Aerospace engineers design aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, and missiles. In addition, they test prototypes to make sure that they function according to design.


Aerospace engineers typically do the following:

  • Direct and coordinate the design, manufacture, and testing of aircraft and aerospace products
  • Assess proposals for projects to determine if they are technically and financially feasible
  • Determine if proposed projects will result in safe aircraft and parts
  • Evaluate designs to see that the products meet engineering principles, customer requirements, and environmental challenges
  • Develop acceptance criteria for design methods, quality standards, sustainment after delivery, and completion dates
  • Ensure that projects meet quality standards
  • Inspect malfunctioning or damaged products to identify sources of problems and possible solutions

Aerospace engineers may develop new technologies for use in aviation, defense systems, and spacecraft. They often specialize in areas such as aerodynamic fluid flow; structural design; guidance, navigation, and control; instrumentation and communication; robotics; and propulsion and combustion.

Aerospace engineers can specialize in designing different types of aerospace products, such as commercial and military airplanes and helicopters; remotely piloted aircraft and rotorcraft; spacecraft, including launch vehicles and satellites; and military missiles and rockets.

Aerospace engineers often become experts in one or more related fields: aerodynamics, thermodynamics, celestial mechanics, flight mechanics, propulsion, acoustics, and guidance and control systems.

Aerospace engineers typically specialize in one of two types of engineering: aeronautical or astronautical.

Aeronautical engineers work with aircraft. They are involved primarily in designing aircraft and propulsion systems and in studying the aerodynamic performance of aircraft and construction materials. They work with the theory, technology, and practice of flight within the earth’s atmosphere.

Astronautical engineers work with the science and technology of spacecraft and how they perform inside and outside the earth’s atmosphere.

Aeronautical and astronautical engineers face different environmental and operational issues in designing aircraft and spacecraft. However, the two fields overlap a great deal because they both depend on the basic principles of physics.

Work Environment

Aerospace engineers held about 83,000 jobs in 2012. They are employed in industries where workers design or build aircraft, missiles, systems for national defense, or spacecraft. Aerospace engineers work primarily for firms that engage in analysis and design, manufacturing, research and development, and for the federal government.

The industries that employed the most aerospace engineers in 2012 were as follows:

Aerospace product and parts manufacturing 38%
Scientific research and development services 16
Architectural, engineering, and related services 12
Federal government 12
Navigational, measuring, electromedical, and control
instruments manufacturing

Aerospace engineers now spend more of their time in an office environment than they have in the past, because modern aircraft design requires the use of sophisticated computer equipment and software design tools, modeling, and simulations for tests, evaluation, and training.

Aerospace engineers work with other professionals involved in designing and building aircraft, spacecraft, and their components. Therefore, they must be able to communicate well, divide work into manageable tasks, and work with others toward a common goal.

Work Schedules

Aerospace engineers typically work full time. Engineers who direct projects must often work extra hours to monitor progress, to ensure that the design meets requirements, to determine how to measure aircraft performance, to see that production meets design standards, and to ensure that deadlines are met.

Education and Training

Aerospace engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering or some other field of engineering or science related to aerospace systems. Some aerospace engineers work on projects that are related to national defense and thus require security clearances. U.S. citizenship may be required for certain types and levels of clearances.


Entry-level aerospace engineers usually need a bachelor's degree. High school students interested in studying aerospace engineering should take courses in chemistry, physics, and math, including algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.

Bachelor’s degree programs include classroom, laboratory, and field studies in subjects such as general engineering principles, propulsion, stability and control, structures, mechanics, and aerodynamics, which is the study of how air interacts with moving objects.

Some colleges and universities offer cooperative programs, in partnership with industry, that give students practical experience while they complete their education. Cooperative programs and internships enable students to gain valuable experience and to finance part of their education.

At some universities, a student can enroll in a 5-year program that leads to both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree upon completion. A graduate degree will allow an engineer to work as an instructor at a university or to do research and development. Programs in aerospace engineering are accredited by ABET.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Aerospace engineers must be able to identify design elements that may not meet requirements and then must formulate alternatives to improve their performance.

Business skills. Much of the work done by aerospace engineers involves meeting federal government standards. Meeting these standards often requires knowledge of standard business practices, as well as knowledge of commercial law.

Critical-thinking skills. Aerospace engineers must be able to translate a set of issues into requirements and to figure out why a particular design does not work. They must be able to ask the right question, then find an acceptable answer.

Math skills. Aerospace engineers use the principles of calculus, trigonometry, and other advanced topics in math for analysis, design, and troubleshooting in their work.

Writing skills. Aerospace engineers must be able to write papers that explain their designs clearly and create documentation for future reference.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Aerospace engineers are not required to be licensed at the entry level. More experienced aerospace engineers, who assume more responsibility, usually earn the Professional Engineer (PE) license. Licensure generally requires the following:

  • A degree from an engineering program accredited by ABET
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Relevant work experience
  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering exam

The initial Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam can be taken right after graduating with a bachelor's degree. Engineers who pass this exam commonly are called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After acquiring suitable work experience, EITs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam.

Several states require engineers to take continuing education courses to keep their licenses. Most states recognize licenses from other states, as long as the other states’ licensing requirements meet or exceed their own licensing requirements.


Eventually, aerospace engineers may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a team of engineers and technicians. Some may even become engineering managers or move into executive positions, such as program managers. However, preparation for assuming a managerial position usually requires serving an apprenticeship under a more experienced aerospace engineer.


The median annual wage for aerospace engineers was $103,720 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half of the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $65,450, and the top 10 percent earned more than $149,120.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for aerospace engineers in the top five industries in which these engineers worked were as follows:

Federal government $110,860
Scientific research and development services 109,740
Navigational, measuring, electromedical, and
control instruments manufacturing
Architectural, engineering, and related services 102,720
Aerospace product and parts manufacturing 97,560

A compensation study published by Aviation Week in 2012 found that average annual pay among aerospace engineers was $71,859 at the entry level.

Aerospace engineers typically work full time. Engineers who direct projects must often work extra hours to monitor progress, to ensure that the design meets requirements, to determine how to measure aircraft performance, to see that production meets design standards, and to ensure that deadlines are met.

Union Membership 

Compared with workers in all occupations, aerospace engineers had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of aerospace engineers is projected to grow 7 percent from 2012 to 2022 slower than the average for all occupations. Some aerospace engineers work on projects that are related to national defense and thus require security clearances. This requirement will help to keep jobs in the United States. In addition, aircraft are being redesigned to cut down on noise pollution and to raise fuel efficiency, which will help spur demand for research and development. However, growth will be tempered because many of these engineers are employed in manufacturing industries that are projected to grow slowly or even decline.

Most of the work of aerospace engineers involves national defense–related projects or the design of civilian aircraft. Research and development projects, such as those related to improving the safety, efficiency, and environmental soundness of aircraft, should create demand for workers in this occupation.

Aerospace engineers who work on engines or propulsion will be needed as the emphasis in design and production shifts to rebuilding existing aircraft so that they are less noisy and more fuel efficient.

In addition, as governments refocus their space efforts, new companies are emerging to provide access to space outside of standard space agencies. The efforts of these companies will include low-orbit and beyond-earth-orbit capabilities for human and robotic space travel.

Job Prospects

Aerospace engineers who know how to use collaborative engineering tools and processes and are familiar with modeling, simulation, and robotics should have good opportunities. Employment opportunities also should be favorable for those trained in computational fluid dynamics software, which has enabled companies to test designs in a digital environment, thereby lowering testing costs. The aging of workers in this occupation also should help to create openings in the occupation over the next decade.

For More Information

For information about general engineering education and career resources, visit

American Society for Engineering Education

Technology Student Association

For more information about licensure as an aerospace engineer, visit

National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying

National Society of Professional Engineers

For information about accredited engineering programs, visit


For information about licensure and current developments in aeronautics, visit

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics