-air craft, gliders, fixed-wing airplanes and jets, auto gyros, and helicopters; and astronautical engineering, which focuses on the design and development of spacecraft. In other words, aeronautical engineers are primarily involved in designing aircraft that fly within Earth’s atmosphere, while astronautical engineers work with the science and technology of spacecraft that fly outside Earth’s atmosphere, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Aerospace engineers design aircraft, spacecraft, satellites and missiles, according to the BLS. In addition, these engineers test prototypes to make sure that they function according to plans. These professionals also design components and subassemblies for these craft; those parts include engines, airframes, wings, landing gear, control systems and instruments. Additionally, engineers may perform or write the specifications for destructive and nondestructive testing for strength, functionality, reliability, and long-term durability of aircraft and parts.
Aerospace engineering requires in-depth skills and understanding in physics, mathematics, aerodynamics and materials science. These professionals must be familiar with advanced materials such as metal alloys, ceramics, polymers and composites, the BLS said. This knowledge allows engineers to predict the performance and failure conditions of designs before they are even built.
More and more, aerospace engineers rely on computer-aided design (CAD) systems for quick and easy drafting and modification of designs and 3D visualization of finished parts and assemblies. Computer simulations have become essential for performing virtual testing of engines, wings, control surfaces, and even complete aircraft and spacecraft under all possible conditions they might encounter.
After the invention of fixed-wing airplanes, came the first rotary-wing aircraft, which include auto gyros and helicopters. Based on principles first demonstrated in Chinese flying toys dating to 400 B.C., the idea of rotary-wing aircraft inspired many inventors to attempt vertical flight with rotating propellers. A number of small models powered by springs and rubber bands were built, but again, the first true helicopter had to wait for a suitably powerful engine. The other side of aerospace engineering is rocketry and spacecraft. The most famous pioneers in this field were Robert Goddard, who constructed and successfully launched the first liquid-fueled rocket.