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. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that production and professional jobs account for more than half of the jobs in this industry.
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 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.
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, and 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 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, and the subsequent economic recession caused significant declines in passenger travel. Following the economic recession that occurred at the beginning of the 21st century's second decade, the commercial aircraft sector was on strong footing by the late 2010s.
Several factors support the continued need for commercial flight. For example, business travel has resulted in an increased 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.
Manufacturing Aircraft and Spacecraft
The way aircraft and spacecraft are manufactured has also evolved, largely for economic reasons. For example, 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. 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 is 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, computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) software is 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 perform 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. Bureau of Labor Statistics, aerospace product and parts manufacturing provided more than 485,790 wage and salary jobs in 2018. 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 or some type of postsecondary vocational training. 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. The technical nature of work in this industry often leads to high average salaries and wages.