Although aerospace engineers design the spacecrafts and systems critical for the success of space missions, their jobs don’t require them to travel to space. In fact, the engineers often don’t have to leave their offices to test their designs and prototypes, thanks to innovative computer technology.
Aerospace engineers don't go to space. They evaluate the spacecraft and aircraft they design using computer technology and inspections conducted in testing facilities.
What Do Aerospace Engineers Do?
“Space” may be in their job titles, but aerospace engineers don’t focus only on spacecraft. They also design missiles, satellites and aircraft. They’re responsible for developing new technology and refining existing technology to make it safer or more efficient.
Aerospace engineers choose between astronautical engineering and aeronautical engineering career paths. Astronautical engineers concentrate on spacecraft and associated technology, while aeronautical engineers work on aircraft design and enhancement.
Engineers may choose to specialize even further and opt to concentrate on robotics, thermodynamics, structural design, propulsion and combustion, flight mechanics, missile defense systems or aerodynamic fluid flow.
In addition to designing missiles, satellites, spacecraft and aircraft, their duties may include:
- Feasibility evaluations for spacecraft, airplanes, helicopters, small and large missiles, and satellite designs.
- Computer-based testing of virtual prototypes.
- Identification and correction of problems or errors that occur during testing.
- Safety assessments for proposed spacecraft or parts.
- Creation of computer codes for guidance and other systems.
- Design of electrical, mechanical, guidance, propulsion, structural and other systems.
- Quality control inspections for parts and components.
- Supervision of environmental and vibration tests that replicate conditions in space and during launches.
- Engineering standards assessments for designs, prototypes and products.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration employs many aerospace engineers, but it’s not the only large employer of aerospace engineers. Aerospace engineers also work for defense contractors and private companies engaged in aerospace research and development, engineering or manufacturing.
Successful aerospace engineers must have excellent problem-solving and analytical skills. They’re highly creative, and they enjoy devising new designs and technologies that improve spacecraft and aircraft. A strong background in math is essential, as aerospace engineers perform complex calculations that require trigonometry and calculus.
Good presentation skills are also critical. Aerospace engineers not only create designs but also present their work to supervisors and committees. If engineers can’t clearly explain the benefits of the design and address criticisms, their projects are unlikely to be approved.
Although the job is demanding, aerospace engineering pays fairly well. In 2017, the median salary for aerospace engineers was $113,030, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics.
Educational Requirement for Aerospace Careers
NASA and businesses that hire aerospace engineers require bachelor’s degrees in aerospace, aeronautical, manufacturing, electrical or software engineering. Some companies also accept other types of degrees, such as applied physics, math, geology or meteorology. Although an advanced degree isn’t absolutely necessary, a master’s or doctoral degree can increase the number of job opportunities and possibilities for advancement.
Licensing isn’t required for jobs involving space but can be helpful, particularly if the engineer would like to eventually supervise other engineers. The process to become a professional (licensed) engineer involves two steps. Prospective professional engineers must first take the Fundamentals of Engineering examination, then work for four years or long before taking and passing the final exam, the Principles and Practices of Engineering.
Can Aerospace Engineers Become Astronauts?
Aerospace engineering can offer a path to a career as an astronaut, although the selection process is competitive. In 2016, 18,300 people applied for eight to 14 new astronaut positions, according to NASA. Requirements to become an astronaut include:
- Having U.S. citizenship.
- Having a Bachelor’s degree in engineering, mathematics, or in computer science or in any of the biological or physical sciences.
- Having three years of related professional experience, after obtaining a bachelor’s degree, or at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time on a jet aircraft.
- Having vision correctable to 20/20.
- Passing the NASA long-duration astronaut physical.