From Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base, where Neil Armstrong first walked, is 238,900 miles. In the 50 years since the summer of 1969, the aerospace industry has traveled much further, becoming a key driver in technology, innovation and the economy.

A Big Industry Reflects a Complex Economy

Any way you slice it, aerospace is vital to the United States economy. According to the Aerospace Industries Association, the aerospace industry generates as many as 1.7 million jobs—approximately two percent of the nation’ s employment base and 13 percent of its manufacturing employment base. That activity creates $300 billion in economic value, representing 10 percent of U.S. manufacturing output. An analysis by AeroDynamic Advisory and the Teal Group Corporation estimates the industry is worth $838 billion globally.

The aerospace industry is huge and complex. Defining what is and what is not part of it can be difficult, since the industry spills into many areas of the economy. Where do you draw the line? Jet engine manufacturers? Yes. Commercial airline companies? No.

The supply chain dictates success or failure. Boeing, for example, can’t build an airplane alone. Designing and assembling a plane is a large undertaking on its own, but the company also depends on hundreds of other companies to make and supply all the components. Every company has a place in this complex system. The companies in the aerospace industry all depend on one another.

Agility and Innovation

Despite its size, the aerospace industry exhibits agility, offering avenues for growth and innovation. Over the next five years, perhaps as many as 500 aircraft a year will be retired. That implies not only a need to make new planes but also an expanding aftermarket for spare parts. Additive manufacturing affords engineers and researchers ways to explore new technologies and new materials. Yet another channel of inquiry is the all-electric aircraft.

Aerospace start-ups are flourishing, which is unusual because a manufacturing firm, particularly in aerospace, is a capital intensive enterprise. Aerion in Nevada is revisiting supersonic transport, and Rocket Lab (California), a launcher of small satellites, may one day compete with SpaceX.

Growth and innovation offer job opportunities in sales, engineering, design, operations, supply chain and manufacturing. Firms will be looking for chief engineers, heads of operations and directors of research and development. New opportunities and innovative research attract bright and daring employees, presenting the chance to work on something that may fail but has a high “cool” factor.

One of the most intriguing areas of development centers on personal aircraft. A personal aircraft is one small Neil Armstrong step from the dream of every sci-fi buff and, heck, everyone else too for that matter: flying cars. Flying cars have the dazzle element engineers crave. While the profit potential is huge, the chance of success remains low. The fact that a company like Opener is developing its Blackfly single-seat electric Personal Aerial Vehicle (ePAV) is a positive sign for the aerospace industry and the economy in general. People invest in high-risk/high-reward projects to try new exciting and cutting edge technology and research.

The aerospace industry is huge, well-established and a major player in the world economy, yet a renewed sense of innovation puts it at the forefront of technological development. For those with a sense of daring who love the idea of working on something new or weird, aerospace means exciting careers for a wide range of professions.