Up in the Air: A High-Level Look at Aerospace Engineering Majors


You know how you often hear the phrase “It’s not rocket science”? Well…this time, it actually is.

Aerospace engineering is a mechanical engineering subspecialty involving the development of air- and spacecraft. Read on to learn more about this cutting-edge field where students’ heads are literally up in the clouds.

A glimpse at the field

Divided into aeronautical engineering and astronautical engineering, aerospace engineering is the study of the design, construction, and operation of aircraft. Today the term “aerospace engineering” has been broadened to mean the design, construction, and operation of all vehicles roaming above the Earth’s surface, covering both air and space.

Aerospace engineering evolved from mechanical engineering, the study of the application of engineering principles to mechanical problems. Therefore, the two fields are very closely related. Some schools may offer dual degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering, while others might offer the mechanical engineering major with a concentration or minor in aerospace or aeronautical/astronautical studies.

What do aerospace engineers do?

Aerospace engineers create, develop, and test aircraft and spacecraft equipment. A large portion of the job is spent carefully calibrating, running, and recording tests with computers. Aerospace engineers are continuously improving flight safety and travel conditions. They also design, build, and test space shuttles and exploration materials, like satellites and rovers. An aerospace engineer may work on the same project for years before completion. They should possess strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, computer aided design (CAD) knowledge, and the ability to prioritize and manage jobs effectively. Interest and aptitude in science, math, and information technology are also required.

What education do they have?

The plan of study for aerospace engineering is a demanding one. Core college courses include basic engineering theory, physics, and calculus and differential equations, which lead to specialized study of topics such as aerodynamics, wind flow, computer programming, and flight simulation. Within the major are incorporated topics such as fuselage design, wing design, structural design, structural requirements, propulsion mechanisms, fuel types, guidance and instrumentation systems, auxiliary equipment, and production. Students also may be expected to conduct their own experiments under the supervision of an instructor.

A bachelor’s degree is required for most entry-level positions related to aerospace engineering, but a master’s or doctoral degree is also highly desirable. Getting a master’s degree in such a specialized field can potentially increase an aerospace engineer’s career satisfaction, opportunities, and earning potential.

Related: Find colleges with aerospace engineering majors here. Or, you know, whatever major floats your boat...er, plane.

Careers for aerospace engineers

“Aerospace engineers are employed in industries whose workers design or build aircraft, missiles, systems for national defense, or spacecraft,” according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. But just because you earn a degree in aerospace engineering doesn’t mean you have to become an “aerospace engineer.” Like all majors, this one can lead to a variety of different careers. Other possible jobs include:

  • Aircraft design engineer
  • Astronaut
  • Astrophysicist
  • College professor
  • Commercial pilot
  • Entrepreneur
  • Flight engineer
  • Lawyer
  • Meteorologist
  • Technical writer
  • Test pilot

In 2015 the median pay for aerospace engineers was $107,830 a year, or $51.84 an hour, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, incomes will vary according to one’s education, place of employment, experience, and geographic location. Visit bls.gov for more information.

Professional organization

There are more than 190 colleges and universities with student branches of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Visit aiaa.org to see the list.

Intrigued by engineering, but perhaps not the aerospace variety? Here’s a basic breakdown of some of the main types of engineering and just a few of the subspecialties they entail

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