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Aerospace engineering is the branch of engineering behind the design, construction and science of aircraft and spacecraft. It is broken into two major and overlapping branches: aeronautical engineering and astronautical engineering. The former deals with craft that stay within Earth's atmosphere, and the latter deals with craft that operate outside of Earth's atmosphere.

While aeronautical engineering was the original term, the broader "aerospace" has superseded it in usage, as flight technology advanced to include craft operating in outer space. Aerospace engineering, particularly the astronautics branch, is often informally called rocket science.


Modern flight vehicles undergo severe conditions such as differences in atmospheric pressure, and temperature, with structural loads applied upon vehicle components. Consequently, they are usually the products of various technologies including aerodynamics, avionics, materials science and propulsion. These technologies are collectively known as aerospace engineering. Because of the complexity of the field, aerospace engineering is conducted by a team of engineers, each specializing in their own branches of science. The development and manufacturing of a flight vehicle demands careful balance and compromise between abilities, design, available technology and costs.


Alberto Santos-Dumont, a pioneer who built the first machines able to fly, played an important role in the development of aviation. Some of the first ideas for powered flight may have come from Leonardo da Vinci, who, although he did not build any successful models, did develop many sketches and ideas for "flying machines".

The origin of aerospace engineering can be traced back to the aviation pioneers around the late 19th century to early 20th centuries, although the work of Sir George Cayley has recently been dated as being from the last decade of the 18th to mid 19th century. One of the most important people in the history of aeronautics, Cayley was a pioneer in aeronautical engineering and is credited as the first person to separate the forces of lift and drag, which are in effect on any flight vehicle. Early knowledge of aeronautical engineering was largely empirical with some concepts and skills imported from other branches of engineering. Scientists understood some key elements of aerospace engineering , like fluid dynamics, in the 18th century. Only a decade after the successful flights by the Wright brothers, the 1910s saw the development of aeronautical engineering through the design of World War I military aircraft.

The first definition of aerospace engineering appeared in February 1958. The definition considered the Earth's atmosphere and the outer space as a single realm, thereby encompassing both aircraft (aero) and spacecraft (space) under a newly coined word aerospace. The National Aeronautics and Space Administrationmarker was founded in 1958 as a response to the Cold War. United States aerospace engineers launched the first American satellite on January 31, 1958 in response to the USSR launching Sputnik in October 4, 1957.


Some of the elements of aerospace engineering are:

  • Fluid mechanics - the study of fluid flow around objects. Specifically aerodynamics concerning the flow of air over bodies such as wings or through objects such as wind tunnels (see also lift and aeronautics).
  • Astrodynamics - the study of orbital mechanics including prediction of orbital elements when given a select few variables. While few schools in the United States teach this at the undergraduate level, several have graduate programs covering this topic (usually in conjunction with the Physics department of said college or university).
  • Statics and Dynamics (engineering mechanics) - the study of movement, forces, moments in mechanical systems.
  • Mathematics - in particular, calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra.
  • Electrotechnology - the study of electronics within engineering.
  • Propulsion - the energy to move a vehicle through the air (or in outer space) is provided by internal combustion engines, jet engines and turbomachinery, or rockets (see also propeller and spacecraft propulsion). A more recent addition to this module is electric propulsion and ion propulsion.
  • Control engineering - the study of mathematical modeling of the dynamic behavior of systems and designing them, usually using feedback signals, so that their dynamic behavior is desirable (stable, without large excursions, with minimum error). This applies to the dynamic behavior of aircraft, spacecraft, propulsion systems, and subsystems that exist on aerospace vehicles.
  • Aircraft structures - design of the physical configuration of the craft to withstand the forces encountered during flight. Aerospace engineering aims to keep structures lightweight.
  • Materials science - related to structures, aerospace engineering also studies the materials of which the aerospace structures are to be built. New materials with very specific properties are invented, or existing ones are modified to improve their performance.
  • Solid mechanics - Closely related to material science is solid mechanics which deals with stress and strain analysis of the components of the vehicle. Nowadays there are several Finite Element programs such as MSC Patran/Nastran which aid engineers in the analytical process.
  • Aeroelasticity - the interaction of aerodynamic forces and structural flexibility, potentially causing flutter, divergence, etc.
  • Avionics - the design and programming of computer systems on board an aircraft or spacecraft and the simulation of systems.
  • Risk and reliability - the study of risk and reliability assessment techniques and the mathematics involved in the quantitative methods.
  • Noise control - the study of the mechanics of sound transfer.
  • Flight test - designing and executing flight test programs in order to gather and analyze performance and handling qualities data in order to determine if an aircraft meets its design and performance goals and certification requirements.

The basis of most of these elements lies in theoretical mathematics, such as fluid dynamics for aerodynamics or the equations of motion for flight dynamics. However, there is also a large empirical component. Historically, this empirical component was derived from testing of scale models and prototypes, either in wind tunnels or in the free atmosphere. More recently, advances in computing have enabled the use of computational fluid dynamics to simulate the behavior of fluid, reducing time and expense spent on wind-tunnel testing.

Additionally, aerospace engineering addresses the integration of all components that constitute an aerospace vehicle (subsystems including power, aerospace bearings, communications, thermal control, life support, etc.) and its life cycle (design, temperature, pressure, radiation, velocity, life time).

Aerospace engineering degrees

Aerospace (or aeronautical) engineering can be studied at the advanced diploma, bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. levels in aerospace engineering departments at many universities, and in mechanical engineering departments at others. A few departments offer degrees in space-focused astronautical engineering. The Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands offers one of the top European aerospace educational and research platforms, while the programs of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rutgers Universitymarker are two such examples. In 2009, U.S. News & World Report ranked the undergraduate aerospace engineering programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technologymarker, Georgia Institute of Technologymarker, and the University of Michiganmarker as the top three best programs for doctorate granting universities in the United States. The other programs in the top ten were Purdue Universitymarker, California Institute of Technologymarker, University of Marylandmarker, University of Illinois, Stanford Universitymarker, University of Texas at Austinmarker, and Virginia Techmarker in that order. America's Best Colleges 2009: Aerospace / Aeronautical / Astronautical (where doctorate is highest degree). The magazine also rates Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Universitymarker, the United States Air Force Academy, and the United States Naval Academymarker as the premier aerospace engineering programs at universities that do not grant doctorate degrees. America's Best Colleges 2009: Aerospace / Aeronautical / Astronautical (where doctorate not offered). Wichita State Universitymarker is renowned for its Aerospace Engineering program and also has the third highest research budget for Aerospace Engineering in the United States.

In the UK, Aerospace (or aeronautical) engineering can be studied for the B.Eng., M.Eng., MSc. and Ph.D. levels at a number of universities. The top universities include University of Cambridgemarker, Imperial College Londonmarker, University of Sheffield, University of Strathclyde, University of Glasgowmarker, Cranfield Universitymarker, University of Bristolmarker, University of Bathmarker, University of Manchestermarker and the University of Southamptonmarker. The Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London is noted for providing engineers for the Formula One industry, an industry that uses aerospace technology.

Aerospace can be studied at University of Limerickmarker in Ireland. In Australia, the RMIT Universitymarker offers Aerospace (or aeronautical) engineering and has more than 60 years teaching experience in this profession. Monash University, University of New South Walesmarker, University of Sydney, University of Queenslandmarker and Queensland University of Technologymarker also offers Aerospace Engineering.

European universities with renowned for their teaching and expertise in aerospace engineering include TU Delftmarker in the Netherlands, SUPAEROmarker in France, RWTH Aachenmarker, TU Munchenmarker, the University of Stuttgartmarker, TU Berlinmarker and TU Braunschweigmarker in Germany. In Spain the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid and Universitat Polit├Ęcnica de Catalunyamarker both offer the course, while in Italy there also several universities where aerospace engineering can be studied including the Politecnico di Milanomarker, the University of Pisa and the Politecnico di Torinomarker. In Eastern Europe they are the University of Belgrade, the Warsaw University of Technologymarker in Poland and University of Technology Brno in Czech Republic.

In India IIT Kanpurmarker possesses its own flight test aircraft and airfield for students in the discipline, while the other IITs also offer degrees in this discipline, while in China Nanjing Aeronautics and Astronautics Universitymarker is a regional leader in the field of aerospace engineering education. In Pakistanmarker Aerospace Engineering can be studied at University of Sciences and Technology, Air University and at PAF Academy in Risalpurmarker.

Popular culture

The term "rocket scientist" is at times used to describe a person of higher than average intelligence. Aerospace engineering has also been represented as the more "glittery" pinnacle of engineering. The movie Apollo 13 depicts the ground team as a group of heroes in a Hollywood fashion glorifying the intelligence and competence of white shirt and tie professionals. This was later extended in more detail in the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. The 2000s TV series Joey featured a PhD candidate in Aerospace Engineering. In the 1960s, the TV series My Three Sons featured a number of aerospace engineers among the fathers.

See also


  1. Rocket science, Rocketry.
  2. A Brief History of NASA
  5. University Rankings League Table 2009
  6. The Imperial College

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