What is Aerospace Engineering really about?

Probably many of you (colleges) have came across the situation of telling someone about your studies like:
"-I study Aerospace Engineering..." 
"-Oh, Space Engineering? Cool!"
"-NO, It's not only about space..."

And this is the end of the conversation. (Ok, some people may be more interested and they want to know what is this about.)

"The primary focus of the aerospace engineer is the design, construction, testing, and evaluation of craft that move through the atmosphere or outer space. This broad focus includes vehicle as simple as sled, bicycle, or automobile and as complex as high performance fighter aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor, or spacecraft such as the Space Shuttle or SpaceShipOne.
Falcon-9 Rocket lands on droneship, SpaceX

Most aerospace engineers specialize in one of the four major disciplines that must be understood to design a successful vehicle or enable it to safely operate: aerodynamicsavionicsmaterials science, and propulsion."[1]

According to 'definition' it is;
"Aerospace engineers design aircraft, spacecraft, satellites and missiles. In addition, these engineers test prototypes to make sure that they function according to plans. These professionals also design components and subassemblies for these craft; those parts include engines, airframes, wings, landing gear, control systems and instruments. Additionally, engineers may perform or write the specifications for destructive and nondestructive testing for strength, functionality, reliability, and long-term durability of aircraft and parts."[2]

As I usually define it to people; it is Aircraft / Aeronautical Engineer + Astronautical engineer.

In practice, we are the so-called "rocket-engineers" or the "top engineers", which is true on one hand. We study everything from all other engineering fields, no matter what you are specializing in in the future.

I would like to summarize the graduate course in a bit deeper way, focusing on the subjects and on the knowledge they can give us. (Here, I would like to note that many universities offering this course might have different syllabus, I am presenting what I have studied during my 3,5 years.) Many future or present students may find this collection useful for their studies.
just for fun

1st year:
This is the nightmare of all freshmen students. Your previous life changes from a normal human into a totally weird/nerd/unsocial one. You will be forced to study every day, no weekends guaranteed, daily attendance+studying time a day can be even up to 16 hours. If you are from a high-school that didn't teach you the basics properly, you'll suffer more.
  • You learn calculation tools like; Algebra, Calculus 1-2,
  • You spend endless hours of redrawing your Engineering drawings,
  • You start learning a programming language; this in most cases is C (the hardest one) to help with the crazy computations that you'll meet during your studies,
  • Mechanics 1-2, Materials, Physics, Mechanics of structures, Thermodynamics, Electronics are all part of this lovely year, just to make your life harder with those other subjects that you are already failing and struggling to pass. But these basic subjects are just to be an introduction for the upcoming years.
  • If all these wasn't enough, you learn additional, irrelevant subjects, just to have an even wider knowledge on all other fields of science; Philosophy, Environment, Economics, or a foreign language. (That last one is actually important.)

2nd year (3rd semester):
Let's assume, you have passed somehow that first year and still want to continue your Aerospace course. You hear it from others that "oh, second year will be easier". Definitely, but not on this major. It may feel slightly easier, because you are adapted to such a lifestyle that doesn't involve friends, you gave up all your hobbies and you are not freaking out if you have not a single weekend in half a year. You eat breakfast at 7, lunch at 19-21pm, dinner at midnight. The 2nd year is when the fun begins. This is when you actually see airplanes on the slides and are so excited about the new subjects.
Programming a CNC machine for milling
  • Calculus 3 is giving you more nightmares, but it is now making a lot of sense.
  • Engineering graphics is turning into Computer Aided Design (CAD),
  • Fluid mechanics and Basics of Control and Automation requires you to use all your Calculus skills, even the ones you have not yet studied. (Catch 22)
  • Machine Design begins, offering all nice and practical theory and calculations related to metal fatigue, calculations for those elements that you had to draw all the time on Graphics in the last year, you learn mainly about their design,
  • Manufacturing technology will teach you how things are made.
  • Mechanics of structures 2 seems like a piece of cake and you start to enjoy solid mechanics, as long as it's easier to understand than fluids.
  • Aeronautical systems 1. is you favorite subject this semester, which you enjoy following as an aviation addict, and you want to correct the teacher about ILS. But you may not knew the operation mechanism of the HSI.
  • Finally you have other introductory subject into Aerospace, Materials in Aerospace (now a more specific one as before),

still 2nd year (4th semester):
Now you start feeling something neutral. If you have passed everything so far, you start to meet your old friends or the new ones that also passed everything, if not, you are still determined and ready to retake some subject with the new 12 others. Here is when everything gets messed up. But it is also the turning point.
  • Aerodynamics, the long awaited subject, that is as cruel as Fluid Mechanics was, but you study the air more deeply, not those pumps, dams or Hagen–Poiseuille flow, for instance. Your favorite equation is Navier-Stokes, but you still have no idea how to solve it.
    Fluid Mechanics consultation with prof.
  • Astronautics, just in case to learn something at last about the space,
  • more Electronics, labs, and Electric circuits,
  • more Machine Design (now gears, clutches, and many more fun mechanism)
  • As for other laboratories are concerned, you will have them too. Machine Design, Mechanics of structures, Thermodynamics or even Aerodynamics labs. They are really amazing and you can't wait to attend the next class, apart from the fact that you have to prepare tonnes of reports and study for entry tests. This is where you either way have to work in a team, if so far you haven't gained this skill.
  • Mechanics of Flight, together with its lovely projects. Got to choose your aircraft, but pick wisely, you will spend your next one year working on it every week. Calculations of all kinds of graphs within Mechanics of aircraft. Pretty nice subject.
  • Propulsion systems, to know how piston engines and jet engines, etc. work,
  • Last but not least, Computer science continues, or i should rather call it Numerical methods. Yeah, those Runge-Kutta ODE-s and writing C programs to calculate Gauss-Elimination and the rest.
After successfully finishing the 2nd year, you came to a point where you can take a huge breath. You are able to survive whatever comes after, and you can start thinking of going for a beer or a date.

3rd year (5th semester):

This semester is a continuation of previous subject together with additional more.
  • Aeronautical systems 2.,
  • Aircraft Design 1. your favorite subject finally has come. Theory of everything on an aircraft, structures of fuselage, wing, empennage. Nice and time consuming projects where you can start the design of you own aircraft.
  • Aircraft Engine Design 1. if you like propulsion more, here you have it.
Did I mention propulsion?
Hinge system on a UAV rotorcraft
  • Chemistry of combustion, just to hate Chemistry even more.
  • Machine Design 3, to know a bit about metal contact, and elastohydrodynamic lubrication,
  • Mechanics of flight 2., now you completely hate that chosen aircraft, but still please calculate 5 more projects about its dynamical behaviors.
  • Rotorcraft Aeromechanics, 'cos you have to answer your friend's question about helicopters too, and you had Mechanics 2. too early, so in case not to forget all the knowledge,
  • Spacecraft design, so that now people can really say that you're a "rocket-scientist",
  • Aircraft Engines Maintenance, to get familiarized about GE, Rolls-Royce or PW engines.
  • Selected Applications of CAD/CAM/CAE Systems - to learn some CAD modelling using professional software like; Unigraphics NX, or Solidworks, or AutoCAD, etc.

(6th semester):
Now you can say, you've done something. Let's say you are over half of it. Keep working on!
Business Jet wing loads calculated with AVL
  • Aircraft Design 2, still airplanes, still projects, calculations, but it is getting more fun with Xfoil, AVL for aerodynamic computations, or even XFLR for airfoil design. Your programming skills are just about to pay-off.
  • Aircraft Maintenance, to get familiarized, how maintenance of Boeing or Airbus planes are done.
  • Finite element Method (FEM), is a lovely subject after those Mechanics of Structures classes. Now you learn the same as before but applied through FEM theory and FEAnalysis. Using a software like, ANSYS, you perform some calculations during labs. (Now the word lab is always about computer aided calculations or design.)
  • Machine Design continues but this is time for your own design. Design a shaft, control system or a gearbox, up to your requirements. Calculation from scratch, hand drawings, computer drawings, 3D models and calculations, documentations and huge printout drawings.
  • let's have a bit more Physics; Quantum mechanics and Quantum Physics,
  • Simulations of Aeronautical Systems, on which you perform simulation using MATLAB software, calculate dynamic motion equation, and present your ides. Flap, rudder, aileron or similar motion systems.
  • Structure and Assembly of airframes is also an integral part of aircraft manufacturing, learning about technologies used in production, design your own jig or tooling dock.

That'd be all? No!

  • Intermediate Project, or let's say, a pre-engineering thesis. You need to choose this on your own, get a supervisor and do something 'fun' to prepare you for your actual thesis. In some cases it is also a thesis but a bit less time consuming.

You've completed 3rd year, congratulations! You can proudly pass your printed A1 size drawings to your father, show your mid-thesis that you've made but you are still not an engineer with it.

4th year (7th semester):
Now that you have completed the most of it, you will have the same amount in one semester. Just kidding, you can sit back, relax and DO YOUR THESIS! Start immediately, because you will end up making it in the next semester. Don't forget about your still ongoing subject, such as:
Static Pressure plot of a flow in a T-connection, FLUENT
  • Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), the lovely Navier-Stokes equation is finally about to be solved, but unfortunately for compressible flow. Don't give up yet, FLUENT is only a user-friendly version for basic flows. Imagine what people with CFD doctor degree do, they code their own calculations for turbulent flow. Aw... too hard to even thing of it. So no reason to panic about your simple PDE and ODE problems. The only reason to panic is if you have forgotten Fluid Mechanics, Aerodynamics or Calculus 1-3, and Numerical Methods. So basically all the "best" subjects.
  • FEM 2. is just a continuation of the previous, more applications, and more colorful images in ANSYS Mechanical program,
  • Simulators, it can be flight or any other. No not flying, rather theory about the design principles, operations and computer network and algorithm used.
  • Vibrations and Aeroelasticity is another integral subject of any Aerospace Engineer, so here you get familiarized about vibration phenomena, the famous flutter, but all of it's types, computation of spring supported models and many more.
  • Aeronautical Regulations is needed in case you will once design your own aircraft, so to know how the certification process is.

PZL-106 BT aircraft, CAD model of empannage
Now it's time for your final Thesis. It is not a descriptive 30 pages long, study about airplanes. No, it is engineering so do it as it supposed to be done. Design, create, calculate, model, analyse something that hasn't been done before! Something that can improve Aerospace technology in any way. This is your whole summary of learned few things. You choose your specialization based on this work. If you lack any knowledge, well, time to study on your own. When finishing it finally, you only need to worry about your final defense exam, where you just need to know all about 100 topics, related to all the subject that you've completed. (I hope you still remember what the layout of rockets are or what is the extensometry method in solid mechanics.)

This is all in a nut-shell about how to become an Aerospace Engineer graduate student!
just another day at your desk
Well, did I mention that all these years worth something if you do your Master studies too? As others often say; "this is not as hard a rocket science". I say, this is, so study it accordingly. Be a Master in it, if you want to make something out of it.

I would like to finish this summary with my favorite quotation that my cousin told be before university:
"When it gets really hard, remember that it will always be harder!"

[1] - Aerospace Engineering: From the Ground Up, Ben Senson, Jasen Ritter, pp.4.,2011
[2] - http://www.livescience.com/47702-aerospace-engineering.html

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