What Does an Aerospace Engineer Do?
Aerospace engineers make sure that aerospace mechanics and electronics work properly or that aerospace vehicles function well. They also work to make sure that aerospace structures are sturdy and that aerospace systems are up to par. They may work on aircraft, missiles, or space vehicles. They work on the design, development, and testing of them. Aerospace engineers in management or supervisory positions may oversee the work that others do.
Besides the space industry, aerospace engineers work in other industries, too. They may work with high-speed trains that actually never touch the track (instead, they float an inch or two above it), or they may work on deep-diving vessels.
Within aerospace itself, engineers often specialize. These types of engineers include aeronautical engineers, who specifically work on aircraft, and astronomical engineers, who specialize in working on spacecraft.
The Nature of Aerospace Engineering at Work
Most aerospace engineers work in the aircraft industry. They may work with companies that make aircraft parts like electronic devices, engines, or communication systems. They may work for the government or in private industry. They may also work for the Department of Defense or for NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). In some cases, engineers work for the government, but in a less-direct fashion. In that case, they work for companies who have undertaken government contracts to produce equipment the government needs, like missile or spacecraft parts.
Aerospace engineers work for commercial airlines and other private industry companies, too. They may also consult either independently or as employees of consulting firms. They may also work at universities and colleges teaching others how to become aerospace engineers.
Designing and Creating as an Aerospace Engineer
If you use your design, imagination, and creative skills to design for the aerospace industry, you can truly love your job. It is not quite carefree, true, since you have to worry about the safety of those who are affected by your creations, but you can most certainly use your imagination when you work with others to come up with designs no one else has ever thought of. In fact, this type of imagination is sorely needed within the aerospace industry, because it is so far-reaching and it needs technology that has not yet been invented. Therefore, those with the best imaginations who can put their skills into practical use will often make the best aerospace engineers.
Working as a Team
Regardless of the type of job you will do as an aerospace engineer, you are going to work with others who bring their own areas of expertise to the table when it comes to the creation of your projects. For example, you can work with physicists and metallurgists on the design of your spacecraft ideas: they will give you the materials to withstand the extreme temperature, speed, and gravitational stresses put on the spacecraft you invent. No matter how extraordinary your spacecraft design is, it is not going to work if you do not have the proper materials to protect those who use them. Therefore, all design needs to be a collaborative effort.
Metallurgists and physicists also research the materials and ideas they come up with to make sure that they can withstand the necessary stresses. Taking this research, you as an aerospace engineer can develop designs and then test them, make changes as you go with your team, and oversee the course of production for new space technologies and vehicles. Engineering drafters and technicians also participate in the process by developing blueprints and technology so that there are models to simulate the actual process as this equipment is designed and developed.
If you get into the field of aerospace and decide that you want to specialize, you can do this, too. Aerospace engineering is a very broad and diverse field, so most aerospace engineers do eventually specialize in a particular area. You may concentrate, for example, on developing new structures and frameworks and on making sure that these can hold up to the unique stresses of space. Most often, you will do this type of testing in wind tunnels that simulate what happens to these vehicles in space, so that you can make changes to them as necessary to ensure that they are safe for those who use them.
Another area you may wish to specialize in is as an engineer who works on control and guidance system development. In this case, you work on the navigation and automatic guidance systems that aircraft and space vehicles use; other vehicles, too, such as submarines use these. Other areas of specialization in aerospace engineering include acoustics, propulsion, and thermodynamics. As you continue in your career, you may specialize further as you go. You may also specialize in working on a particular type of vehicle, such as the space shuttle, commercial airplane, or military fighter jet.
Background and Education
If you want to become an aerospace engineer, you will usually need to get your bachelor's degree in engineering first. If you have a strong propensity in the field, you can sometimes begin in aerospace engineering with a degree in mathematics or the natural sciences. Increasingly, schools are offering undergraduate degrees specifically in specialized engineering fields such as aeronautical, astronautical, or aerospace engineering.
As you advance throughout your career, it is likely that you will need to get advanced degrees such as a master's degree or PhD. You will also need to continue your education throughout your career in order to remain current on ever-changing technological advances.
Every engineer who works with the public in some capacity will need to be licensed in their state. To be licensed, you will need a degree from an accredited university and four years of experience as an engineer. You will also need to have passed your state's examination. If you work at various levels in the government, you may also need to pass civil service exams and/or will need security clearance to do these types of jobs.
Getting the Job
Once you have completed your undergraduate degree you can contact employers based upon where you want to work. Examples include commercial airlines, aerospace tools manufacturers, or aircraft manufacturers. If you specifically want to work for the space industry, you can also contact NASA directly.
If you decide you want to work for the government, you probably need to apply to a civil service agency to get a job. To work in the private industry you can contact consulting firms, universities, and companies directly to find suitable employment. Internet jobsites, too, have listings of positions available for engineers in the aerospace industry. Your school may also be able to help you find suitable employment, and employment agency listings or newspaper classifieds also post job openings.
Job Outlook and Compensation
Aerospace engineering as a field is very competitive, and those who pursue it stay in the field quite consistently; therefore turnover is quite low. Nonetheless, new people will be needed for those who leave the field or who retire. If you make it a point to stay updated on new technologies and keep skills sharp for aerospace engineering as a whole, you are likely to be much more in demand than someone who specializes in one small sector of the industry and does not keep up-to-date on other changes in the field.
As for compensation, engineers who had bachelors' degrees made about $51,000 a year as of 2005, while those with doctorates made about $73,000. Those with master's degrees made about $63,000 a year.