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Aerospace Vs. Aeronautical Engineering

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Aerospace engineering and aeronautical engineering are very similar disciplines; there are numerous overlaps in technology, the people who work in the sector and the skills and knowledge required of engineers. When you consider all of these similarities, it is no wonder that many people often confuse the two professions. However, there is a significant difference between aerospace engineering and aeronautical engineering.


The largest similarity between aerospace engineering and aeronautical engineering is that both professions focus on flight. Both areas of engineering study flight stability, aerodynamics and aircraft control, as well as traditional engineering issues. Engineers of both stripes typically earn a bachelor's degree in mechanical, computer or electrical engineering before attaining an advanced degree in aerospace or aeronautical engineering. They are then employed by private aviation companies, the armed services or other governmental entities. Both kinds of engineers earn high salaries, typically starting around $50,000 or $60,000 per year as of 2008, according to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The Main Difference

The main difference between aerospace and aeronautical engineering can be summed up very simply, according to Bruce R. White, dean of the College of Engineering at University of California, Davis. “Aeronautical engineering tends to focus on flight and activities within an atmosphere,” White said, “while aerospace engineering includes the atmosphere, but also extends into applications in space, where there is no atmosphere.”


The trouble with distinguishing between aerospace engineering and aeronautical engineering is that trying to do so can result in ambiguity. This is due to the fact that scientists have yet to agree on where aeronautical space ends. In the U.S., flying 50 miles or more above sea level is considered astronaut activity, while the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale sets the boundary at 100 kilometers, or approximately 62 miles. This disconnect is likely to persist until scientists develop more reliable methods for studying the composition of the atmosphere.


To address the prominent overlap between aerospace and aeronautical engineering, many universities are melding the two schools of thought into double-major programs, much in the same way that computer and electrical engineering are often combined. “Over time, as the aeronautical industry has shifted more and more toward an aerospace industry, our department has evolved toward aerospace engineering, as well,” said White.