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What is Aeronautical Science?

By Alan Rankin
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Aeronautical science is the collective name for the various sciences involved in the creation and operation of aircraft. The word “aeronautical” itself means “to navigate the air.” Aeronautical science is descended from nautical science, the science of seagoing vessels, and can be distinguished from astronautical science, which is concerned with spacecraft. With rare exceptions, aeronautical vehicles are designed only for travel in the Earth’s atmosphere. Although airplanes are the most common such vehicles, aeronautical devices also can include gliders, blimps, hot-air balloons and even kites.

Scientists have studied the principles of aeronautics for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci famously designed flying machines in the 1500s, but aeronautical science was then so poorly understood, even by da Vinci, that these craft were incapable of flight. It was only in the 1800s that British scientist Sir George Cayley identified the principles of weight, drag, lift and thrust; the first two must be overcome by the latter two for an aircraft to attain elevation. Cayley built and tested the first gliders in the mid-19th century, with designs similar to modern airplanes.

Much earlier, however, aeronautical pioneers experimented with lighter-than-air devices to achieve human flight. These scientists understood that certain gases are lighter than air, including air itself when heated, and naturally will rise in the atmosphere. If enough such gas is contained, it can lift objects and even people.

France’s Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne, proved this with their famous 1783 hot-air balloon flight. This flight predated Cayley’s experiments by 70 years and the airplane of brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright by more than a century. The following year, Jean-Pierre Blanchard added a propeller to a balloon, effectively creating the first airship, or blimp.

In the century following the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight, aeronautical science advanced rapidly as aircraft were adapted for use in warfare, commerce, transportation and sport. These intense uses required advances in safety, navigation, engineering and materials. Aeronautical scientists soon had to master understanding of a wide variety of sciences, including electronics, aerodynamics, metallurgy and calculus. In modern times, the creation of even simple aircraft requires specialized equipment and personnel with advanced training.

Aeronautical science is the basis of the commercial aircraft industry, a business that generates more than $400 billion US Dollars a year. Its principles also informed the development of space exploration; the two sciences collectively are known as aerospace engineering. Advances in aeronautics often find application in everyday living, including such mundane objects as juice boxes and Velcro® shoe fasteners. Aeronautics thus influences much of human life, from modern conveniences to exploration of the Earth and beyond.

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