What My “Spacy” Friends Taught Me

When I graduated from college, I did exactly what many people told me not to: I moved to Washington, DC and based much of my job search strategy on what the books said not to do – I responded to blind classified ads in the Washington Post.Rocket_science

"If you apply to jobs through the paper, you'll end up working in outer space," said one friend who was headed for Capitol Hill. She was right.

I spent a day in the House of Congress looking for jobs, and failed the general typing test (my typing speed was decent, but my computer skills made it difficult to find the manual return key at the end of each line.)As it turned out, my friend's prediction wasn't off-base: Within a month, I landed an editorial position at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (A-I-Double-A for short). I found myself editing conference proceedings for a an anxiety-inducing book on space law: If an asteroid falls on your house, who pays? If Coca-Cola can reach the moon and place a banner visible from earth, do they have to pay for the advertising?

It was a great first job, but I quickly learned that I didn't know the difference between attitude and altitude was better at relating to the rocket scientists than in editing technical documents. I moved down the hall and began working directly with volunteer leaders of the organization's more than 30,000 members. I got to meet the mission control director of Apollo 13; I worked events attended by Buzz Aldrin and have friends who've worked on the Mars Rover. And when they talked about their work sometimes I forgot to close my mouth, their energy was contagious.

In honor of this week's lunar anniversary, I write this post as a note of thanks to all of my "space friends." Here is what they've taught me about careers:

  1. No one person is smart enough to be a "rocket scientist" in full: Rocket science is complex and multi-disciplinary. It requires a diverse knowledge base, and an ability to work with others to understand systems. In my experience, this is also true in most work environments: You have to work with other people to accomplish your goals.

  2. It's difficult to accomplish big feats on your own. Complicated projects require close coordination and seamless communication. (I'll never forget when one Mars probe failed because of a missed conversion between meters and feet. Ouch.)
  3. Circumstances may dictate a change in initial goals, but there are other interesting options. One of my friends dreamed of being an astronaut, and achieved admission to the Air Force Academy but failed the vision test. He went on to develop satellites, Mars rovers, and has collaborated on many "outer space" projects. He's also created his own company and successful sideline businesses and remains interested in commercial space travel. He's committed to getting there.
  4. Professional associations can be invaluable throughout your career. (In my role at AIAA, I regularly sent out letters that said "Members are the lifeblood of our organization," when I joined organizations in my own field, my professional associations proved to be an invaluable source of information and mentoring advice.

    The first step to establishing yourself as a leader in your field may come from a local chapter meeting of a professional association or by attending a committee meeting at a national conference. Not only are associations great networking opportunities, it's also a great place to make new friends–since chances are good that you share common interests with members. 

  5. If you don't know what you want to do, you can learn a lot from others. (And if you're interested in space, there are opportunities to get there–especially since there is a shortage of engineers worldwide.)

In closing, here's a video series featuring the members of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics answering the question, "When did you know you wanted to work in aerospace?" As you'll find, "For some it was a specific moment, for others it was a gradual realization that space and flight had captured their imagination and wouldn’t let go."

When did you first know what you wanted to do? And how can I help you get there?

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