As promised, today I’ll take on the subject of future issues in technical writing in a space context. This war born out of a Facebook discussion with my former thesis advisor, Karla Kitalong, who’s now teaching at Michigan Technological University. Someone suggested that all of these issues I mention below were addressed in the science-fiction novel Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. That might be true, but as we move closer to a spacefaring society, it’s time we realized that things we thought of as science fiction are becoming regular headlines.
My Advisor Should Have Known This Was Coming…
Dr. K posted the following challenge on Facebook:
I’ll be teaching the capstone course for our tech comm undergraduate majors this fall, and I’d like to have them read and engage with a technology studies book or two, or maybe a series of articles. I haven’t settled on a theme or topic yet; I’ve been considering a range of things, including mobility. China, AI. surveillance, big data, science controversies, medical rhetoric, risk, robotics. The general goal would be to encourage them to think critically as they try to visualize their work in a context that maybe doesn’t exist yet–or that they haven’t considered yet.
Mind you, any of the topics she suggested might lead to interesting discussions or blog posts in the future. However, given that a) I went into grad school to get a job in the space industry, and b) researched and wrote a paper relating to space nearly every semester (including my thesis), she probably could have guessed what sorts of topics I would suggest. What follows is an expanded version of what I posted on her wall.
Tech Writing in a Spacefaring Civilization
Supporting technical communication in a spacefaring civilization will be a future challenge for technical communicators, as it will involve people (including writers) actually living and working in settlements beyond Earth: the Moon, Mars, asteroids, space habitats, etc.
Issues could include:
- Mining for resources on other worlds (planets, moons, asteroids).
- Human activities in the presence of potential alien life (most likely microbes)
- Balancing human activities with maintaining the original
environment on other worlds for the benefit of science (i.e., protection of and from the Martian environment).
- Communicating technical information about space activities easily and clearly among what is certain to be an international community.
- The legal status of people, property, and business operations in an environment that is mostly unregulated
- Ensuring access to space-related technology/business opportunities/data to underrepresented audiences
- Evaluating the most effective methods for sharing technical/safety information in an environment where paper is in short supply. (No link for this one—but it relates to the previous discussion of how astronauts handle documentation/instructions now. Obviously more and more tasks will be put on computers. However, given the lack of atmosphere on the Moon and free space plus the minimal atmosphere on Mars, those computers will have to be hardened against radiation. What will the backup systems be if a massive solar flare wreaks havoc on the electronics?
Yes, these are fun paper topics…but eventually they’ll be real on-the-job challenges for the space-based technical writer. We should have a say in how things are done, yes?