Writing, NASA, the space sector, and a two-year milestone

Two years ago this day, I published my first blog, never surprised I enjoyed writing, and I had more than a few thoughts on my mind. But why? Judging from the papers I wrote during my career, I am not a writer, and I won’t pretend I am. The record will show I wrote about one paper every year in my 32+ years at NASA in that obtuse, barely legible style expected by technical conferences. The work was informative, to judge from how it got passed around. But the dense writing gave way to techno-babble, acronyms, and inside-baseball talk. To get your secret decoder ring to understand one paper meant reading plenty of others first. I have shared much of this work on a NASA website since 1994. It showed even then, I could not resist writing and sharing. Not much has changed as I keep up on topics today, reading technical papers. Except with retiring, I decided I would try something different.

As with many stories, technical writing styles lean toward characters or plots. Your favorite books probably favor thoughts or actions, often by genre or the writer. In the space sector, describing what your team learned is character-driven, introspective, and asking questions. The world falls apart, or you experience a once-in-a-lifetime wondrous achievement, and here we find ourselves inside someone’s head mulling it over. Alternately, focusing on what a team did goes for the thriller, all verbs, and possibly a page-turner.

Notoriously, at conferences, I saw how presentations leaned heavily toward plot for upper management, too often storming into the room just in time and leaving right after, not remaining to listen to the subsequent presenters. Once you’re told to get it done, gathering more perspectives or debate seems no longer in the cards. Sadly, organizers also began moving talk about lessons learned to separate sessions, as if talking about a rocket engine, a technology twist, or wind tunnel results had nothing to do with what anyone might reflect on for meaning and significance.

Needless to say, I was in the latter crowd, asking what’s it all been for, and I still am today. And yet, none of this answers my initial question – why write? Now instead of a paper every year, a thought I can’t shake stirs me to write about once a week.

There’s a saying about complexity from the physics community, but it goes for everyone from biology to engineering to math and materials. If you think you understand something but can’t explain it to your bartender so they understand, maybe you don’t understand it after all. So write, re-write, and before you know it, the answer to your question may be surprising and new. Initial thoughts give way to new ideas, and the sense I started with might improve.

Writing is a conversation to find out if I really understand something. The answer is not always yes, and magically, writing has the power to say, like a candid friend or confidant, perhaps the real story lies entirely elsewhere. At least, here’s to hoping my experiment with a blog a week or so over the last two years has been more accessible than my technical papers. And who knows, maybe one day, the audience in my head will even say about those decades in NASA, the space sector today, and where we are going, finally – ahh yes, I understand. But I doubt it. And this is fine because if writing revealed one small secret, it’s that carrying on the conversation is more important than the moment’s answer. 

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