Decidedly the least grounded profession in the field of engineering, aerospace engineers examine our relationship with the world above us. Since the field’s official 1958 emergence, engineers have helped humans travel — commercially, militarily, and exploratively. Aerospace industry advancements have improved how quickly, safely, and efficiently this has been made possible. They have also paved the way for numerous endeavors not previously imaginable.
Only three years would elapse before we turned our attention to the stars. Accordingly, manned spaceflight kicked off in 1961 with Yuri Gagarin’s interstellar ascent. Space was the final frontier — a medium through which countries could display their technical prowess — and global powers poured billions into the space race. That reinvigorated space exploration has taken a different form today.
Looking at Modern Aerospace Pursuits
The world’s current concept of space travel wouldn’t exist without advancements in aerospace engineering. Spaceflights, while largely safe, are still relatively risky for a variety of reasons. Crew members rely on radiation shielding, heat shielding, continuous oxygen flow, and other exterior-interior structural elements. There are human lives aboard — as with any aerial flight — meaning shuttle designs must be robust. These developments require a few things:
- Ample amounts of strong, expensive materials
- Multiple prototypes and viability tests
- An immense amount of intellectual and financial resources
Space missions have extended beyond simple proofs of concept. Oftentimes, it is expected that astronauts remain in orbit longer, making their duties even more complex. Aerospace engineers have shifted their gaze increasingly inward towards the cabin. Crew members now require more livable spaces, with noise isolation, comfort, lighting, and mental health coming to the forefront. These needs are compounded as crews push deeper into the galactic unknown.
In the early days of space travel, governments were expected to provide these essentials. Private companies are leading today’s rejuvenated efforts. SpaceX and its engineering team have redefined traditional spaceflight, from accessibility to execution.
The Rise of SpaceX
United States-based company SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk in 2002 as a privately-funded venture, with the goal to further commercialize space flight. A central goal in that mission is making spaceflight more affordable, something which has never been done before.
The engineering team at SpaceX has since implemented cost-saving measures to make this possible. Its Merlin engine was cheaper to design and assemble than those of competitors. Furthermore, reusability became a central tenet of SpaceX’s strategy. This eliminated the need to construct expensive new launch vehicles. SpaceX became the first private company to achieve spaceflight in 2008. It also launched a nine-engine craft (Falcon 9) into orbit in 2010 after earning over $1 billion in the NASA funding and federal contracts.
SpaceX’s Dragon space capsule blasted into orbit before making its terrestrial return. Dragon became the first commercial craft to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) just two years later. Naturally, this meant that Dragon was built stoutly enough to handle the physical rigors of repeated space travel without disintegrating. Recent Dragon missions and those involving other rockets have completed successfully, proving that modern aerospace engineering has reached a new pinnacle.
SpaceX is now focusing efforts on commercial space travel, with a plan to make rapid travel between Earth and settlements on Mars possible by the mid-2020s. Engineers must devise a new class of crafts capable of transporting humans skyward time after time. Note that these vessels will be subject to similar stressors upon launch and reentry. Teams will once again innovate in the areas of strength, efficiency, and speed to realize these goals.
Novel Approaches to CAD, CAE, and CAM
The need for creative thinking in the aerospace field is of utmost importance. However, no job is done without the proper tools — tools that make sound design possible while respecting the variables unique to spaceflight. With programs such as Autodesk’s Integrated CAD, CAM, and CAE software, Fusion 360, engineers now have the ability to create dynamic projects on a single platform and streamline their development process, making projects — like the ones being done at SpaceX — possible.