Aerospace engineering deals with designing and building machines that fly. It is one of the newest branches of engineering, and began in the 19th century with the first experiments in powered flight. As technology progressed, two specialties emerged; aeronautical engineering, which involves designing aircraft such as powered lighter-than-air craft, gliders, fixed-wing airplanes and jets, autogyros, and helicopters; and astronautical engineering, which focuses on the design and development of spacecraft.
In other words, aeronautical engineers are primarily involved in designing aircraft that fly within Earth’s atmosphere, while astronautical engineers work with the science and technology of spacecraft that fly outside Earth’s atmosphere, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
History of aerospace engineering
Early innovators of powered, lighter-than-air craft included Jules Henri Giffard, who in 1852 flew the first steerable steam-powered airship; Charles Renard and Arthur Constantin Krebs, who in 1884 flew the first powered airship to return to its starting point; and Ferdinand von Zeppelin who built and flew the first rigid airship, in 1900.
Much of the early work leading to the airplane involved gliders, and the 19th century saw dozens of glider experiments. Sir George Cayley expressed the principles of heavier-than-air flight starting in 1804, and in 1856, Jean-Marie Le Bris flew the first manned glider that climbed higher than its launch point. Le Bris did this by having a horse tow the glider along a beach.
The lack of a suitable engine thwarted many early efforts at powered, heavier-than-air flight. The first successful powered flight is credited to Orville and Wilbur Wright. The brothers incorporated the concepts of lift, weight, drag and thrust from a suitably powerful engine, and three-axis control of pitch, roll and yaw. In doing so, the inventors created the first airplane able to take off and climb on its own power, fly for a significant distance and make a controlled landing.
After the invention of fixed-wing airplanes, came the first rotary-wing aircraft, which include autogyros and helicopters. Based on principles first demonstrated in Chinese flying toys dating to 400 B.C., the idea of rotary-wing aircraft inspired many inventors to attempt vertical flight with rotating propellers. A number of small models powered by springs and rubber bands were built, but again, the first true helicopter had to wait for a suitably powerful engine.
Helicopter and autogyro designs progressed incrementally over the next few decades. Juan de la Cierva is credited with inventing the autogyro, a type of aircraft with fixed wings that uses a rotor for lift and a propeller for thrust. His advancements in rotary design led directly to the first modern helicopter, which is generally attributed to Igor Sikorsky in 1942.
The other side of aerospace engineering is rocketry and spacecraft. The most famous pioneers in this field were Robert Goddard, who constructed and successfully launched the first liquid-fueled rocket; Werner von Braun, who developed the first ballistic missile and went on to become the first director of NASA’s Marshall Flight Center; and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who is considered the Russian father of rocketry.
Several astronauts were aerospace engineers, including Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman in space, who died in the space shuttle Columbia disaster; and Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Armstrong himself once said: “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector nerdy engineer.”
Other well-known aerospace engineers include Boback Ferdowski, the “Mohawk Guy,” who serves as flight director of NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover mission, and Burt Rutan, whose company, Scaled Composites, designed SpaceShipOne, the first nongovernment manned spacecraft.