A space shuttle model undergoes a wind tunnel test simulating the ionized gasses that surround the shuttle as it reenters the atmosphereCredit: NASA
A space shuttle model undergoes a wind tunnel test simulating the ionized gasses that surround the shuttle as it reenters the atmosphere

Job Profile

Aerodynamicist

Aerodynamicists investigate the interaction between solids and the air around them. This makes them essential in ensuring a rocket’s successful flight before the vacuum of space is reached. If the mission requires either part of the rocket or the payload to land, the aerodynamicists consider the effect of reentry into the atmosphere.


An Aerodynamicist’s Work

A lot of aerodynamics research and design work is done through computer simulations, usually starting with calculations from first principles. Experiments, most commonly wind tunnel testing of prototypes, are then vital to validate the computer’s predictions. 

Some aerodynamicists may be simulation or experimentation experts and some may work in both areas, but due to the highly complex flow phenomena involved a detailed knowledge of fluid dynamics is crucial. 

Because the perfect aerodynamic design may cause problems for a different team - it might reduce the payload volume of the rocket or limit the maximum engine thrust, for example - aerodynamicists have to work closely with people from other areas to find design solutions that work for everyone. When considering atmospheric reentry, close liaison with thermal management engineers is vital to ensure the vehicle survives the extreme temperatures caused by aerodynamic heating. 

Skills Profile

The general skills an aerodynamicist needs are:

  • Strong background in applied maths and physics, particularly in fluid dynamics
  • Ability to think analytically and understand abstract concepts
  • Pragmatic approach to problem-solving
  • Skilled in computer programming and simulation
  • Ability to devise and run experiments
  • Teamwork and communication, given the multidisciplinary nature of the teams involved, but:
  • Simulation experts in particular also have to be able to work independently

Aerodynamicists are hired by a variety of employers with some working in industry and others in university departments or research institutes. Regardless of where they work, the work they do might either be focussed on solving design problems or researching much more novel concepts to inform future decisions.

There are lots of exciting applications of aerodynamics outside of spaceflight. In aviation, aerodynamicists develop quieter and more efficient aircraft. Their colleagues in the automotive sector ensure the drag on vehicles is low enough to meet environmental standards, while aerodynamicists working in Formula 1 design the fastest cars on the planet.

Routes into Aerodynamics

Most aerodynamicists have a university-level degree, often a Master’s, in Engineering or Applied Physics. Some go on to do a PhD in the subject. An apprenticeship is a common route into the experimental side of the work.

Links for further reading

A beginner’s guide to aerodynamics

Paper on the aerodynamics of the Space Shuttle

Overview of ESA’s aerodynamics work from the ‘90s

Author

Thomas Woelker-Darley

Thomas is a graduate of the University of Bath (MEng in Mechanical Engineering).

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