As many of my regular readers know, I’m a bit of a space exploration enthusiast. That’s why I went back to grad school to get a master’s degree. It’s why I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time writing about space stuff, for pay or otherwise. However, it’s not all fascination and excitement. Today I’ll talk a bit about how you can reconnect with the joy of your work–you do have joy in your work, yes?–if the details start to wear you down.
I’m an English major by background and inclination. Even so, I’m fascinated by technology, especially the hardware that gets humans and their devices off Earth and into space. Given my lack of engineering education, it’s a constant source of challenge and education for someone who doesn’t fluently speak “Engineerish.”
Some of the work can be a little boring, though.
For instance, through trial and sometimes horrifying errors, aerospace organizations have learned the need to write and execute a lot of detailed, systematic plans to design, build, test, and operate machines that leave Earth.
For instance, the very act of flying through the atmosphere at thousands of miles/kilometers per hour puts incredible stress on a vehicle through pressure, vibration, and heat. Also, hazards arise from running the machinery itself. My Toyota Corolla’s engine runs–at most–8,000 revolutions per minute (rpm), and usually closer to 2,000. That produces some serious heat under the hood and a bit of vibration, which the car is insulated against. The main engines on NASA’s Space Launch System–reused from the Space Shuttle program–have turbopumps that run at over 28,000 rpm. That amount of power and speed generates a LOT more noise and heat than my little 4-cylinder commuter vehicle could make. Design, build, or test the rocket improperly, and lots of things can go wrong, including cataclysmic explosions, fires, and physical damage to the vehicle, nearby facilities, or people in the vicinity.
To compensate for such potential dangers, engineers write plans, sometimes running hundreds of pages, ranging from how they will manage the program to how they will minimize loose particles (paint, dust, metal shavings, etc.) getting into the hardware. These plans must be written whether the builder is a government agency or a commercial contractor to prove that a vehicle is safe to operate. They also need to be edited for clarity, consistency, and basic literary mechanics.
Yep, that’s one of my jobs, and I’ve done it for both the government and commercial side. It’s not exactly riveting reading. The work doesn’t feel like Buck Rogers or Han Solo so much as Bart Leahy, Space Bureaucrat.
Getting Back in Touch with What You Love
This past week, in the midst of meetings about–you guessed it: paperwork–the participants got to tour some of the host organization’s facilities, where they were building their rockets and preparing a site to launch them into space.
You forget how mind-bendingly BIG everything has to be in the space business until you start walking around the hardware and the tools required to build it. You want to send a 2-ton satellite to Earth orbit or a 36-ton spacecraft with humans onboard to the Moon? You need to have ridiculous amounts of high-energy and potentially explosive propellants, which means building fuel tanks hundreds of feet long to hold all that propellant, massive engines, and impressive metal frameworks to carry the rocket to the launch pad. The closest you can get to the launch pad is three miles–and even at that distance the noise from the engines fills the sky with an alarming crackling that sounds like a torch made by the gods.
Walking through the factory floor, I pelted the tour guide with questions: What’s that made of? Where do you find your machinists? Was that machine custom-built or off the shelf? I was, as one of my coworkers noted, like a kid in a candy store.
A lot of work, fire, and smoke go into sending machines and people into space, and it’s inspiring to see the whole thing up close. Still, it’s possible to lose track of the excitement and wonder editing contamination control plans. Getting up close to the hardware helped me put some of my misgivings in perspective. There are so many things that can go wrong, that you never know which tiny foul-up will be the thing that causes the rocket to go up in a cloud of smoke, fire, and bullet-speed debris. So, yes, in my own third-hand way, I’m helping make certain that sort of failure does not happen so we can do great things in space.
I need to remind myself to get out and see the hardware, visit Kennedy Space Center, or go see a launch…getting close enough to hear that sky-splitting roar. I need to reconnect with why I love the business. Assuming you love what you do, what can you do to reconnect with the things that got you interested in the first place?