What Should You Look for in a Resume?

If you’ve ever been in the position of hiring someone, then you know that reading through resumes can be a challenge. I recall reading through a good 30+ resumes to fill one tech writing at a defense contractor within the DC Beltway. The experience of the applicants ranged from young people fresh out of college to people with 30+ years of experience. Your mileage could vary, but this is how I sift through resumes:

  • Quality and organization of the content: Yes, I admit it: I’m one of those people who judge others by their ability to spell correctly. Of course if I’m hiring a writer, that should go without saying, right? But really, given spell check and careful reading, there is no reason a resume should have a spelling error. I’m also looking at things like fonts, layout, consistent formatting, and all that good technical writer stuff. If you can present your resume neatly, that bodes well for the sort of work I can expect.
  • Directly relevant experience: Have they done the specific job you’re hiring for in the (recent) past? I’ve seen people with a career in sales send in resumes for technical writing positions and thought, “Really?” Sometimes you won’t get any resumes that meet all of your qualifications: wrong industry, wrong type of education, what have you. In that case, you have to start reconsidering your job “requirements” and thinking about what  you really want your new hire to do. How much do they need to bring to the table and how much can you train them with a minimum of fuss?

    Related to this question is the quantity of someone’s experience, and here I have to tread carefully. I am NOT a human resources person, but I understand the implications of age-related discrimination. Some folks, just by the length of (or dates on) their resume, convey the obvious fact that they’re a certain age. However, if the applicant’s experience, accomplishments, and references are exactly what you need, you’d be foolish not to interview them. On the flip side of that, if you’re hiring for an entry-level position, the concern always comes up: Will they be satisfied with the salary this job is offering? If they’re looking for any work that pays the bills, they’re probably well aware of the salary range; that’s not for you to judge. You just need to gauge their willingness to do this job. Another thing to consider: having an experienced person on the staff offers advantages that include a broader network, more extensive background, and a keener sense of the tricks of the trade.

    Taking this in the other direction, a younger person comes in with fewer preconceived notions of “how things should be done” and usually has lower salary requirements. However, they will probably require more on-the-job training.

  • Accomplishments: Not everyone includes accomplishments in their resume, but they should. I even included a master’s thesis on my resume for a while just to show that I got something out of grad school besides another diploma. Accomplishments, of course, are just little brags that show the impact you’ve made in the places you’ve worked. A quick way to determine if something in your work history is an accomplishment is to ask if: a) the thing you did made or saved money or b) anyone in that position has ever done what you did before. (Mind you, these should be positive things.)
  • Education: I’m not as snobby as I used to be about getting English majors for writing projects–or even communications or public relations majors. Usually most tech writing positions require a college degree, so that’s more a matter of checking a box. More important than the degree is how well you can write.

The goal of a hiring manager should be to hire the best candidate you can for the salary you’re able to offer. And I have to add this because I’ve seen situations where it was a problem: you should be willing to hire people who are smarter or better than you in some areas. Smarter employees are not a threat to your job, they’re an opportunity for you to learn from them and for the organization to benefit from their abilities. If anything, you could look at a smart(er) employee as part of your succession plan: if you get promoted, what sort of person would you like to succeed you? Just some food for thought. Happy hiring!

(By the way, my apologies for the late posting. The time just got away from me this week.)

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The Mechanics of Blog Writing

Occasionally I get questions from readers asking how I go about blogging. I’m not certain if I’m doing this in a business-savvy manner all the time (see my friend Chef Katrina for advice on that), but when it comes to content, I’m pretty fearless at coughing up entries twice a week. How does that happen? Well, let’s get started.

  • Consistent timing: Back in November of last year, I made the decision to go with regular days and times of posting (Mondays and Thursdays, 9 a.m. U.S. Eastern Time). This regularity of timing helps my readers anticipate content at specific times–sort of like watching their favorite television shows, for those of you who don’t record your TV viewing, like me.
  • Central theme and audience: Once I made the decision not to write about space on this blog, I had to narrow down my content so it wouldn’t be as meandering and inconsistent as my personal blog. This, again, goes to consistency and helps my readers know what to expect when they read my site. In my case, I decided to write about the business of technical writing, which means primarily writing about all the things they don’t teach you in formal classes about technical communication. I will throw in some of the mechanics occasionally, but my goal is to offer advice to the technical writing student or professional that can offer insight into all the things that happen around the technical writer when s/he is not writing.
  • Maintaining consistent style: I don’t know how to impart style to you, though I’ve seen some writers try it. For me, the way I write for this blog is the same way I’d talk (with, perhaps, a bit more politeness and clarity) in the office or at a saloon after work. There are some things I might get spun up or passionate about (space exploration or ethics), but I try not to be too pompous. I’m just a guy who’s done a lot of things and has some ideas to share. My style might be too casual for some–I’m certain a few of my former English professors would be or are horrified by fast-and-loose interpretation of “the rules” of technical writing–and it might be too academic for others. Fair enough. I read somewhere that you can’t please everyone–you’re not pizza. Or that if everyone agrees with you, you’re not expressing any opinions worth hearing. Regardless, the best way to maintain your personal style in a blog is simply to keep writing. If two times a week isn’t enough, try writing daily. But you know what you want to say, and whether you realize it or not, you have your own distinctive way of saying it. It’s one of the mysteries of writing and one of the things I love, so the less “explanation,” for me, the better.
  • Setting boundaries: “The business of technical writing” is still a pretty broad topic. That may–and has, on this page–cover anything from editing to resumes to career hunting to dealing with customers. However, you might also notice that I have my own particular blind spots or topics that I avoid: politics, sexual harassment, racism/sexism, or women’s fashion. Guilty. These are topics that I’ve generally covered under the blanket heading of “leave it outside the office.” Another suggestion would be to follow the Platinum Rule: “Treat others as they would wish to be treated.”

    I also don’t cover issues like dating, marriage, or kids in this blog because I don’t engage in any of that, either. Those are all personal choices of mine, and far be it for me to inflict my monklike existence on the rest of you. I don’t feel obligated to write about these topics, either. I’m here to write about what interests me. I might offer up advice if I were asked about one of these topics, but so far, thankfully, no one has; and anyhow I’m not certain my advice would do you any good anyhow.

    One last note on setting boundaries: If I find myself sharing negative situations about a customer, manager, or peer, I do my level best to focus on the situation and not “name names.” The I extract as much personal and company information as possible because the point of sharing the story is usually to show a) something I screwed up or b) how to fix a situation. It’s really in nobody’s best interest to gripe about a customer online, and I wince when I see people do it, knowing full well where they work. The point of social media is that it’s social–other people will see it. Maybe even your peers, customers, or managers. If you wouldn’t something to their face, why would you post it online? My two cents.

  • Writing blogs ahead of time: A lot of what I write is what media people call “evergreen” content, meaning it could be posted at any time, regardless of what’s happening in the world or even the time of year. That being the case, I can write several entries at a time and schedule them in advance for the appropriate date/time.  Occasionally a situation will crop up that I feel requires moving addressing to address the events of the day, which causes me to shuffle the order of other entries, but you’re none the wiser because there’s no real order to what I’m writing here.
  • How I come up with ideas: Again, given my relatively broad topic and my known audience, I rarely have a problem coming up with ideas. Sometimes I’m writing later than I’d like–this particular entry is being written on the morning it’s due (50 minutes from when I type these exact words–but anything in my work life is likely to spark an entry. And yes, I cover some topics more than once. It’s inevitable. The point is to provide a different emphasis or spin on how to think about those topics. Usually all it takes is a confluence of audience-situation-opinion to get me started.
  • Entry length: I have no personal rules on blog post length. I suppose I should, though I don’t often go longer than 1,500 words. What I’ve started doing is adding more headings or bullets so people can scan the longer entries and decide if the content is right for them. Maybe I’ll do some more investigating on this matter to investigate how many words I cough up at a given moment, but for now, I usually write 250-1,000 words, depending on the topic and how much I have to say. Occasionally I break up entries into multiple parts.
  • Reader response: When I get emails or comments from my readers, I make an effort to reply promptly and politely. Fortunately, I’ve yet to face a situation where someone was rude enough that I had to block them or delete their comments, though that has happened in other forums.

    Flipping back to the positive side, I appreciate the fact that some of you have taken the time to write, and I appreciate your indulgence if I’ve turned my response to your questions into blog entries. This isn’t to air your personal business, but simply because I believe that the questions I receive are worth sharing…and because it’s entirely possible that others might have the same question but were simply afraid to ask. I do, when asked, change or remove names or specific details. However, if there’s ever a situation you prefer that I not blog about, perhaps I’m the wrong guy to ask, because one way or another, I probably will write about it. The goal is to be fair with my readers and to share what I know.

If you’re interested in writing your own blog about technical writing, by all means, do so! These are my guidelines, this is my blog, so everything above applies to me. Like I said, I have blind spots and a particular viewpoint. You, being who you are, have your own insights, viewpoints, and yes, blind spots. If you have things worth saying, the readers will come.

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Why Should You Hire a Freelance Technical Writer?

Not everyone needs a technical writer on staff all the time. However, that need can arise. Those needs are important because they are how independent contractors like me pay our bills.

Why would a business need a technical writer?

There are any number of reasons for this, from the nature of an organization’s work to its size, budget, or workload. However, there are organizations that would benefit from hiring a writer to help in particular situations on at least a part-time basis. These situations include:

  • Writing proposals.
  • Writing technical documents or white papers.
  • Writing instructional manuals or procedures for a product or service.
  • Developing marketing/outreach/educational materials.
  • Writing critical executive correspondence, such as:
    • Conducting Sales/marketing outreach.
    • Contacting an elected official.
    • Responding to a complaint or product/service deficiency.
    • Proposing a business deal or merger.
    • Responding to an accident or public relations issue.

All of these situations have traits in common:

  • They are usually not daily needs in a company’s business.
  • When they do come up, the company usually wants to put their best foot forward, communicate clearly, and get results.
  • They are often, but not always, time sensitive.

What are the benefits?

Operational success

The most important reason to hire a professional communicator for the aforementioned situations is simply operational success. Success can take many forms; it need not always be winning a contract–though proposals are often the most common reason to hire a freelance technical writer. Operational success could mean getting a meeting with an elected official; opening the door to a new customer or a potential business partnerships; ensuring the proper and safe handling of the hardware the company is building; or piquing the interest of potential customers about the company’s products or services.

Less paperwork

Any new employee requires a certain amount of paperwork to bring onto the team; however contractor/freelance technical writers can be advantageous to a company that doesn’t want or have the money to pay benefits. (A freelancer will factor their self-provided benefits into their rates.) The contract both parties sign can be established for a specified amount of work and time. All that the company is required to provide is content, payment, perhaps internet/facility access, and the 1099 form at the end of the year. If the company does not have a prewritten contract on hand, the freelancer often has a standard form that can be customized to help employers procure their services. The writer’s responsibilities, in turn, are straightforward: sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), an I-9 (employment eligibility) form, and deliver the work for the contracting organization.

I’ve done work with considerably less paperwork than this–I’ve negotiated my hourly rate and signed an NDA via email without ever seeing the customer face to face (in those situations, the employer did some due diligence and asked for references before hiring me based on my reputation). The work started, and the checks started arriving.

Acquiring expertise for hire

A freelance technical writer with experience in an organization’s given industry can join the team with a minimum of fuss and can focus on the specific content needed for the job. The questions that an experienced technical writer asks will differ from someone who doesn’t know the business. A writer without experience in the field will be asking high-level questions like “What is it you’re building?” An experienced writer will start asking about specifics: “What type of widget are you building? What makes it different? What are the particular client needs/sensitivities?”

My background in technical writing for launch vehicle and spacecraft engineering enables me to join those types of organizations with a minimum of ramp-up time. However, sometimes my customers are more concerned about my ability simply to write and organize information and are willing to put in the time to teach me the basics.

Opportunity to “test drive” a future employee

Additionally, a company considering hiring a full-time technical writer might use a 1099 contractor is as an “audition” for an eventual full-time hire.

Being realistic about outcomes

A technical writer cannot always guarantee success, especially in a proposal. However, if an organization’s staff is small, lacks strong writers, or lacks experience with writing  some of the other items listed above, it can be worth the time, money, and effort to hire a freelance technical writer to handle situations like these. Again, the goal is operational success, and that success is more achievable if your company’s content is communicated clearly.

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What to Look for When Editing Technical Material

When I’m given existing technical material to edit, I have some basic items that I look for to make the content more engaging, robust, and easy to read. These are the types of edits I do when I’m asked to “Make this sound like English” and I’m given carte blanche to change things to my heart’s content.

Content

  • Make sure you understand who the audience is, under what circumstances they will be reading it, and what they need out of the document. I call these my two most important questions.  By understanding your audience, context, and intended outcome, you can better shape the tone and emphasis of the content. And while you’re at it, you want to make certain that the content is meeting the audience, situation, and outcomes the original authors intended.
  • Ensure that the main point/summary is up front. As I’ve noted elsewhere, scientists and engineers often assume that the purpose or benefit of their particular project is so obvious that it does not need to be stated up front in plain language. I disagree. I go into a document thinking like a non-techie manager or a bureaucrat, which is close to my actual role. I need and expect my “so what?” text to be up front. This should be something like, “We are building X Widget to make Y process better/cheaper/faster to achieve end result Z.”
  • Ensure that the content/order is complete and makes sense. Sometimes you might encounter a document where explanations are left out or the order of operations seems contradictory or confusing. If that’s the case, call them on it and attempt to clarify: “Did you mean to say…X?”

Mechanics

A content edit is about making certain that the content is correct, makes sense, and fits together. This differs from copyediting, where you’re just looking for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting. I have yet to restrain myself from doing copyediting while doing a content edit, and generally, if I’m given free rein to fix the document, I’ll be expected to do it anyway. The challenge with doing too much copyediting during a content review is that you might end up wasting time fixing minor nits on a sentence or paragraph that ends up getting pulled anyway.

Sometimes you need to educate your customers on the difference between content and copy editing and the process they want to follow. You might, for example, suggest a content edit first to ensure that the document has all the information it should in the proper order before you go in and do copyediting on the next draft. This is not to say you shouldn’t copyedit, but be judicious about it if the content is due to go back to the SMEs for review.

  • Enforce active voice where feasible. Some organizations are stylistically allergic to using any sort of individual or even corporate voice. “The magnet was moved” is more common than “I/we/the team moved the magnet,” and it makes for dull reading. Passive voice adds words unnecessarily and dilutes the message. If your organization is similarly averse to having actual people in their prose, see if there are ways to make the widget active: “The Space Launch System enables larger payloads to be launched into space and ensure increased science capabilities beyond Earth orbit.”
  • Keep subjects and their actions close. For some reason, it can be tempting to add a lot of explanatory text between the subject of a sentence and the action it is performing. Let me see if I can make up an example. “The five-segment reusable solid rocket booster (RSRB), using polybutadiene acrylonitrile (PBAN) propellant aboard and providing immediate, increased thrust during liftoff, burns for a little over two minutes before being jettisoned.” The subject in this case is the solid rocket booster or RSRB. And while there are a couple of gerunds in there (using and providing), the actual verb the RSRB performs is burns. There are something like 13 words separating the actor for its action. Again, the impact is diluted. There are a couple of ways you can fix this, including breaking up the sentence into a couple sentences or you could move the words around so that the action is closer to its subject: “The five-segment reusable solid rocket booster (RSRB) burns its polybutadiene acrylonitrile (PBAN) propellant for a little over two minutes, providing immediate, increased thrust during liftoff before being jettisoned.” There are doubtless many other ways you can tweak this sentence and make it shorter. The goal here is simply to make the action more connected to what is performing the action.
  • Maintain parallel structure. This can follow a couple of different tracks. For instance, making certain that the first word in each bullet point is a verb. Another thing to do would be to ensure that items of equal importance have equal length as well as a similar structure. For example, if you’re describing a series of objects, you would describe them in a similar order, say, by physical description, then function then size, then capability, then by safety features. Sometimes adding subheadings can keep this order better organized and ensure that each attribute is covered.
  • Unify writing styles. It’s not uncommon for for multiple to write a document and for  word choices, tenses, and even tone of “voice” to shift dramatically as the content moves from author to author. The trick, as always, is to make certain that the entire document reads as if one person wrote it. That topic might require a separate entry all to itself, but for now the simplest way to ensure a consistent style is just to read the entire thing and ensure that it reads in a consistent style that you can live with (it might not necessarily be your style).

Other items can and do come up when you’re editing, such as ensuring that acronyms are spelled out the first time they’re used, but these are the sorts of things that I’ve conditioned myself to spot and fix given the opportunity to do full-scale technical editing. if you have other “favorites,” feel free to share in the comments below!

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On Assignment

Today I will be on site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to observe and report on the launch of OSIRIS-REx, a.k.a. NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, a robotic spacecraft that will orbit and collect samples from the asteroid Bennu. The launch is scheduled to occur at 7:05 p.m. Eastern Time (11:05 p.m. UTC/GMT). Space exploration geek that I am, I’ve had fun reporting on this mission:

http://www.spaceflightinsider.com/organizations/ula/nasas-osiris-rex-asteroid-mission-launch-thursday/

If you’re in Florida, you should have a good view of the launch. Otherwise the launch should also be carried on NASA.gov.
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Making Your Adult Dreams Come True

This blog might be a little self-centered. I apologize in advance, but I hope some of you–perhaps my fellow professionals–might be able to relate to my situation. I’ve touched on this subject before, but I have some more ideas I’d like to share, so bear with me.

Achieving past dreams

As I noted awhile back, when I was in high school and college, I had three big dreams:

  • Work for Walt Disney World
  • Work for the military
  • Work for the space industry

Bit by bit, between the ages of 22 and 36, I managed to achieve all three of these dreams. From 36 to 44, I enjoyed the privilege of supporting NASA and then a commercial space company in the industry that I love. Reality (a.k.a. government shutdowns and budget cuts) put an end to that and I sent myself into an unknown future as a freelance technical writing contractor. That is the life I’ve been living for the last three years. And yes, if you’ve been counting, you can do the math and figure out how old I am now.

The point of this little history lesson is this: if you move along through your career long enough, eventually you might find yourself in a challenging situation: you might accomplish the goals you set for yourself when you were younger, or perhaps the goals you had as a youth no longer inspire you as they once did. The real challenge, especially if you’ve been rather single-minded in your aspirations as I have, is to find new goals.

Now what?

I have no idea if this goal-shifting is what people mean when they have a “mid-life crisis.” I do know that it has been a slow process getting out of it again…I’ve experienced these feelings for a few years. Here’s what I’ve had to learn and accept along the way:

  • Before moving on to the next big thing, you have to accept that the previous big thing that motivated you has come to an end. Or, if it hasn’t come to an end, perhaps you need to accept that your investment in that idea is over.
  • You have to try a few things, not all of which will work out. For example, I was considering pursuing some sort of engineering degree before I ran into my absolute lack of joy whenever I did the math. I also considered, briefly, pursuing a Project Management Institute (PMI) certification. However, I recalled that I’ve been a project manager in a couple of different capacities and have not enjoyed the role.
  • While whittling down the list of things you don’t want to do, you still need to focus on activities that will motivate you (see my last entry on this topic for ideas that might inspire you).
  • While looking at your list of options, identify practical, concrete steps you can take right now to move toward your new goal.

Imagine your future

So where am I going next? The next plan is to pursue a Master’s Certificate in instructional design. Some of you might be surprised that I’m going back to pursue an academic credential. Honestly, I’m one of those people who needs a long-term goal and enjoys school. Yep, you read that correctly: I enjoy school. I enjoy learning and interacting with people who are also learning. A certificate program requires 15 credit hours–five classes. I should be finished with the degree by the time I turn 50. Great way to celebrate, right?

Does this mean I think everyone reading this should go back to school and pursue X degree to achieve some latent goal of theirs? No. There are undoubtedly other ways to get what you want. This approach happens to work for me at this time in my life and helps pursue a line of work I would not feel comfortable doing without professional training. I’ve been doing technical writing in an instructional design capacity for the last year and a quarter, doing a part of the tactical work, but not laying out the ideas that lead to the technical writing. That’s something I believe I can do: I’ve still got a bit of a teaching itch. So a master’s certificate, taken one class at a time over five semesters, is both affordable and realistic in terms of time and money. I might even be able to afford the whole thing on my own dime.

What I would say is this: if you are having questions about your future direction, you need to take concrete steps to make that future a reality. Don’t just ask, “What do I want out of life?” Ask, “What do I need to do to make that happen?” If anything, I’m suggesting that you treat your ideals for the future as a practical matter. Obviously if you want to be a Jedi Knight or travel to Narnia, you might be in for a rude awakening, but if there are things you would like to do within the reality of this world, you can identify the steps and the tools you will need to do what you want. Go take them.

School for me will start in January, I hope. After that comes the future. What does yours look like?

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What Should You Learn to Work in the Space Business?

When readers email me about getting a writing job for NASA, a lot of the questions are very tactical: Who’s hiring? How do I brush up my resume/experience to get the job I want? That sort of thing. I have tried to share my advice on these items over the years, but I haven’t touched on the actual content much. Today I’ll try to fill that gap. Mind you, I am an English major at heart, so there will be no equations in this posting. The language I’m using, furthermore, will not be scientific, but merely descriptive to give you a layman’s view of what these various disciplines do. If you want technically precise descriptions of things, start picking up some textbooks or other forms of learning.

Physics

There’s no getting around physics in the space business. It includes, as its name implies, the physical behavior of pretty much everything in the universe, including mechanics (how things move), thermodynamics (how objects create or lose heat), electromagnetism (how everything from radio frequencies to x-rays function, as well as how magnetic fields work), acoustics (how sound waves function), and optics (how light behaves). It also encompasses things like cosmology (how the universe was formed and operates today) and quantum mechanics (the behavior of the basic materials that make up the universe–like the things that make up atoms).

Physics touches everything, so having at least a working knowledge of the language is a good start toward working with the other sciences. It is quantitative (requiring math, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and other forms of calculation) and often sets the scientific standards for purity or rigor.

Aerospace engineering

This engineering discipline encompasses a variety of disciplines, including the flight of aircraft (aeronautics), launch vehicles (rockets), and spacecraft (crewed and uncrewed). “Aero” is what I’d call an integrated form of engineering, as it relies on several other types of other engineering fields as well. Aerospace engineers design hardware that has to account for getting off the ground (thrust and lift) and getting to a specific destination (control) in one piece. If the object is an aircraft, it might or might not have people on board, in which case you have to include crew safety and the ability to land as components of the design. If the object is a satellite with no crew aboard, the satellite has to stay in a stable orbit for a specific amount of time. If the object is a missile, the payload/warhead has to be intact until it reaches the target and then detonate as designed (no getting around it–rockets began as missiles first).

While aero engineers are designing vehicles that do all this, they have to account for the thickness (altitude) and motion of the atmosphere (weather); heating (from the sun and friction from the air); environments/vibrations (the former being interactions with the atmosphere and the latter being the result of vibrations created by the vehicle’s own propulsion hardware); propulsion (propellers, jets, ramjets, solid rocket motors, rocket engines); dynamic controls (avionics); system monitoring and controls (computers); and life support. And all of those disciplines are complicated by operations in space, where atmosphere can range from nonexistent and full of solar radiation to thick, crushing, and poisonous.

Planetary science (a.k.a. planetology)

This is another integrated discipline, which encompasses how planets–including our own–are formed and operate as complete systems. Here on Earth, humans have been studying how our world works for as long as we’ve been around: trying to understand everything from weather to earthquakes to volcanoes and hurricanes. Mixed in with all those studies are things like physics, chemistry, geology, and in Earth’s case biology. Now, thanks to our planetary orbiters and landers, we’re doing the same types of studies throughout the solar system on everything from Jupiter and Saturn on down to moons and asteroids.

Why do we study these things? Some of it is survival-based: we study weather, plate tectonics, and volcanoes to better understand how our world works and how to survive on it over the long term. On other worlds, we’re trying to find out how they’re different, why they’re different, and how what they do affects life here. It’s a bit self-centered, to be certain, but for the moment human beings are more or less alone in the universe, so we’re trying to figure out where we came from.

Astrophysics/cosmology

This is our attempt to understand where we (and everything else) came from on a universal scale. Beyond our own sun and solar system is the Milky Way–a spiral of stars a hundred thousand light-years across and comprising anything from 100 billion to 300 billion other stars. And beyond the Milky Way is our local group of galaxies, then our local supercluster of galaxies, then all the other superclusters out there, combined with quasars, black holes, and other astronomical phenomena we’re only beginning to discover. It’s a big universe out there, so big you can get a little dizzy trying to imagine how massive it truly is. Still, as humans, we ask questions: what’s in it? What is it all made of? What is it doing? Does any of it pose a danger to us? And while it’s not really an astrophysical question, we can still use our observations of the nonliving universe to determine if the conditions for life exist elsewhere in space.

Life support systems

While we’re busy making our own world extra-challenging to live in down here, we’re also trying to figure out how to set up artificial habitats to enable us to survive long-term out beyond this planet. Humanity’s longest-lasting experiment in that regard has been the International Space Station, which has been occupied continuously since the year 2000. Still, it’s difficult to call that a permanent outpost, as there have been (at this writing) nearly 50 different crews living and working up there at any given time. The longest any single person has lived in space at one stretch is 437 days. What-all does it take to keep people alive in space and healthy? We’re still learning that. We know the basics: water, air, food, clothing, and shelter. To those items we’ve learned to add exercise (at least if someone living in microgravity wants to walk around without ill effects when they return to Earth) and mental health.

All of this is very different from having people settle in space permanently–on a space station, on the Moon, or on Mars. To do that, we will have to send people there to find out. Living on other worlds will challenge and extends what it means to be human. Lessons learned “out there” might change how we determine who we are back here on Earth. Even more challenging lessons lie ahead if we ever hope to make human habitats beyond Earth self-sufficient and independent. All of these activities are adventures in technology as well as human endurance, psychology, sociology, and yes, eventually politics.

Why study all this?

The nifty part about studying or working in space that it is a philosophical activity. It forces us to confront a largely unknown universe, determine how we fit into it, or how we might make ourselves able to live in it. Extending the abode of life beyond Earth permanently is beyond our current abilities, but it is an effort worth pursuing. Given a few billion years, and our sun is supposed to expand into a red giant, so we’ll need to be somewhere else eventually or stay home and roast. Okay, so maybe that isn’t a problem for the 2016 election…but developing defenses against the giant rocks flying around our solar system could become an issue at any time.

The study of space, how to travel into and through it, and how to survive there long-term are some of the challenges that human space ventures will be tackling in the coming decades and centuries. As a technical communicator, the best thing you can do if you want to be a part of it is to get yourself acquainted with as much of the various studies as you think you can handle and then dive deeply into the topics that really interest you. The odds are good that you can find writing that needs to be done and paid for in order to keep the journey going forward.

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