Like quite a few aerospace engineering majors, I’m not really here for the aircraft material. Now, planes and helicopters are interesting in their own right, and the overlap between the two fields makes perfect sense historically. My disinclination to the aeronautical courses (which, at my school—and most others—represent the bulk of the curriculum) stems mainly from the fact that that’s not where I want to spend my working years, and college is too damn expensive to waste my time and my parents’ money on irrelevant material.
The major argument for the current arrangement is that space-focused students represent a minority of the department’s undergrads. While this is generally true, it is also misleading: the lack of astronautics classes deters many interested high-schoolers from applying. To magnify the distortion, a lot of the kids who do enroll jump ship for propulsion and fluid dynamics once they realize how few options are open to them.
In seeking a more balanced plan of study, let’s take things to extremes and consider what a dedicated astronautical engineering curriculum would look like. A few such departments do exist, sometimes even operating alongside aerospace engineering programs at the same institution. As the opportunities to work in strictly space-related roles expand in the coming decades, it may be worthwhile to rehabilitate aeronautical engineering as an independent major while astronautical engineering comes into its own.
Before we begin, I’d like to discuss a few issues with engineering curricula in general.
First, the approach to teaching math and science generally is deeply flawed. It makes absolutely no sense to teach so much algebra, trigonometry, vector geometry, and so on before so much as showing the poor kids a derivative. Supposedly our math curriculum was designed to churn out aerospace engineers after the Sputnik Crisis, but fear must have clouded their judgement, because hiding the beauty of mathematics behind semesters of drudgery seems to scare off more students than it’s worth. The fact is, it’s easier to buckle down and work on a problem when the kid appreciates its applications.
This is closely related to another criticism, which is that students get very little experience with the subject matter of their major until basic math and science requirements are complete. This is not only unpleasant for the student, but dangerous. It may be that the student will absolutely hate the field of engineering they’ve chosen to study, but won’t find out until two years of college tuition have already been sunk. By that point, it may be financially impossible to change majors.1
None of that would be a problem if public schools were capable of turning out educated adults, but it would seem that they aren’t, so it is. The same goes for reading, composition, and oral communication, to say nothing of economics, ethics, and epistemology.
But it’s not clear to me that you need multivariate calculus to learn the history of spaceflight. I would recommend integrating some sort of dedicated, big picture class into every semester of the underclassman curriculum.2 Considering how many of us arrived at our capstone class here without a coherent concept of airplane dynamics, this seems like a good addition to the baseline program. The vast majority of the curriculum I propose, though, would consist of substitutions. Only one or two classes would I remove outright.
Before we talk about that, though, let me zoom out for a moment and explain the major areas of aerospace engineering. (If you already know this, bear with me—I’m not writing solely for aerospace engineers, or even engineers generally.)
The five major areas of aerospace engineering are aerodynamics, controls, propulsion, structures, and design. (One could make the case for spinning out a separate focus on hardware from design and structures, but this is not generally recognized. A bit more on that later.) Design is somewhat distinct from the other areas as a synthesis that cannot stand alone. The degree to which this is true, of course, depends on just how abstract the dividing line between design and subsystem application is. In many cases, the entire question is quite fuzzy, which is fine. A lot of the best work happens in that region.
By number of workers, structures is the biggest area of aerospace engineering. On the order of 70% of aerospace engineers will work in structural analysis at some point in their careers. Oddly enough, this is one of the areas I have the most difficultly explaining to my non-engineer family members. Structures is….structures. It’s all the structure that holds an airplane together. It’s the frame of your house keeping the roof from caving it, it’s the frame of your chair keeping you off the ground. The aircraft structure holds the engines to the wing and the wing to the fuselage and the fuselage together.
Propulsion is easier to see: it’s the engines pushing the plane through the sky. These can be propeller or jets of various types, and less frequently, rocket engines. Spacecraft propulsion, of course, is almost entirely based on different forms of rocketry, though there are proposals to use jet engines to carry launch vehicles part of the way through the atmosphere.
Aerodynamics is the art of minimizing drag on the vehicle as it moves through the atmosphere, and—for aircraft—transforming a portion of the longitudinal force from the engine into lift. This is a bit more difficult to visualize,3 but relatively straightforward. It would have a much smaller role in an astronautical engineering curriculum, but a role nonetheless.
Controls is considerably more abstract. It combines aerodynamics, propulsion, and avionics to maintain static or dynamic stability for the vehicle, and make it do what the operator wants. Interestingly, this is both were hardware applications and systems engineering come in. It’s all about making the actuators, computers, and cabling play nicely together.
All of these fields would appear in an astronautical engineering curriculum, one way or another. With that out of the way, let me break down the approximate manner in which I would assemble it.
Firstly, I would substitute epistemology and economics for the worldly perspective requirements. Composition and oral communications would stay, though doing those in-house is obviously desirable.
Basic science and mathematics would necessarily stay, though I would personally prefer to see the course content described properly. For instance, instead of call it Physics I & Physics II, I would describe them as Mechanics and Electrophysics. The same goes for structural analysis—what we know here as Aerospace Structures I & II would be Determinate Structural Analysis and Indeterminate Structural Analysis, i.e. finite element analysis. That doesn’t necessarily communicate more information to freshmen, but it hardly communicates less. The rest of the structures curriculum is mostly fine—statics & dynamics, materials, and so on.
Propulsion would see significant changes away from air-breathing and towards vacuum-capable systems. Beginning with fluid mechanics and thermodynamics, we would explore spacecraft aerodynamics, rocket propulsion, and finally spacecraft propulsion. Aerodynamics is necessary for the controls curriculum, which would begin with basic orbital mechanics before moving on to spacecraft flight dynamics (including attitude control) and then move on to astrodynamics. A propulsion prerequisite might be useful, depending on the precise plan-of-study.
In the spacecraft systems focus area, we would begin with programming and electrophysics before moving on to circuits, spacecraft hardware, and instrumentation. These are some of the areas where I feel least confident in my engineering education thus far—despite spending a little time assembly a model airplane kit and the lab section of our electronics class, we didn’t really get much hands-on experience until the senior manufacturing project in Aerospace Materials & Processes. A dedicated hardware course might be worth the trouble.
Finally, the design courses. In most curricula, the various sequences culminate in a senior capstone. I question this approach. My current situation in airplane design is feeling dozens of disparate threads coming together immediately after the report block where I needed to understand them. I would vastly prefer to have this process happen earlier, so senior design could focus on skillful application.
My solution to this is to maintain some sort of integrating coursework throughout the undergraduate experience. My suggestion is to begin with an introduction to astronautics as a freshman seminar. This could progress to a history of spaceflight in the sophomore year. As a junior, I’d recommend an introduction to space system design and space mission architecture.
All told, my proposed curriculum looks something like this:
Note the suggested technical electives listed. Students could spend their senior year taking these alongside the spacecraft design capstone. The full list would be much more extensive; these are just a few obvious areas which might be interesting to focus in on. Advanced spacecraft propulsion, structures, or astrodynamics classes would also be offered.
I may enumerate a semester-by-semester plan of study after a bit more thought, but right now I’m not sufficiently certain which classes should go in which semester. Balancing the workload is important, in my experience, to avoid burnout in otherwise perfectly capable students. Just as the high school can’t be depended on to teach students mathematics, we can’t rely on them to teach coping and study skills. A carefully-curated ramp up will be necessary.4
Perhaps that will change by the time that such a curriculum is widely needed, though. In any case, dedicated astronautical engineering won’t be a common major for several decades, at least. I’m writing this mainly to satisfy my own curiosity, but also to discuss what the nascent programs should be doing in the meantime. As you may have noticed, I think developing practical, economic spaceflight is very important. We aren’t there yet, not by a long shot, but I’d like to hit the ground running when the powers that be get the message.
Till then, however, it’s all about squeezing what astronautics material I can from a pretty aeronautical-focused program. Speaking of which, I should probably go finish that spacecraft telecommunications homework.
1You will recall that I flunked out after two years of school. I returned at a different institution in the same major, and after another year found myself doubting the decision. If I could do it over, I would probably tell myself to study in engineering physics or mechanical engineering to pursue a more manageable and personally-relevant plan of study. By the time I’d realized this, however, I was absolutely not going to ask my parents to finance another two years of university just because I’d been ignorant going in. By now I’m entirely committed.
2Here at the University of Kansas, I would recommend dusting off that Global History of Aerospace Technology class, and getting it approved to fulfill the Cultural & Diversity Awareness goal. This would be such a logical and productive use of engineering credit hours that I cannot possibly expect it to be accepted by the Mickey Mouse departments.
3One of my structures professors once described aerodynamics as one of “the magic subjects” in comparison to his own field. I politely refrained to telling him that I found aerodynamics relatively transparent next to structures, which then even more than now felt like black magic. My suspicion is that this stems primarily from my extremely visual thinking style, which translates better to aerothermodynamics and orbital mechanics than to structural analysis.
4This is another point of criticism towards the program here: just when you think you’ve gotten the hang of things, the airplane of your academic performance slams into the concrete wall of junior year.