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.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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