How I Learned Rocket Science (The Real Story)

Okay, can you keep a secret? I am not a rocket scientist. I’m sure you can guess that by reading my resume, but sometimes it bears repeating, especially around my NASA customers. Yes, I did research on the topic, including interviews, reading articles, and all that. But the way I really learned “rocket science” (aerospace engineering, or the art and science of designing and building rocket engines) was by reading my customers’ technical papers and by trying to make sense of them.

Here’s the part my engineering friends won’t like: I understand, in only the vaguest possible terms, the physical properties or mechanical processes involved in building or operating these machines. I can tell you that a rocket engine that weighs around 2.5 tons produces thrust that is more than 1,000 times that. I can tell you that a regenerative rocket nozzle (the bell-shaped thing where the fire comes out) keeps itself cool by winding super-cold (cryogenic) liquid propellents around the bell’s surface, and that this process simultaneously keeps the nozzle cooler while it warms up the propellant prior to burning it.

How did I learn all this stuff? It sure as heck wasn’t from going through four to eight years of engineering school. The trick for me, anyway, was reading and rereading the documents the engineers wrote and then deciphering what was a subject, what was a verb, and what was an object. In short, I learned the sentence structure of engineering, dissecting which object(s) where acting on others and how. And, of course, once I understood those parts, I could rearrange the sentences to better convey to a lay audience–that’d be me, first of all–how these big, powerful machines worked. In such a way, I was able to fake my way through writing about the J-2X engine, the reusable solid rocket boosters, and Ares V cargo launch vehicle without doing the math.

Mind you, it helped that I was a science fiction geek at the start, so I already had a keen interest. However, just because I picked up bits and pieces of rocket science from reading science fiction did not mean that my understanding was correct enough to pass muster for technical conferences. My standing operating procedure is to do my editing and “translation” from Engineerish to English and to then hand the work back to the subject matter expert to ensure that I did not, in my zeal to make things sound pretty on the page, get things technically wrong.

The good news is, my ability to speak Engineerish is improving. It takes a bit longer for the engineers to realize I don’t know what I’m talking about than it used to. But I never kid myself: my goal is to make the real stuff clearer for a non-technical audience. You really don’t want me designing or touching actual rocket hardware. My real joy in technical writing for NASA comes from being able to understand things better than I might have as a mildly curious private citizen, and being able to explain those things in a way the non-interested private citizen might find engaging.

And I still don’t have to do any math.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to How I Learned Rocket Science (The Real Story)

  1. You are starting off your blog at a good pace. You also have an entertaining style. I enjoyed your thoughts on tech writing and science fiction. It made me wonder why I stopped reading SciFi back around the time I started tech writing. It sounds like you have found good work in a beautiful state (I’m assuming you live in Florida). Keep up the good work.

  2. Pingback: Editing for Scientists and Engineers | Heroic Technical Writing

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