Rocket Science Question

I’m working on a story, and I want one of my characters to be a rocket scientist. He’ll have a PhD. But I’m not sure exactly what the degree would be called. What is the proper name for a PhD that someone would get to become a rocket scientist? The best I can come up with is a PhD in Jet Propulsion Engineering, but I’m not even sure if that degree exists. Any ideas?
And from what university could one get such a degree? I’m thinking MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech, and the like.

Thanks in advance

Exactly what part of rocket science will he be doing? If he is involved in fuels, he could be a Chemist or a Chemical Engineer. I suspect a Mechanical Engineer might build the rocket, and
Electrical Engineers would design the controls.

Wander over to and look for the list of courses, and pick the most appropriate.

former MIT non-rocket scientist.

It’s hard to go wrong in any scientific endeavor to stick with Physicist. If rocket fuel is a big part of the story have a Chemist collaborator.

Many Physicist function as engineers, although they don’t like to say that.

Well, for one thing, you need to know your subject, and if you don’t even know what degrees are required to become a rocket scientist, then perhaps you shouldn’t write about one until you’ve done more research.

But the answer you’re looking for isn’t simple. There’s a course of study called “Aerospace Engineering,” but it’s a catch all, and many universities that offer it don’t necessarily offer advanced degrees in that subject that are called PhD’s. Where I went to school, that title was reserved for the Arts and Sciences.

But your rocket scientist could very well have a PhD in physics. Or planetary science. Or astrophysics. The painfully detailed specialized knowlege about rockets usually comes from work experience, not edumacation. So his work experience is at least as important as his schooling.

Some excellent places to have on your resume are Jet Propulsion Laboratory (atmospheric and planetary science missions), Goddard Space Flight Center (mission management), Rockwell (launch vehicles, now owned by…), Boeing (launch vehicles and manned space), Aerojet (now part of …) Northrop Grumman (another big name in manned space), Morton Thiokol (rocket engines), and The Aerospace Corporation (lots of consulting and spook work, employs many very smart people). Some very smart people have also worked for small upstart companies where they found the freedom to be creative and eccentric… Orbital Sciences Corp, Scaled Composites, Kistler Aerospace, Rotary Rocket, American Rocket… I’ve left out many other very plausible and important names in the space industry, but these are the ones folks will recognize.

One of the smartest people I know in the rocket science bizniz had a BS in electrical engineering from MIT, a Masters in Aerospace from Cal Tech, and a PhD in Physics from Cal Tech.

I suggest you do a bit more research into the career in general and in some detail if you pick a school or company for your character’s history. It helps immensely to know your subject well, and it can give you ideas for plot and characterization.

I’m an aerospace engineer. I’m finishing a Master’s of Science in Aerospece Engineering. And I may pursue a Ph.D. in AE at one of the half dozen nearby Universities that offer it. It’s a fairly common degree program, even for advanced degrees.

I’ve had quite a few courses in rocket propulsion and guided missile design. At each university I’ve been a part of, those classes are the exclusive domain of the AE curriculum. If someone wanted to be a bona fide rocket scientist, I say they would most likely be an aerospace engineer.

I’d only trust an astrophysicist to handle the guidance and control calculations. Chemists may be good for the material science behind the propellants. Physicists are smart people, but don’t usually know too much about rocket engine design. I’ll let them do the hard math. The guy responsible for the system-level integration, and design of a rocket engine as a functional unit, is probably going to be an AE.

FYI, some schools make a dstinction between astronautical engineering (spacecraft), and aeronautical engineering (aircraft). You could say your guy is an astronautical engineer. But it’s more common to hear “aerospace,” a combination of the two.

I have a number of friends who work at NASA Goddard, which is just down the road from me. They do lots of things. One is a computer programmer. One is a mechanical engineer. One has a title of engineer but was trained as a physicist. One manages budgets and has an M.B.A. Another is another computer programmer. Another one (now retired) did something about calculating orbits. These people went to a variety of different universities.

None of these people would call themselves a rocket scientist, although if you pushed some of them they might say, “Well, I do work related to space travel.” I doubt that anybody calls themself a rocket scientist when asked about their job. They would say that they are a physicist or an engineer or a chemist or a programmer or an astronomer or several other things, usually with some additional qualification. Some of the people who do things like this have Ph.D.'s but not all of them.

You need to decide just what your character does. NASA and the associated contractors is a big bureaucracy with many different things going on. (And it has to be a big bureaucracy. Space travel requires a whole industry around it, not just a few lone scientists.) If being a rocket scientist is just a punch line in the story, you need to rethink the whole story.

The character I was referring to in the OP, and his profession as a “rocket scientist” wasn’t a major part of the story. I just asked because I wanted to use the name of a degree that was more accurate than “jet propulsion engineering.” Thanks to everyone who posted, you’ve helped me out a lot.

Well, you can never go wrong with a mathmatician. I know a bunch(#1) of math guys and they get pulled into everything. A PHD in math allows the person to do just about anything in physics-math-engineering.


#1. My Dad has a PHD in math and he did rocket research(#2), nuclear reactor safety research(#3) and computer programming in his carreer.

#2. My Dad has a neat little model of a rocket he helped design sitting on his desk. Next time I see him I’ll have to ask what model it is.

#3. My Dad ran a test of a nuclear containment wall. He bought an F-4 Phantom and ran it into a wall at 480 MPH to test the WALL. My Dad gave me pictures of the test about 2 days after it happened. has pictures. Who says mathmaticians don’t have any fun?


Just about any kind of engineering or hard science degree will fit the bill.

VunderBob, Electrical Engineer, NASA Langley Research Center

There are many astrophysicicsts who specialize in designing and building instruments for astronomical satellites. I wouldn’t trust an aerospace engineer to design a detector system for a space telescope. :wink:

Well, that’s all well and good. But it doesn’t get away from the fact that I still wouldn’t have said astrophysicist designing the solid rocket motor. Or a liquid one, for that matter.

And I hope to God I never have to design a detector of any kind. I’ll take care of the launch vehicle, thank you very much.

Of course. I didn’t mean to imply that an astrophysics degree entitles you to work on launcher design. Just pointing out another area of “rocket science” where astrophysicists do work on.

Or are you saying instrument design doesn’t count as “rocket science”? Should I be offended? :wink:

As with any organization, there is a range of abilities at Aerospace. Of this, more I shall not say.

To me, the classic definition of a “rocket scientist” is someone in the Wernher von Braun tradition, i.e. one who works on the engine itself from a systems or functional standpoint. They frequently have studied chemical engineering (combustion) or fluid mechanics (gas dynamics) but in practice draw from several areas, including mechanics (to deal with strength and structures aspects) and aerospace engineering (to deal with the performance aspects). Probably the most common (but by no means predominant) career path for these people is a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering with a concentration in propulsion. I would say the majority of “rocket scientists” did not study aerospace engineering as such in school, but were hired as specialists in structures, thermodynamics or fluids and became real rocket scientists after several years’ experience with engines. Von Braun himself was trained in physics, but that’s mainly because specialized training in propulsion did not exist in his time and place.

That said, there are many, many other jobs that the general public tends to lump under “rocket scientist”. I work on engine structures and to a lesser extent tanks and fairings, but I would not consider myself a rocket scientist because I don’t directly deal with the functional performance of the engine, I just try to predict whether it will hold together. Less related are satellite designers, who tend to be electrical and optics people. You could also make the argument that the dynamics and trajectory people are the real rocket scientists. And “rocket science” is a misnomer anyway, because it’s all engineering. The difference between science and engineering is that in science, your discoveries don’t have to be useful.

I think Ph.D. is the most common doctoral degree in engineering, but significant exceptions are MIT (which calls it Sc.D., doctor of science) and Yale (which calls it D.Eng., doctor of engineering). There are probably others. I find that, to a surprising extent, rocket engineering is dominated by people from Big Ten schools (Purdue especially). Those schools all call it the Ph.D.

That’s gonna be my new sig!

My father-in-law worked on the Apollo Program (even had a mission patch proudly displyed in his study). His expertise? Hydraulic Engineer. Gotta have someone build the plumbing for all that liquid and gas, right?..

Which just further points out that there are a LOT of specialities required to launch into space.

If you earn an engineering doctorate at MIT, they’ll let you pick which designation goes on your parchment. Dunno 'bout Yale.

To the OP question, Aeronautical Engineering is a common department name in US universities. Any other engineering discipline could lead one into a space program, though, since engineering is not primarily a set of facts to be known but a thought process.

The doctorate wouldn’t necessarily be a PhD. My sister is a rocket scientist (no, really) and she has an EngD (Doctor of Engineering) in Aeronautics and Space Engineering.

It’s yours! :slight_smile: