Writing as an Amateur in the Space Business vs. Writing as a Professional

This week a colleague asked for opinions about a prominent program in my industry. I realized almost immediately that I shouldn’t share my opinions in a public forum, and so responded via a private channel instead. Why? Am I being coy or hiding my insights? Not quite. It’s more accurate to say that it was a lot easier to share my blunt, unvarnished opinions when I was not working professionally in the industry of my choice.

The Joy of the Amateur

As a space exploration advocate in my late 20s and early 30s, it was a pleasure to share my thoughts and opinions about what should be done in the space industry. This included issues such as where in space we should be going, who should be developing the spacecraft, and how. And I wasn’t shy about sharing said opinions, aloud or in print. I didn’t have any particular loyalties or connections–I could speak my mind (as I thought) honestly and without bias.

This was nonsense, of course, because obviously I had a bias. I grew up as a child of commercial aviation (half the family worked for Eastern Airlines), so naturally I expected space travel to resemble the history of the airline industry eventually. Instead, for most of my childhood and into my young adulthood, space had been run like a military program, which it pretty much was. For example, one of the ways NASA got the Department of Defense to support the Space Shuttle was by adding delta wings so the vehicle could have wide “cross-range” ability–that is, it could land at multiple bases, as the DoD saw fit.

Military programs are big, government-regulation-heavy, run on a cost-plus basis, and expensive. You’re not going to fly passengers with all that going into it.

So I wrote letters to the editor of the Orlando Sentinel, strongly suggesting that NASA get out of the human spaceflight business and let someone in the private sector do it instead. The editor loved my stuff because the writing was detailed and lively. I loved seeing my byline in print.

Then I started looking for jobs in the space industry after grad school and the only space organization hiring people with my skill set was NASA. Oops.

Reality As a Professional

Mind you, I could have continued writing letters that kicked around the national space agency, it just would have been more than a little awkward to face my boss or–more importantly–my customers in the office the day after one of my missives hit the op-ed page. The key lessons:

  • Managers don’t like employees bad-mouthing the customer.
  • Customers don’t like to hear that you’d rather see their program closed down or their job taken over by someone else.

Mind you, it would have been my First Amendment right to continue to do so. However, that did not mean that I would make a lot of friends at NASA if I wrote content supporting their program by day but continued to kick them around on the editorial page at night. They might–perhaps rightly–question my loyalty or my commitment to the job I was being paid for. I could lose my job.

I worked for NASA for six years, then I shifted over to the commercial side of things, where I was more comfortable. However, now I faced a different problem: choosing sides.

Again, if I started talking smack about commercial customers, that would not go over well with them, either. Plus, I had this little problem with non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). I couldn’t share too much about what I knew about the trade secrets or technical progress of Company X or Y because that was setting myself up for a potential job loss from my employer and a lawsuit from the customer. I talked about policy in my NASA-related letters, not technology.

I learned a whole lot of important lessons about professionalism once I had to start exhibiting it.

Those Who Are Talking Don’t Know and Those Who Know Aren’t Talking

When I went to space advocacy conferences as an advocate, I had wide-ranging discussions with other advocates about how specific vehicles or technologies worked. The problem is, the more you know, the less you can share, either because you’re at risk of violating trade secrets covered under an NDA or you might be giving away military secrets that violate the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). When I started working at NASA, for instance, I had to start muzzling my big mouth on “how things were really going” with Project A, B, or C. I could share the “company line” or what the agency was saying in public media releases, but that was it. My conference conversations grew more guarded and less interesting.

Don’t misunderstand me: I love writing in support of space, both NASA and the commercial side of things. I’ve  wanted to know more about how things really worked because I am genuinely curious about how spaceflight works. The down side of learning more and getting paid to write about it is that I am now contractually restrained from sharing much of what I know.

Another side effect that I didn’t expect in my advocate life after going pro: I was less certain about “the right answer” when it came to a specific policy, program, or event. I worked with people in multiple parts of the industry, and I could understand their point of view…I could see their part of the elephant and why they might be correct from their perspective.

As a result, even when I am free to voice my opinion about X, I’m less likely to make bold, declarative statements about “what must be done.” It turns out that the more you know, the more difficult it is to make a snap judgment or off-the-cuff statement because you know more about the product, process, politics, players, and perspectives than you did as an advocate without the “bias” of actual experience. As one of my colleagues likes to say, “Those who are talking don’t know and those who know aren’t talking.” That’s worth considering when you work in any industry.

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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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2 Responses to Writing as an Amateur in the Space Business vs. Writing as a Professional

  1. Regardless of what one’s comments are focused on, such as the space industry, I observe that this rule holds true for most people, in most instances. This article is timely and points towards some important life advice; the “silence is a virtue”.

  2. Edgar Zapata says:

    Recently, in Lori Garver’s book, she bemoaned the state of journalism when it comes to NASA. She observed how a reporter entering this world soon enjoys sticking close to the positive vibes at NASA. The job is so much fun this way. Doors open rather than close, and critical reporting is left to others, soon meaning no one.

    Farther back and more broadly, Carl Sagan criticized science reporting, more likely to be a misleading headline or pseudo-science. When getting eyeballs is the only goal, “those who don’t know” do the job quite well. Our field needs more of “those who know” who do talk. They must talk well, as Sagan did, criticizing the Star Wars initiative and other DoD spending or many societal ills. In all this, he was never dull or unprofessional.

    Scientists and engineers need to remember that lesson Peter Parker takes to heart in Spiderman. With great power comes great responsibility. One of these responsibilities is communicating well, and engaging others, respectfully, even when the news isn’t fun.

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