What do aerospace engineers do?

On one level, the question What do aerospace engineers do, isn’t hard to answer.

They build machines that defy gravity, some for short periods, others for long. Some machines go into orbit, and stay there for years, decades. A very few have actually escaped earth’s gravitational pull, and gone off to the moon, Mars, Saturn, etc.

But that’s not a very helpful answer, and you know it already.

What you really want to know is: What’s my life going to be like working as an aerospace engineer?

You want a peek into your future, before you have to make the commitment.

And that’s much harder to answer. Because so much of it depends on you. It’s like asking, What’s my life going to be like if I marry this individual?

We can give you some idea, but it won’t satisfy your curiosity very well.

The only thing that will do that is your decision and determination to find out.

I’ll make you even more confused when I say that the term aerospace engineer is really a misnomer. An aerospace engineer might be a mechanical engineer (like me), an electrical (or electronics) engineer, a software engineer, a structural engineer, a systems engineer (like me, again), a manufacturing engineer . . . . .

We use the term aerospace engineer to distinguish between mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, etc, whose products will fly . . . . and those whose products won’t.

Having now thoroughly confused you, let me try and paint something of a picture of what aerospace engineers do.

You will be spending a large fraction of your time at a desk, in front of a computer screen. Sometimes two, three or four screens! Sometimes they’re really big screens! COOL.

Most likely, though, just one screen, with a Windows-based PC. And a phone. In close proximity to several other people, sometimes hundreds of people, each with a desk, Windows-based PC, and phone. NOT COOL.

When you’re not at your desk, you will be chatting with colleagues in common areas close to an espresso machine. Cool. Or in meetings in designated conference rooms. SOMETIMES COOL, USUALLY NOT.

You might find yourself in a building specially designed for a unique purpose, like testing hydraulic systems on test rigs (COOL) or housing flight simulators of the real aircraft (REALLY COOL). You might even get to design or virtually fly these simulators. POWER COOL. You might get to test or hack around with actual aircraft or pieces of aircraft. COOL.

If you’re a flight test engineer or test pilot, you will get to fly on real brand-new aircraft, often around the world. AWESOMELY, DROOL-WITH-JEALOUSY COOL.

Most aerospace engineers, sadly, don’t get to do that. In fact, you’ll be lucky to get a flight on the aircraft or spacecraft you design at all.

You will occasionally, perhaps even frequently, get to fly places for meetings with colleagues or to participate in tests. REASONABLY COOL, DEPENDING ON DESTINATION. Unfortunately, there are quite a few dull places in the world, and it’s uncanny how many aerospace companies seem to be located there.

But most of your time, as I said, will be spent sitting at your desk, working on that computer screen.

Believe it or not, that can actually be COOL. It depends very much on what you’re doing.

If you’re mainly writing or editing emails or MS-Word documents, that can get tedious really fast.

If, conversely, you’re using some high-technology computer software that enable you to draw lots of pretty pictures on-screen, that’s not bad. Especially if you are drawing bits and pieces that will actually fly onboard the air/spacecraft. That’s approaching COOL.

You might even get to code some of the software. COOL.

You might get to design and 3D-print bits that go on the air/spacecraft. SO COOL IT’S DOWNRIGHT CHILLY.

Unfortunately, there will no escaping that most heinous of activities, Email, or that other heinous activity, Talking with Actual People. Communication and teamwork are necessary daily activities. And the aerospace world seems infected with people who feel the need to fill the air with words, online and offline. Unfortunately, they aren’t as good at it as they think they are, and they drive the rest of the office to substance abuse in their search for pain relief.

The good news is, it’s possible for you to get very good at communication (verbally and virtually), and to get good at managing your time so well that you limit your exposure to such toxins and devote most of your time to the fun stuff.

What do aerospace engineers do, you ask?

I hope I’ve painted a reasonable sketch. If you are still unsatisfied, please leave a comment. I’ll do my best to satisfy.

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For geeks who defy gravity