Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit

I’ll start by giving credit where credit is due: today’s topic and title are credited to my writing buddy Martin at Marshall Space Flight Center. This was the result of a discussion we were having about how the space industry was functioning and changing. It’s instructive because it can help the aspiring technical writer from (perhaps) not getting too invested in the attitudes of one’s clients.

My perspective on my industry of choice–human space exploration–has shifted over the years. Some of this has been the result of reading, some of it from talking to people familiar with or enthusiastic about the subject (advocates), some of it from working in the industry.

For example, when I was just a “space fan” operating on my own, I was fond of NASA and the Space Shuttle program. This makes sense because when I first started reading about space (around age 12 or so), that was my country’s human spaceflight program. There wasn’t anything else to compare it to.

Having a family that worked in the airline business, I was fond of the idea of regular, commercial service to space, so I was interested in spacecraft as vehicles for carrying passengers (like me) to space. As Shuttle got more expensive, complicated, and then dangerous, I started wondering if there were other ways to get people into space. The U.S. government–especially the military–decided they didn’t want to put all their eggs (satellites) in one basket and began calling for commercial launches to space. As a free-marketeer in my formative years, I was happy with that and ecstatic when other commercial companies started appearing besides the usual Big Aerospace guys. This was the 1990s, when unusual companies like Kistler Aerospace (later Rocketplane Kistler), Rotary Rocket, and a military experiment out of the Department of Defense (Delta Clipper/DC-X) started appearing. My reading on the subject became heavily influenced by science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, who was a strong advocate of DC-X. He also had strong opinions about how space should be done.

In 1997, I attended my first National Space Society conference and started delving deep into other ideas about space: Gerard K. O’Neill favored putting people into massive, rotating cylindrical or spherical space stations. A former Lockheed engineer, Robert Zubrin, proposed a relatively simple, bare-bones approach to go to Mars. Meanwhile, John S. Lewis, a professor from the University of Arizona, was proposing a solar-system-wide economy based on metals from the Moon and asteroids and hydrogen and helium (for fuel) obtained from the gas giants in the outer solar system. Others were advocating for focusing human spaceflight on going to the Moon. And so forth.

With all these ideas in my head, I started becoming a favorite letter-to-the-editor writer at the Orlando Sentinel because I could be counted on to share interesting and occasionally contrarian (i.e., anti-NASA) opinions. It wasn’t so much that I was anti-NASA…the information I was reading at the time just gave me the very strong impression that they weren’t doing the sorts of things that would get John or Jane Q. Public into space within my lifetime.

Then something weird happened, despite all my banter on the op-ed pages: I got a job at NASA. My mother asked, “With your opinions, are you sure you want to work for them?” I had a more fundamental question, given my eagerness to work in the space business in some capacity: “Would NASA allow me to work for them?” Fortunately, the job was with a NASA contractor, not as a civil servant. I suspect my prospects might have been less rosy had I chosen to apply for a job with the agency directly. My interviewer–and subsequent employer–was more interested in my familiarity with the subject and grounding in relevant facts or policies. Plus, I was passionate about the topic. They agreed to hire me, and I agreed not to be a pain with my off-the-cuff opinions.

During my six years at Marshall Space Flight Center, I supported the Constellation Program/Ares Project and then later the Space Launch System (SLS), due to launch its first vehicle no earlier than August 29 of this year. I got to know the program, and I got to know the people. The derogatory term I heard from my fellow space advocates was that I had “gone native.” But really: if you spent six years learning about and advocating for a particular program as part of your job, you’re going to get caught up in it. You’re rooting for “your team” to succeed. You start to take it personally when others criticize the value or progress on the program (as happened when I went to later ISDCs as a NASA employee or when the NASA Administrator and Deputy Administrator started their campaign to end Constellation).

So I learned to lighten up on NASA. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m still a “commercial guy,” and soon after leaving the agency to work for a company supporting both NASA and commercial companies, I got right back into supporting “New Space.” I just wasn’t (and will not now) put out full-throated criticisms of the nation’s space program. I have my gripes, but I keep them to myself, in part because I still have a lot of friends in the agency and in part because it’s just good business sense.

After my time at Marshall, I also did some freelance work for NASA Headquarters and became a reporter for a space news blog. Each of those jobs gave me new opportunities to see a new aspect of the industry (government technology planning, competition and technology development among multiple companies) and to gain more knowledge about this big adventure called human space exploration.

But here’s the funny thing: the more I learned and the more perspectives I absorbed, the less I became inclined to make bald, definitive statements about “what should be done.” There are multiple ways of doing things, and different approaches to space have different advantages and disadvantages. Do I have my opinions? You bet. Am I willing to hold forth on all my little prejudices concerning the topic? No. And why? Because the more I learn, the more I realize that I might be wrong. So depending on where I sit on a given day (at home supporting a commercial launch provider or on site at a NASA facility), I’m willing to do writing that stands by their particular niche in the industry. Again, part of that is prudence, but part of it is that I find this subject fascinating and want to continue to learn more. There are worse ways to pursue a career.


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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit

  1. Pingback: Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit Part 2 | Heroic Technical Writing: Advice and Insights on the Business of Technical Communication

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