What Is Aerospace Engineering? (Plus Types of Engineers)

Updated March 14, 2023

A jet being serviced in a hangar

Engineering is a diverse career field that constantly evolves as new technology and resources become available. A subset of the larger field, aerospace engineering provides numerous career opportunities for both analytical and critical thinkers with aptitudes for science and math. If a career in aerospace engineering interests you, knowing more about the scope of this field can help you decide if this is an industry for you.

In this article, we'll discuss aerospace engineering and describe two different types of aerospace engineers, plus we'll explain the educational requirements to become one, list places where these engineers typically work and review examples of aerospace engineering jobs to help you determine if a career in this field is suitable for you.

What is aerospace engineering?

Aerospace engineering is an engineering specialty focusing on designing, developing, manufacturing, testing and operating aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, missiles and other equipment and systems necessary for flight vehicles. Aerospace engineering has two major subspecialties that greatly overlap. Aeronautical engineering involves the theory, technology and operation of aircraft within the earth's atmosphere. Astronautical engineering employees work with the science, technology and operation of launch vehicles and spacecraft.

Aerospace engineers usually specialize in a particular product in the aerospace industry or they may choose a specialty within the field. Aerospace engineers design, develop, manufacture and test advanced aeronautical and astronautical technologies. For example, one aerospace engineer may design a military helicopter, while another may develop solutions to fix a satellite in space. The types of concepts and products aerospace engineers work with include:

  • Drones

  • Missiles

  • Rockets

  • Military fighter jets

  • Satellites

  • Spacecraft

  • Helicopters

  • Commercial aircraft

  • Aerodynamics

  • Propulsion

  • Instrumentation

  • Communication

  • Navigation and control

  • Design

  • Mechanics

  • Production methods

Related: Top Careers in Aerospace Engineering

What does an aerospace engineer do?

Aerospace engineers can have a wide variety of duties. They may perform the following tasks:

  • Design, analyze, test and troubleshoot various aerospace technologies

  • Create innovative designs and processes and optimize them for use

  • Oversee manufacturing processes to ensure the accurate completion of products

  • Identify problems with products and processes to improve manufacturing

  • Provide solutions to correct underlying challenges in products or processes

  • Create quality control standards to improve products and processes

  • Conduct research in their specialty to generate new ideas and improve old designs

  • Collaborate with other aerospace employees in a variety of roles

  • Train and mentor younger aerospace engineering employees to prepare them for the industry

Read more: Learn About Being an Aerospace Engineer

Types of aerospace engineers

There are two types of aerospace engineers:

Aeronautical engineers

Aeronautical engineers study the aerodynamic performance of aircraft, including its materials, propulsion system and design. These engineers design, create, produce and perform maintenance on civilian, commercial and military aircraft, aeronautical systems and components. Besides manufacturing reliable, safe and efficient aircraft and aeronautical equipment and systems, they also conduct routine inspections to ensure they're functioning optimally.

The aeronautical engineer is also responsible for using cost-effective methods to develop ways of improving fuel efficiency and flight safety. They focus on lowering the environmental impact of air travel by creating environmentally friendly aircraft. For example, an aeronautical engineer working for a commercial airline company may research ways an aircraft can use less fuel without compromising its speed or aerodynamics.

Astronautical engineers

Astronautical engineers focus on designing, developing and testing spacecraft and enhancing their technology and performance. These engineers use spacecraft to study thermodynamics, aerodynamics, celestial mechanics, propulsion, guidance systems and flight mechanics. Most astronautical engineers work for spacecraft manufacturers or the federal government.

Besides designing and manufacturing spacecraft and related equipment and systems, their duties also include conducting routine inspections to identify problems and faulty products, formulating suitable solutions, developing quality control standards and maintaining documentation of processes and performance. 

Astronautical engineers work with a wide range of spacecraft including rockets, satellites, missiles, space launchers, space vehicles, navigation systems and probes. For example, an astronautical engineer working for a government agency may design a space vehicle to perform research on Mars.

Related: Aeronautics vs. Aerospace Engineering: Definitions and Differences

Educational requirements

The educational requirements for entry-level aerospace engineers include obtaining a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering or any other engineering or scientific discipline that relates to aerospace systems. A master's degree may be necessary for aerospace research jobs and upper-level aerospace engineering positions.

Upper-level positions typically require candidates to possess a professional engineer license and those who wish to work on projects that relate to national defense may need a security clearance. Aerospace engineers seeking managerial roles need extensive knowledge of aerospace engineering concepts and proven work experience in the field.

Earning a degree in aerospace engineering offers individuals the chance to be at the forefront of science and engineering in today's technologically advanced marketplace. The knowledge, international project experience and communication skills that you learn by obtaining a degree in aerospace engineering prepare you to pursue a broad range of exciting careers.

Related: What Degree Does an Aerospace Engineer Need? Plus 7 Careers

Where do aerospace engineers work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most aerospace engineers work in manufacturing, analysis and design, research and development, engineering and navigational services, and the federal government. Aerospace engineers can also find employment in a variety of businesses and agencies, including:

  • Aerospace companies

  • Airlines

  • Research and development organizations

  • Contract agencies

  • Consulting firms

  • The military

  • Government agencies

  • Colleges and universities

  • Systems and software suppliers

An aerospace engineer working in an office environment typically uses computers and software programs to design aircraft or parts for aircraft. After perfecting the design, the aerospace engineer can use specialized software to test the product through various simulations and make any necessary changes before manufacturing begins.

Related: 11 of the Best Cities With Aerospace Jobs

Aerospace engineering salaries

According to Indeed Salaries, the national average salary for aerospace engineers varies depending on specialty. For example, aeronautical engineers make $99,056 per year while propulsion engineers make $104,999 per year. Like most jobs, more experience, additional education, location and types of companies all affect the amount of money you can earn as an aerospace engineer.

Aerospace engineering jobs

The following list provides some examples of jobs for aerospace engineers. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, visit indeed.com/salaries:

1. Quality engineer

National average base salary: $78,474 per year

Primary duties: Quality engineers assist companies with helping to ensure that their products and processes function smoothly and effectively and meet quality standards. Typical duties may include identifying areas of improvement, developing and implementing enhancement measures, investigating problems and assessing and testing quality control systems.

Usually, a quality engineer's job entails working alongside managers and supervisors to design quality standards and inspect products, equipment and processes. In the aerospace field, a quality engineer may check an aircraft manufacturer's processes to ensure employees adhere to the company's manufacturing procedures and safety protocols.

2. Design engineer

National average base salary: $81,597 per year

Primary duties: Design engineers design, research and test a variety of products and systems and develop new ideas. These engineers are also responsible for overseeing the manufacturing process.

In the aerospace industry, a design engineer may design a variety of systems for aircraft or spacecraft or processes for manufacturing them. Design engineers usually possess extensive knowledge of modern design trends and have a background in engineering. Required skills include excellent communication, creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

Related: Learn About Being a Design Engineer

3. Mechanical engineer

National average base salary: $86,373 per year

Primary duties: Mechanical engineers are responsible for researching, designing, developing, building and testing mechanical equipment, such as tools, engines and machines. To transform an idea into a product, they typically create prototypes and simulations before making a product.

They also investigate equipment failures. In the aerospace industry, these engineers may work on aircraft, spacecraft, missiles or weapons systems. Necessary skills for these positions include a background in engineering, computer skills and critical thinking skills.

4. Product engineer

National average base salary: $89,197 per year

Primary duties: Product engineers create and design products and develop a manufacturing process for those products. They transition a company's products from the design phase to the manufacturing phase, getting the product ready for sale.

A product engineer in the aerospace field may be responsible for developing a streamlined manufacturing process for aircraft engine components. Product engineers typically work at a manufacturing plant or corporate office. Product engineers require a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and an aptitude for design and innovation.

5. Structural engineer

National average base salary: $89,652 per year

Primary duties: Structural engineers design, plan and oversee the construction of various structures. These engineers are responsible for selecting the appropriate building materials, inspecting the construction process and ensuring that the building is structurally sound. These engineers create stable and reliable structures that support large aircraft in federal or private settings.

They ensure all constructions comply with industry safety standards. Structural engineers have strong math and computer skills, understand construction processes and are aware of any legal regulations in the area. These individuals also possess analytical skills, creative thinking skills and problem-solving skills.

6. System engineer

National average base salary: $100,977 per year

Primary duties: System engineers develop the outline for aerospace projects from the design phase through the manufacturing and production phase. These engineers focus on the details of the overall project, including cost, schedules and any problems that arise.

System engineers work alongside project managers and other engineers to create useful and successful products and monitor and manage all installed systems and infrastructure, and test to identify potential problems. The necessary skills for this role include a background in engineering, excellent communication skills, critical thinking skills and problem-solving skills. 

7. Planning engineer

National average base salary: $105,338 per year

Primary duties: Planning engineers interpret engineering drawings and analyze and plan the engineering and manufacturing processes for aerospace projects. They're often on-site throughout the duration of the project to oversee the process and offer problem-solving solutions.

Typically, planning engineers work with managers, surveyors and other engineers to keep the project on schedule and to make sure that they receive all materials and follow all procedures. These engineers possess strong attention to detail, are highly self-motivated and organized and exhibit strong communication skills.

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