What is the aerospace sector?

The aerospace sector, one of the largest and most powerful industries in the United States, supplies five markets: military aircraft, missiles, space, commercial airliners, and general aviation. The U.S. aerospace sector is considered the largest in the world and is the main supplier of both military and civil aerospace hardware to the rest of the world.

This sector directly employs about 509,000 workers in scientific and technical jobs and supports more than 700,000 jobs in related fields. Because of the great emphasis on research and development (R&D), about 25% of those who work in aerospace are engineers, scientists, and technicians. Aviation is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States, and it has increased yearly at the rate of at least 14%.

Key Takeaways

  • The aerospace sector is one of the largest sectors in the United States, providing products and services to the military aircraft, missile, space, commercial airline, and general aviation markets.
  • The history of the aerospace sector in the United States dates back to 1903 when Wilbur and Orville Wright built and flew the first successful powered airplane.
  • The aerospace sector has many subsectors, including unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commercial space, airport infrastructure, and aviation security.

The Aerospace Industry

The aerospace industry’s product line is broad because its primary products, flight vehicles, require up to millions of individual parts. In addition, many support systems are needed to operate and maintain the vehicles. In terms of sales, military aircraft have the largest market share, followed by space systems, civil aircraft, and missiles.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Commerce, aerospace exports, directly and indirectly, support more jobs than the export of any other commodity. In 2018, the U.S. aerospace industry contributed $151 billion in export sales to the U.S. economy.

As of 2019, the world’s largest aerospace companies ranked in terms of total revenue were Boeing, Airbus, United Technologies (which merged in April 2020 with Raytheon to become Raytheon Technologies Corporation), Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.

Aerospace Industry Subsectors

The aerospace industry includes many subsectors that contribute to the industry’s growth. For example, companies in the commercial space subsector design, manufacture, and launch advanced rockets and spacecraft. These companies are expected to see revenue growth as interest and spending increases in everything from space tourism, space exploration, improved satellite communications, and laboratories in space. SpaceX, Boeing, and Virgin Galactic are a few of the companies competing in the commercial space subsector.

Another aerospace industry subsector is unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones. A UAS does not have a pilot on board but is instead piloted autonomously or remotely. While drones are primarily used for military, research, and recreational uses, the main growth segment for UAS might come from drone delivery systems implemented by retail giants such as Amazon and Walmart.

Airport infrastructure and aviation security is another aerospace subsector that continues to grow both in the United States and globally. Companies in this subsector focus on protecting the airline industry from terrorism threats, along with the identification and containment of cybersecurity threats.

Alternative aviation fuel is an aerospace industry subsector that researches and develops alternatives fuels. Companies in this subsector look to develop alternatives that are environmentally sustainable and protect the airline industry from the price volatility of traditional jet fuel.

History of the United States Aerospace Industry

The aerospace sector’s origin in the United States dates back to Dec. 1903, when Wilbur and Orville Wright demonstrated an airplane capable of powered, sustained flight. In 1908, the Wrights secured a contract from the U.S. Army to make a single aircraft, and also licensed their patents to allow the Astra Company to manufacture aircraft in France. Glenn Curtiss of New York began selling his own aircraft in 1909, prompting many American aircraft hobbyists to turn entrepreneurial.

In 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and initiated the Mercury manned space program. In 1959, the U.S. Aircraft Industries Association, which was formed in 1919 to promote American civil aviation, changed its name to the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA). U.S. aerospace industry interests are represented through the AIA, an aerospace-industry-funded organization that provides a forum for technical and policy issues, and whose membership consists of the major companies in the field.