Aeronautics vs. Aerospace Engineering: Definitions and Differences

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published March 8, 2021

Aeronautics and aerospace engineering are two similar fields that involve flight. Aeronautics, however, focuses on aircraft design while aerospace focuses on air and spacecraft design. Understanding the difference between aerospace and aeronautical engineering can help you decide which career is best for you. In this article, we describe aerospace versus aeronautical engineering and their differences.

What is aeronautics?

Aeronautics is a branch of aerospace engineering associated with aircraft design and construction. Aeronautical engineers work on aircraft that fly within the earth's atmosphere, including planes, gliders, helicopters and remotely piloted aircraft such as drones.

Related: What Is Aeronautical Engineering?

What is aerospace engineering?

Aerospace engineering is the broader engineering field that includes the construction and design of both aircraft and spacecraft. Aerospace engineers can work on aircraft such as planes and helicopters, as well as machines that fly outside the earth's atmosphere, such as space shuttles, space stations, launch vehicles, rockets and satellites. They also design and develop missiles, defense systems and other aviation and military technologies. Their areas of expertise include:

  • Acoustics

  • Aerodynamic fluid flow

  • Celestial mechanics

  • Flight mechanics

  • Guidance, navigation, and control

  • Instrumentation and communication

  • Propulsion and combustion

  • Robotics

  • Structural design

Aerospace engineers can choose to specialize in aeronautics (flight within the earth's atmosphere) or astronautics (flight outside the earth's atmosphere).

Related: What Is Aerospace Engineering?

Key differences between aeronautics vs. aerospace engineering

While aeronautical and aerospace engineering both focus on flight and the machines involved in flight, their requirements, job duties and projects vary. Here are some key differences between aeronautics and aerospace engineers:

Education

Most aeronautical engineers follow these steps to work in the industry:

  • Earn a four-year bachelor's of science degree in aeronautical engineering or aerospace engineering.

  • Earn optional certification from the Federal Aviation Agency or industry organizations.

  • Pursue a master's degree in aeronautics for more advanced job opportunities.

  • Get a doctorate degree to transition into aeronautics teaching or research.

Most aerospace engineers follow these steps to work in the industry:

  • Earn a four-year bachelor's of science degree in aerospace or another engineering field.

  • Earn optional certification from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

  • Pursue a master's degree in aerospace engineering for more advanced job opportunities.

  • Get a doctorate degree to transition into aerospace teaching or research.

Unlike aeronautical engineers, aerospace engineers can specialize to become:

  • Design engineers, who design and test aircraft and spacecraft systems.

  • Maintenance engineers, who repair, maintain and improve existing machines and systems.

  • Materials engineers, who develop and test the materials used to create aircraft and related structures.

  • Mechanical engineers, who design, develop and test the tools, equipment and machines used in flight.

  • Systems engineers, who design and test flight systems to make sure they work well together.

Both aeronautical and aerospace engineers gain training and experience through internships and entry-level engineering jobs. After gaining a few years of work experience, they can choose to take the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam to earn their Professional Engineer license from the National Society of Professional Engineers. This license helps them qualify for upper-level and leadership positions.

Skills

Aeronautical engineers' most important skills for success include:

  • Analytical skills

  • Attention to detail

  • Communication skills

  • Creativity

  • Math

  • Technical skills

Aerospace engineers' most important skills for success include:

  • Communication skills

  • Computer skills

  • Critical thinking

  • Problem-solving

  • Reasoning

  • Time management

Aerospace engineers should also have a strong understanding of the industry and government's health and safety regulations. Both professionals should have experience using advanced computer design programs. They use these programs and software to create designs and simulations and analyze data.

Related: 12 Essential Engineering Skills for Your Resume

Job responsibilities

Aeronautical engineers' typical job duties might include:

  • Researching new technologies and aircraft advancements

  • Improving existing technologies and systems, including navigation and instrumentation

  • Designing plans for aircraft parts, systems and structures

  • Reviewing other engineers' design proposals

  • Testing and adjusting parts and systems

  • Performing aircraft safety tests

  • Making sure aircraft follow safety and environmental regulations

  • Creating simulations for aircraft

  • Developing offensive and defensive systems for military aircraft

  • Creating budgets and deadlines and making sure projects follow them

  • Analyzing data to find out why systems failed

  • Recommending ways to improve aircraft performance

  • Writing manuals and instructions for using aeronautical systems

  • Meeting with clients and product or materials manufacturers

  • Finding ways to reduce the environmental impact of aircraft

  • Using computer modeling tools to design and test products

Aerospace engineers' typical job duties might include:

  • Meeting with clients to talk about their needs

  • Using computer models and blueprints to design systems and products

  • Designing and testing missiles

  • Designing and testing aircraft parts such as control systems, engines, landing gear and wings

  • Developing prototypes for testing

  • Testing aircraft performance and recommending ways to improve it

  • Managing the manufacturing process to make sure it meets standards, including giving instructions to the manufacturing team

  • Researching and developing new technologies

  • Working and meeting with manufacturers, project managers and other engineers

  • Creating budgets and timelines and making sure projects follow them

Related: Learn About Being an Aerospace Engineer

Work environment

Aeronautical engineers can find work with a variety of employers, including:

  • Aircraft manufacturing companies

  • Equipment manufacturing companies

  • Commercial airlines

  • Private airlines

  • Government branches such as the U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration and armed forces

  • Universities

  • Research organizations and facilities

  • Consulting companies

Aerospace engineers can also find work with a variety of employers, including:

  • Companies that manufacture aerospace materials and systems

  • Commercial and private airlines

  • Weapons manufacturers

  • Research organizations

  • Consulting companies

  • Contract agencies

  • Government agencies such as NASA

  • The military

  • Universities

  • Aerospace software companies

Most aeronautical and aerospace engineers work in offices and spend a lot of time on their computers. They might travel to facilities that produce flight systems, parts and equipment to oversee manufacturing and assess progress. They work closely with clients, manufacturers, engineers and other professionals who design and build aircraft parts and systems.

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