Being an Airplane and Rocket Ship Builder

Author:  Julie Spitzer

Institution:  University of Wisconsin-Madison


Putting the pencil to the paper and completing the calculations are one thing. Everything looks sound, smooth and flawless on a notepad as if nothing could go wrong. Why would it?

Building your creation is a whole different question. The figures may look logical in the notebook but combined with real physical materials, well, it's a whole new set of calculations. Now, there are lives at risk. Real people will be in here, traveling, mindlessly, to see friends or family or business partners and expecting to come back home safely. 

When a passenger boards an airplane, they often don’t think of all the mathematics, physics, design and labor that goes into it. They think of all the safety and strength that will be carrying them miles above the earth for hours until they are back on solid ground. A passenger worries for their life, but never really thinks too deeply about how the machine was built; about all the labor that went into it. However, those who build the aircraft work hard to ensure traveler safety each day.  They stress and fret over each equation, drawing and new material that could improve current aircraft, spacecraft or missile technology. Aerospace engineers, in devising new technologies, protect not only travelers but everyday citizens as well.

Each engineer must have a number of select characteristics. They must have a sound knowledge of science and mathematics as well as the design and manufacturing process. Engineers should be able to think critically and creatively and should be able to work alone or in groups. Additionally, they must maintain a curiosity and desire to learn throughout the entirety of their careers.

Aerospace engineers are well versed in aerodynamics, structures and materials, propulsion, flight dynamics and control and other disciplines like computer science. Aerodynamics is the study of how the aircraft lifts and flies. Propulsion focuses on how to build engines so that they propel vehicles into the atmosphere. Flight dynamics and control help in controlling the aircraft. Computer science and other disciplines such as mathematics and physics work together in each of these fields, not only enhancing each, but forming the backbone of them.

Physics may be the most important underlying discipline in this field. A strong background in physics may lead to a profound knowledge and depth in aerodynamics, thermodynamics, celestial mechanics, structural design, navigation and control, robotics and much more.

Aerospace engineering is further divided into two specializations. Aeronautical engineers work with aircraft design, specifically maintenance and improvement. They design aircrafts and work in theory, technology and flight within the earth’s atmosphere. Astronautical engineers work in the spacecraft design sector and focus on the flight technology performance both inside and outside of the earth’s atmosphere. These two fields overlap, primarily, regarding physics.

In order to become an aerospace engineer, one must have a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering or something very similar, such as aeronautical or astronautical engineering. This requires the student, during study, to perform well in the classroom and laboratory and excel in engineering principles. Such principles include stability and control, propulsion, mechanics and aerodynamics. Furthermore, one must also become certified, or gain a professional engineer license, through not only educational background but work experience and the passing of professional exams.

Through designing and testing, finding problems and crafting solutions, evaluating best options and exceeding expectations, aerospace engineers work diligently to ensure the safety of travelers flying from one country to another or of a team of astronauts on a mission to orbit the moon. They not only utilize the knowledge they gained from the hours spent studying, but they apply such to the real world in designing and building with the most cutting edge materials. Then, they put their handy work to rigorous tests to check for its stability.

Aerospace engineers must always be willing to learn and work hard to accomplish new goals and reach new heights. We unknowingly count on them for protection when traveling on an airplane, or even reading about new research obtained on space missions. We depend on them to develop new technologies that will better our airplanes as well as our missile technology. Aerospace engineers keep us safe multi-dimensionally.

For those considering a career in aerospace engineering, know that your options in this field are essentially limitless. You can use your math skills to create a sound structure of an aircraft with various materials, your design skills to draw plans for an aircraft or your physics skills to work with missile technology. You may work alone, in a group or yet arguably better, in a combination of the two. Knowing that your art and brain power are working to keep people safe may be the ultimate reward. If you are looking for a career that keeps you challenged and allows you to use your creative side, aerospace engineering may be right for you.