What is Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering?

James Doehring

Aerospace and mechanical engineering are concerned with designing machines to solve practical problems involving motion. The field gained momentum during the Industrial Revolution and is now widespread throughout human civilization. Using the principles of physics, an aerospace or mechanical engineer can manipulate materials and energy to achieve certain human objectives that require mechanized systems. The term aerospace typically refers to designed airplanes, helicopters and atmospheric rockets, but it can also include spacecraft. Aerospace engineering extends the techniques of mechanical engineering to include systems that interact with moving fluids, such as air or water.

The Lockheed SR-71 was designed by aerospace engineers.
The Lockheed SR-71 was designed by aerospace engineers.

A number of inventors since the times of classical antiquity have experimented with mechanical systems. The Industrial Revolution, which showed the most dramatic changes during the 19th century, gave the field of mechanical engineering a more solid base. Machines capable of extracting energy from coal and petroleum were soon in large demand. Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were American inventors, are generally considered the first to create a functional airplane in 1903. Since then, the field of aerospace and mechanical engineering has had great influence in most societies.

Renaissance artist and engineer Leonardo Da Vinci envisioned several aerospace concepts centuries before they could be implemented.
Renaissance artist and engineer Leonardo Da Vinci envisioned several aerospace concepts centuries before they could be implemented.

Mechanical engineering primarily deals with the way matter and energy behave in everyday settings. It is based on physics, but its aim is to solve practical problems rather than discover the laws of nature. Mechanical engineers design everyday objects and tools that have some function involving motion; cars, drills and factory machines are some examples. Aerospace engineering extends the practice of mechanical engineering to new domains.

Crop dusters are designed to perform tight maneuvers at low speeds and altitudes.
Crop dusters are designed to perform tight maneuvers at low speeds and altitudes.

When aerospace and mechanical engineering is restricted to operation within Earth’s atmosphere, the term aeronautical engineering is often used. Aeronautical engineers design both manned and unmanned aircraft. Manned airplanes and helicopters typically require very high safety standards, and there is a great deal of aeronautical engineering work required to make these systems safe. Unmanned aircraft—which include missiles, military drones, and weather balloons—are often of a more experimental nature. Engineers working on these systems frequently apply the knowledge of aerospace and mechanical engineering to accomplish new objectives in the atmosphere.

Aeronautical engineers who work for defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, which built the stealthy F-22 Raptor, must usually pass background checks.
Aeronautical engineers who work for defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, which built the stealthy F-22 Raptor, must usually pass background checks.

Manned and unmanned systems that operate outside of the atmosphere are sometimes considered to be within the field of aerospace and mechanical engineering. Other times, these engineering activities are termed astronautical engineering. Astronautical engineering is related to aeronautical engineering because all artificial objects in space passed through the atmosphere on rockets. Likewise, all machines that went to space and returned safely to the surface had to navigate through the atmosphere as an aircraft. Astronautical engineering often shares much of the underlying physics and technology with mechanical engineering, even though the environments in question are very different.

Aerospace engineers designed the Space Shuttle using knowledge gained from the X-15, X-20, and X-24 projects.
Aerospace engineers designed the Space Shuttle using knowledge gained from the X-15, X-20, and X-24 projects.
An aerospace engineer may specialize in developing helicopters.
An aerospace engineer may specialize in developing helicopters.
Aerospace engineers design military drone aircraft.
Aerospace engineers design military drone aircraft.
Aerospace engineers might work on designing missiles.
Aerospace engineers might work on designing missiles.

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