Step by step guide to becoming an aerospace engineer

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, autogyros, 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).

What does an aerospace engineer do?

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.

Here are some recent developments of note in aerospace engineering:

  • Many aerospace innovations are making their way into automobile technology, such as thermoelectric generators, which use heat to make electricity, and hydrogen fuel cells, which take hydrogen gas and mix it with oxygen to generate useful electricity, heat and water.
  • A team of engineers has developed an algorithm that can convert brain waves into flight commands. The team hopes to make mind-controlled aircraft a reality.
  • Researchers are deliberately setting fires on the International Space Station to study “cool-burning” flames, which could lead to more-efficient car engines that contribute less pollution to the environment.

Today’s aerospace engineers still work with the basic concepts of aerodynamics, and must also have a working knowledge of aircraft power plants such piston engines, turbo props and jets, the BLS said.

Astronautical engineers must also understand additional concepts, such as spacecraft propulsion systems, which include solid- and liquid-fuel rockets, along with ion drives. Manned missions require life support systems to provide air, food, water, temperature control and waste handling, so spaceflight engineers must also be familiar with these concepts.

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.

What kind of skills are required?

To be a mechanical engineer you should have:

  • excellent communication and presentation skills
  • good problem-solving skills and a creative approach for new ideas
  • excellent technical knowledge
  • good teamworking skills
  • the ability to manage projects
  • a high level of IT ability, particularly computer aided design
  • good commercial awareness
  • budgeting skills
  • the ability to adapt to changing circumstances
  • the ability to work under pressure and to deadlines

The steps to becoming an aerospace engineer

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
  2. Work as an intern
  3. Consider getting a Master’s Degree
  4. Get a job and develop your career