Aerospace Engineering

Aerospace Engineering Associate Chair and Professor

U.Va. Alumna and Professor Thornton is a veteran of four Space Shuttle missions, including the repair of the Hubble space telescope on STS-61 in 1993, and she conducted several other spacewalk operations. She currently serves on the boards of the Space Foundation and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.


The Hy-V(pronounced “high five”) Program is being executed by a university, industry, and government team.  The free-flying scramjet test is a collaborative effort to launch a sounding rocket with a scramjet from NASA-Wallops Island located off the east coast of Virginia (Photo Courtesy of NASA).

Aerospace engineering is a highly specialized, yet widely diverse field.  Aerospace engineers are involved in such varied and exciting activities as enabling hypersonic flight, sending a spacecraft to Mars, designing an artificial heart, and improving tomorrow’s automobiles.  We have come a long way since the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. In just a few short years, we have converted aviation from daredevil and barnstorming adventures to a safe, fast, and widely used mode of transportation.  There is every reason to believe that the next fifty years will bring about even more dramatic advances, and UVa is playing a major role (Aerospace Research Laboratory). With the increasing need for high-speed civil transport or more efficient, higher performance commercial and military aircraft, Aerospace Engineering will continue to offer ample opportunities for careers and advancement.

The Undergraduate Curriculum
The Aerospace Engineering curriculum provides a thorough background in fluid dynamics, structures, propulsion, controls, flight dynamics and design. The curriculum provides flexibility with regard to all areas of potential aerospace practice by emphasizing applied science, design, and technology while providing a firm foundation in mathematics and physics. With a strong science and mathematics based education, aerospace engineers have also found employment opportunities outside of the traditional aerospace industry. Many work in oceanography, biotechnology, weather prediction, energy conservation, and in the petrochemical, nuclear or automotive industries. In addition, the aerospace design provides an excellent background for business, law or medicine. Of course, people with the ambition to become pilots, either military or commercial, find the aerospace degree very attractive.

Aerospace engineering principles are reinforced and integrated through design assignments and  significant “hands-on” experience with the latest in test equipment and modern experimental methods. A two-semester lab sequence in the third year builds on a basic skills and science background to develop an appreciation for measurement techniques and apparatus as well as to demonstrate aerodynamic concepts.  Students also develop communications skills and learn about the complex cultural, legal, ethical and economic factors which influence the engineering profession. Students who wish to may select courses that satisfy the requirements of a minor area of study (e.g., mechanical, bio-medical, environmental management, economics).

Aircraft Design

The 4th year aerospace undergraduates spend the year designing an aerospace vehicle. This experience is a culmination of all the engineering courses that they have taken at UVa. The image below is a supersonic commercial airliner, designed to fly overland at supersonic speeds with low sonic boom. This design won first place in a national NASA aircraft design competition.

While many courses in the program contain elements of design, the curriculum is capped by a year-long design course. This course brings together most of the aerospace subjects taken and requires the students, working in teams, to demonstrate their creativity as well as their basic knowledge. The course is often culminated by the public presentation of the final aircraft design to a panel of judges and by entry in a national competition. Our students continue to excel at such competitions (1st place in 2009 and 3rd place in 2010 in the NASA’s National Aircraft Design Student Competition).

Research Experience for Undergraduates Research is an important component of our undergraduate program in Aerospace Engineering. Many students are involved in hands-on research in one of the many active research laboratories within the department, either as paid research assistants or eager volunteers.

From the Aerospace Research Lab, to the Morphing Structures Lab, or the Combustion Lab—-opportunities abound. Our students have won more Harrison Research Awards than any other department in SEAS, as a testament to the many excellent opportunities that exist. Many students even begin this research in their second or third year, preparing them for outstanding senior thesis projects.  Twice over the last decade a UVa 4th-year has been recognized as the outstanding aerospace student in the US, and numerous times a student has been recognized as the outstanding student in the mid-Atlantic region by the Sigma Gamma Tau Aerospace Honor Society.

Balloon Launch Takes Student Research to Great Heights

MAE students Emily Snavely, Patrick Van Dam, and Chandrakanth Venigalla designed an experiment to measure cosmic rays in the stratosphere, then attached it to a NASA balloon and sent it soaring 20 miles above New Mexico and Texas. The flight was sponsored by NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Project Flight Opportunity program. The payload was designed, built and tested in a spacecraft design class taught by Christopher Goyne, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. “One of the advantages of this project is that it gives students the opportunity to design and fly an experiment for a real NASA mission,” Goyne said. “That creates an impact far beyond what can be achieved with a classroom assignment.”

Flight Simulator - Haley Kosheff and Prof McDaniels

Flight Simulator Allows Engineering Students to Experience the Aerodynamics They Study

The machine simulates flight so realistically that it can be used as a ground-based flight trainer for future pilots. But its primary purpose at UVA is to enhance the learning experience of students in a third-year “Flight Vehicle Dynamics” course – the theory of aircraft flight – taught by aerospace engineering Professor James McDaniel.

Student Haley Kosheff practices a maneuver as professor McDaniel observes.