Most schools have one. Some might have two. But it’s almost impossible to find a school that has all three disciplines that encapsulate things that move: Astronautical, Aerospace, and Mechanical Engineering. While the greater latitude in choice may afford more autonomy in your options, this scope of choice may also complicate things – a good bit. My goal will be (from the perspective of an aerospace engineer) to clearly delineate Astronautical, Aerospace, and Mechanical, and also underscore some of their similarities, so that you can make your most informed decision between the three First, a fun note: you can’t make a wrong choice. Each of these three majors, from the biased opinion of an AE, is great – all in their own ways.
To begin, we’ll start with a departmental breakdown. While Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering are in the same department (the cleverly named department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering) Astronautical Engineering at USC is its own, standalone department. Astronautical engineering is the study of “out-of-atmosphere” systems – think rockets, satellites, and the machinery that operates in those environments. Many students who enjoy Astronautical Engineering are those that have been building model rockets since they were young, wiring up their own circuits at home, or yearning to become an astronaut. These same students get involved in numerous organizations on campus, namely RPL (the Rocket Propulsion Lab) which is a student-led design team attempting to be the first of its kind to completely design, build, and launch a fully functional rocket into space. Astronautical Engineers end up working for companies like SpaceX, JPL, NASA AMES, Blue Origin, and more.
Aerospace Engineering at many other institutions combines in atmosphere and out-of-atmosphere systems. At USC, while Aerospace Engineering do take a few ASTE (Astronautical Engineering) courses, the focus is on in-atmosphere systems: thinks planes, trains, cars, and boats. Aerospace Engineers at USC are typically involved in either the Aero Design Team or RPL. Aerospace Engineers will tend to work at companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, and SpaceX.
Last, but not least, is Mechanical Engineering, the most common (by number of engineers per class) of all three majors being discussed. Mechanical Engineering is one of the broader disciplines within all of engineering and is one of the most popular “flavors” of engineering in general. Mechanical Engineers at USC are involved in almost every design team, including the Formula SAE racing team, RPL, Aero Design Team, and Hyperloop at USC. Mechanical Engineers most commonly take positions at companies like SpaceX, Ford Motors, Microsoft, and Boeing – however, this list is nowhere near comprehensive.
Hopefully this brief overview of three seemingly related majors helped clarify their differences. Best of luck when you’re confronted with the choice between the three, but remember, they’re all fantastic programs, and you should be suited well in any of them.