“I want to write for NASA.”
“NASA doesn’t hire writers, they hire engineers.”
–Actual discussion between ten-year-old me and my mother
I’ve been writing about space–either in fiction or non-fiction–since I was at least 10. Blame it on Star Wars, I was too late to catch Star Trek when it was new. From there, I found written science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and so forth. The more I read, the more I was interested in space-related fiction. I kept up on happenings in the space program, and found it fascinating. But I can tell you, I was lazy. I also didn’t get a NASA job straight out of college. The road to NASA and space writing was a bit more convoluted than that.
The closest I got was moving to Orlando, which had a Lockheed Martin plant down the street and the Kennedy Space Center 50 miles to the east. Lockheed wasn’t interested in a fresh-out-of-college student at that point, much less a fresh-out English lit major. So I went to work for Disney instead. I kept trying to submit resumes now and then, but the space folks just weren’t convinced an English major could do important things like write about rockets and missiles. So I tried other things. I wrote letters to the editor of the Orlando Sentinel about space. I joined the National Space Society so I could become a member of a pro-space community. I did a lot of volunteer work for them, starting with presentations, and working my way up to letter-writing campaigns, policy papers, and eventually convention operations.
But I kept my eyes on a space writing job.
I actually became quite anti-NASA for awhile, liking the private-sector space business more, but after I got a master’s degree in technical writing, I found the same problem as before: aerospace companies did not want to hire English majors. However, a friend knew a friend at a mid-size defense firm in Alexandria, VA. They didn’t mind hiring an English major: they wanted a proposal writer. And here’s what sold me on them: “We’ve got plenty of engineers; what we need is a writer!”
After a couple years there, the guy who hired me lost his job, as did his boss, as did his boss, when the company was bought out. They took me with them to a different contractor, one doing non-defense work, which was not space. As yet another office was being closed, I applied for a job in Huntsville, AL, where I had some friends. The ad said only “technical writer.” During the phone interview, the nice lady said, “You do realize this is writing for Marshall Space Flight Center, right?” I said, “No. Pardon me while I drool.” (Yes, they hired me anyway.) By the time they flew me down to Huntsville for a whirlwind tour and set of interviews, I had the portfolio and enough space-related samples to show that yes, an English major can get a job in the space business. Been there for five years now.
Bottom lines for getting where I wanted to go: determination, relevant volunteer work, proven willingness to develop the credentials necessary to get the job. It can be done, for the space business or other brain-intensive job, even if you don’t know calculus.
This has been one of my more popular posts, so if you’re interested in learning more about this subject, please check out my “So You Want to Write for NASA” tab above.