Aerospace Industry

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Despite a slowdown in recent years, aerospace is a career field that continues to attract many people because of its cutting-edge technology and wide range of career opportunities. Aerospace technology has made our world a smaller place. The ability to move humans in flying machines has changed our culture, from the way we travel to the way we wage wars. One hundred years ago, multinational companies were nonexistent; today, air travel and satellite communications have made them the trend. Air travel has also expanded the threat of foreign attack for every country in the world; today, citizens of all countries live with the knowledge that they are vulnerable from their skies. Ironically, the same technology that brought about bomber planes and missiles also has more benevolent benefits. Air travel has made it easier for people of widely different cultures to gain a better understanding of each other, thus reducing the threat of war.

Aerospace also encompasses travel outside our atmosphere. This field, astronautics, also has benefited humanity in many ways. Research in outer space has produced medical breakthroughs, improved manufacturing processes, and allowed for earlier, more accurate weather prediction, among other benefits.

The aerospace industry was born in the early part of the 20th century and literally took off shortly after Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first flight in 1903. Orville made the first flight, flying their wood, wire, and cloth airplane 120 feet. What had begun as a curiosity gathered intense interest as pilots and inventors worked to improve the Wright brothers’ design. By 1911, airplanes were being used in war. At first, airplanes were used mainly for reconnaissance missions, but they were soon adapted for dropping bombs. The recognition of the value of aircraft for warfare led to intense efforts to develop the aerospace industry, and technological advances in aviation design developed at an incredible pace. In 1915, the aerospace industry in the United States was stimulated by the creation of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would later become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). After 1925, private companies began carrying airmail. Engineering improvements, such as the use of wind tunnel testing and engine and airframe design, provided faster, larger and more durable airplanes. World War II brought further developments in aircraft. Factories and workers all over the country were mobilized to build the planes needed to fight the war, and the United States developed great expertise in building aircraft. An important innovation to modern air travel, the jet engine, had been developed by the end of the war. By the end of the 1950s, jet travel had revolutionized the airline industry, opening air travel to millions of people around the world. However, the industry couldn’t continue to develop at such a breakneck pace. The end of the Cold War and increased cooperation in space exploration reduced the need for the federal government to pour great amounts of money into the aerospace industry. Beginning in the 1980s, orders for new aircraft, both military and commercial, began to drop dramatically. The focus of the U.S. aviation industry shifted to developing markets in foreign countries that lagged behind the United States in production and technological capabilities. Research concentrated on safety improvements and quieter, more efficient aircraft.

The beginnings of astronautics, which later would become NASA’s focus, followed closely on the heels of the airplane in the early part of the 20th century. Astronautics, the science of space flight, soon revolutionized not only modern warfare but also humanity’s vision of its place in the universe. Beginning with the ideas of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian schoolteacher who theorized that a rocket fueled by liquid propellants could be operated in space, the American Robert Goddard and the German Hermann Oberth developed the first liquid- propellant rockets. Goddard launched the first such rocket in 1926, with a flight that reached about 41 feet, landing 184 feet from its launch site. Soon after the war, the Soviets launched the first successful spacecraft, Sputnik, in 1957, and the space age began.

The United States responded by creating NASA and stepping up efforts to develop craft capable of carrying humans into space. Throughout the Cold War, the space race continued, leading to the landing of the first man on the moon in 1969. The two countries saw the dedication of enormous amounts of resources to the development of ever more sophisticated technology, including conventional, nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, air and naval craft, and surveillance, intelligence, communications, and computer technology.

Much of the technology developed initially for defense has been adapted for commercial and civil use. Today, much of the work performed by NASA in space is directed at improving our understanding of many biological, chemical, meteorological, and other scientific processes that can then be implemented for promoting the health and welfare of all. Developments such as the reusable space shuttle and the space station, a permanent orbiting laboratory in space, have renewed ambitions toward living and working in space. Today, two countries that distrusted each other for much of the 20th century are working together on an ambitious aerospace project, the International Space Station (ISS). The United States, Russia, and 14 other countries have combined technology and manpower to build, expand, and maintain an international space station. The ISS has become the largest, most sophisticated, and most powerful spacecraft ever built. (For information on the experiments being conducted, crew members, and other facts about the ISS, visit


This technologist is working on a 747 engine at an aerospace plant. (Stewart Cohen, Tony Stone Images.)

Various technologies, sciences, and industries are necessary to produce the products, services, and scientific understanding that make up the modern aerospace industry. The industry requires the talents of an extraordinarily diverse range of careers. Engineers, scientists, technicians, computer programmers, pilots, mechanics, graphic artists, and administrators are some of the different professionals who work in the field.

A look at how research is conducted in the aerospace industry provides an example of how these professionals work together to advance the field. From the highly theoretical nature of basic research (such as understanding the law of gravity) to the applied research resulting in new materials, components, systems, products, and technologies, research scientists continually refine and expand aerospace technology. Physics plays an important part in the development of new types of aircraft, weapons, and missiles; chemistry research provides new materials for use not only on Earth but also in space. Biologists explore the effects of such factors as speed, gravity, and space on the human body, and also develop vaccines and other defenses against chemical or biological weapons. Engineers and other scientists work on the development and production of safe, efficient equipment. Their work includes studies of the atmosphere and space; the improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of combat, aeronautical, and space vehicles; and the development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space and through the atmosphere. Defense research also involves creating and refining communications, surveillance, tracking, and other systems that allow pilots, soldiers, and other personnel to maintain visual, audio, and long-range contact, among members of their own or opposing forces, through a variety of conditions.

Products of the aerospace industry can be separated into three sectors: space, military, and commercial.

Space. Space challenges the frontiers of higher speeds and safer, more efficient operations of air and spacecraft. Questions that researchers try to answer through experimentation and computer simulation involve a variety of aspects of space exploration and travel. Some fundamental questions are: How long can humans live in a weightless condition? Is there other life in our galaxy? Practical questions concerning both the research scientists and the engineers are: Will the engine fire as planned? Will the power source continue to produce electricity? The aerospace industry conducts research to answer these questions, solve technical challenges and problems, and develop new, more powerful, safer, and efficient technologies.

Military. Aerospace technology is a vital part of the national security of the United States. The military relies on aircraft and satellites during war and peace for surveillance, defense, and as an accurate means of carrying weapons such as bombs and missiles to their intended targets. The Department of Defense (DOD) operates from the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., overseeing the activities of our armed forces.

The DOD contracts with private aerospace companies to procure the manufacturing, scientific, research, and engineering resources to promote national security. The DOD may provide specifications for a new type of weapon or aircraft, then contract with a commercial manufacturer to design and produce it. The DOD may fund the research of scientists from a variety of backgrounds: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, astrophysics, and others working at colleges and universities and private companies.

Commercial. Commercial aircraft, whether for passenger or freight use, constitutes the largest portion of the aerospace industry’s sales. Flying on an airplane became more accessible to average Americans during the 1960s and 1970s and the volume of passenger travel has had healthy growth. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, along with the concurrent economic recession, caused significant declines in passenger travel, but industry experts believe that travel will rebound quickly.

Business, too, has increased its reliance on airplanes. For customers all over the world, speedy air mail and package delivery is not an innovation, but an expectation. Large multinational companies fly employees all over the world to conduct business. The demands of business and the traveling public fueled the growth of the industry in the second half of the 20th century, balancing, or at least reducing, the effects of military and space cutbacks during that same time period.

The way aircraft and spacecraft are manufactured has also evolved, largely for economic reasons. It is often cheaper for a smaller company to specialize in building a few parts than it is for a large company to build an entire airplane, for example. Some companies specialize in manufacturing or managing the manufacturing of the entire system, usually by subcontracting various phases of the operations, while other companies specialize in certain components or materials. There are only 50 or so major aerospace manufacturers, but thousands of subcontractors, from very large to very small companies, supply parts, supplies, materials, and subassemblies to the principal contractors. Manufacturers generally compete for contracts for military, commercial, and space aircraft. One craft may have been built by several different manufacturers. The space shuttle provides an example of this. The shuttle’s orbiter was placed under the responsibility of the Johnson Space Center in Texas, and its principal contractor was Rockwell International. The Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, meanwhile, contracted with both Morton Thiokol Chemical Corporation and Martin Marietta Aerospace for the shuttle’s solid-fuel booster and liquid-fuel propellant.

The development of a new type of aircraft may take many years from its initial design to final production. In the initial phases, computers are used to create theoretical models to test the design under a variety of simulated conditions and flight patterns. Next, scale models of a successful design are subjected to a barrage of tests, such as wind-tunnel testing, to refine the design still further. A full-scale model of the aircraft is built and its various components - the wings, fuselage, landing gear, etc. - are subjected to further testing. Finally, test craft are built to see how well the aircraft and its various systems operate under actual flying conditions. Full-scale manufacture of the aircraft begins only after an aircraft has successfully completed the testing phase. The process from initial design to final production may take as little as a few months for commercial aircraft; a military project, however, can take many years before completion.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, aerospace manufacturing provided more than 444,000 wage and salary jobs in 2004. The aerospace industry offers a wide variety of jobs requiring workers with different educational backgrounds. Scientists and engineers are generally expected to have completed advanced degree programs, including doctoral and post-doctoral work, often while gaining on-the-job experience. Technologists in the industry generally complete a bachelor’s degree program in aerospace technology or a related field, while technicians generally hold an associate’s degree. Employers often offer, and even require, additional on-the-job training. People with a high school diploma can find employment in many areas of production and manufacturing. Due to the highly technical nature of much of the work, those with less than a high school diploma may find it difficult to enter the field. Even support personnel are generally required to have a high school diploma.


In the decades following the Second World War, the aerospace industry was one of the most important in the United States. Apart from the international prestige to be gained by winning the space race, the ongoing threat presented by the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union drove the industry’s growth. Aerospace contractors could be assured of billions of dollars of new contracts each year; interest in space travel and research was also high.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s created a new reality for the aerospace industry. The immediate threat to national security disappeared, and with it, the need for high levels of spending. Other factors also combined to depress the aerospace industry. After the Challenger disaster of 1986, the space program entered a decline. Decisions were made to reduce the reliance on the space shuttle through the 1990s, and NASA’s budget was cut. (In 2003, a second space shuttle disaster occurred when the Columbia disintegrated in mid-air while reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. This created further stress on the industry and led to renewed calls for decreases in NASA’s budget.)

The recession of the early 1990s, coupled with the Persian Gulf War, severely reduced the level of air travel. Meanwhile, a wave of corporate downsizing swept the country, and by the mid-1990s, more than one million management jobs had been eliminated. Because business travel has always been one of the mainstays of the airlines, the aviation industry saw even further reductions in air travel. The deregulation of the airline industry in the early 1980s had also led to the failure of a number of airlines. All of these events meant that fewer orders for new commercial aircraft were being placed with the major aerospace manufacturers. Between 1989 and 1995, more than 500,000 jobs were eliminated.

The aerospace industry recovered slightly in the late 1990s, with 898 jetliner orders in 1996, 940 in 1997, 1,124 in 1998, 776 in 1999, and 1,081 in 2000. Employment also recovered somewhat, but peaked in 1998. The industry began to experience another decline due to several factors, including the Asian financial crises, foreign outsourcing for engines and parts, competition with the European manufacturer Airbus, and a struggling economy. Airlines began to lose money as air travel declined in the first half of 2001. Orders for new aircraft severely declined and layoffs affected thousands of workers.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks caused a steep decline in commercial flight and orders for new commercial aircraft. Since then, travel has rebounded gradually, and the U.S. Department of Labor predicts that the industry will return to its pre 9/11 condition over the next several years. Industry experts say that the war on terrorism could provide an opportunity for the aerospace industry to restructure itself and regain strength. To fight terrorism, protect the United States, and continue to support its troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locales, the U.S. government has increased its spending on aircraft, shipbuilding, ballistic missile defense, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and other defense-related programs.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects that employment in the aerospace products and parts manufacturing industry will grow more slowly than the average career, with higher growth predicted for the military aircraft and missiles portion of the industry. The employment percentage could increase further depending on government decisions to increase military spending.

As a result of the Columbia disaster, there was considerable debate concerning NASA’s budget, the necessity of human travel in space, and the future of the U.S. space program. Congress increased NASA’s budget slightly, and NASA announced plans to create a new crew exploration vehicle by 2008, retire the space shuttle and complete the International Space Station by 2010, and send a return manned mission to the Moon by 2020 as a first step to a manned mission to Mars. As part of its overall plan, NASA is expected to continue its research in aerospace technology, aviation, and space transportation, including military and commercial applications.

Words to Know

Aerodynamics: The study of gases in motion, principally applied in the design of airplanes.

Aeronautics: The design and construction of aircraft.

Aerospace: The science and technology of flight; also the atmosphere and the regions of space around it. Air pressure: The weight of the atmosphere over a particular point. Average air exerts 14.7 pounds on every square inch at sea level.

Airplane: A winged vehicle capable of flight, generally heavier than air and driven by jet engines or propellers; the six main parts of an airplane are the fuselage, wings, stabilizer, rudder, engines, and landing gear.

Airspace: The FAA designates six areas of Special Use Airspace. Air traffic controllers and pilots are responsible for knowing what type of airspace they are flying in and acting accordingly. They are:

Alert Area: Airspace that may contain a high volume of pilot training or unusual aerial activity. Controlled Firing Area: Airspace where firing activities are controlled to eliminate hazards to passing aircraft.

Military Operations Area: Airspace in which nonhazardous military activity may take place.

Prohibited Area: Airspace in which no person may operate an aircraft without special prior permission.

Restricted Area: Airspace where the flight of aircraft is not prohibited, but is subject to restrictions, such as certain specified flight levels.

Warning Area: Airspace extending three nautical miles outward from the coast of the United States that may contain hazardous activity.

Astronautics: The science and technology of space flight.

FAA: The Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA regulates air travel in the United States.

Gravity: Natural force that pulls objects on or near Earth toward Earth.

NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA oversees the United States space exploration program.

Orbit: The path of a satellite in relation to the object around which it revolves.

Payload: The instruments that are accommodated on a spacecraft.

Satellite: A free-flying object that orbits Earth, another planet, or the sun.

Space: Begins where Earth’s atmosphere is too thin to affect objects moving through it, about 100 miles above Earth.

Thrust: The push given by a rocket to its engines; thrust is required for an object to escape the pull of gravity.

Trajectory: Flight path.

For More Information

For information about scholarships, colleges, and career opportunities, contact

Air Force Association

1501 Lee Highway

Arlington, VA 22209-1198

Tel: 800-727-3337

Email: [email protected]

Contact AIA for publications with information on aerospace technologies, careers, and space.

Aerospace Industries Association of America (AIA)

1000 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1700

Arlington, VA 22209-3928

Tel: 703-358-1000

For career information and details on student branches of this organization, contact

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

1801 Alexander Bell Drive, Suite 500

Reston, VA 20191-4344

Tel: 800-639-2422

See Also

Airline; Defense; Space Exploration; Aeronautical and Aerospace Technician; Aerospace Engineer; Astronaut; Astronomer; Astrophysicist; Electrical and Electronics Engineer; Engineer; Industrial Engineer; Mechanical Engineer; Robotics Engineer and Technician


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