It’s been nearly ten years since last attended a conference for the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), which is the professional association for aerospace engineers. While I posted my observations of what happened, I haven’t yet written my reactions to the changes since 2009. What I saw pleased me on a professional level, so I thought I’d share my observations here.
What I Observed
The thing about being absent from a group for that long is that your perspective changes, partly from age and partly from where you stand in your career. In 2009, I was still a full-time employee working for NASA at age 40, not a freelance “new space” writer pushing 50, so my distance in age from the “young” engineers was quite a bit more than it had been then. And yes, as you get older, the young start looking younger. Sigh. At any rate, the young engineers who were fresh out of college/university or still attending were presenting some ambitious, exciting papers about everything from Mars landers to 3D-printed materials, governmental structures for future space habitats, and submarines capable of operating in the super-cold methane/ethane seas of Saturn’s moon Titan. The “outside of the envelope” of the business keeps expanding, and that’s a good thing!
Also, the reusable launch vehicles SpaceX has been flying and Blue Origin is building have shaken up the industry in ways it probably didn’t want to be shaken. The representative from the French space agency didn’t want to discuss the possibility of making the European Ariane rocket reusable. United Launch Alliance, the 800-pound gorilla of the expendable rocket business, was highlighting the fact that their new Vulcan rocket was on a path toward reusability.
Anyhow, the most pleasing aspect of returning to the AIAA arena was that a lot of technologies that Gen Xers were talking about with great excitement (reusable launch vehicles, additive manufacturing, laser-based in-space communications, solar sails) are now being taken seriously and incorporated by the Big Aerospace folks (NASA and United Launch Alliance, to name two). I suspect this means a couple things: first, that people my age are now getting into management and so have the clout to include them in mission planning; and second, the state of the art in all of those technologies has now had ten years to incubate and show results.
Another thing that is finally coming to pass is that the science and Big Aero community are finally warming up to the possibilities of NASA’s super-heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). This means that instead of scientists saying things like “Well, if they ever build SLS, we might consider putting a payload on it” to saying “We plan to launch on SLS in the early 2020s.” Having supported SLS and its predecessor program Ares, this was gratifying.
How Observations Feed My Work
Why bring this up on a technical writing blog instead of a space blog?
Perhaps it’s this: technical communicators can provide a useful “outside perspective” to the technical communities of which they make themselves a part. I’m still asked for my “untrained eye” perspective by engineers because even though I’ve been in the business for 12 years now, I was educated to think like an English major. I’m also a history minor from way back, so I’m a storyteller on two counts. Regardless of your background, you can still provide a broader perspective and sense of (hi)story to your work.
A storytelling perspective can be useful when you’re writing things like marketing copy, company history, white papers, or proposals. Despite what you might think, engineering audiences like a good story, too. They like to know how their (or someone else’s) work fits in with a bigger picture. Observing your industry “from the outside” through conferences or reading allows you to tell your employer’s story in a way that helps them present their case better to people who are NOT in the industry–whatever it might be. You can show where your organization fits, how they differentiate themselves, and what “storyline” in the industry they are helping to advance.
What do you know? There might be a use for that liberal arts major after all!