Lesson Learned: I Wrote About Space X and I Didn’t Publish It Fast Enough

Allow me to explain what I mean by this title: a few years ago, I was a NASA intern. Part of my internship involved visiting private and public aerospace factories, which included Space X. As you might have heard, Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded two minutes after launch this weekend. No astronauts were onboard (I’m pretty sure Space X has not had any manned missions to date), but most people saw it as a pretty sobering blow to the private industry’s shining star. And in 2012, as soon as I stepped foot in to Space X’s lobby, I saw this coming.

The following is excerpted from my Michelle-In-Space blog, which was a Livejournal I kept documenting that summer….

Finally, it was the long haul to Space X. Traffic didn’t get us too badly, but it still took nearly two hours to get across town to Hawthorne, where Space X and Boeing Satellite Systems were located. It is a surprisingly mundane part of town. Our tour of Space X got some mixed results, with people either loving it or hating it. I think I can’t talk about specifics, but I can give you a general gist of the place. Most of my peers will scoff at me for my blasphemy, but I honestly hated it. There was a disgusting level of unprofessionalism displayed (I lost count of the amount of F-bombs dropped by our orientation presenter and our tour guides – I’m not a prude, but keep it out of the workplace), a lack of anyone there over age 30 (aka, lack of any experienced wisdom and mentoring), and the sheer negligence that was being displayed with flight hardware. I mean, absolute negligence. I had more than a few raised eyebrows watching people work carelessly on stuff that is supposed to fly into space.

I love that the space industry has gone private, and I can certainly understand why someone would want to avoid the government-style red tape that comes with working at NASA proper. But this is the one company I’ve seen this summer which openly admits to skirting the edge of safety to save a buck, and then puffs out their chests in arrogance because of it. It actually baffles me how anyone could ignore that, especially since no one who fell in love with Space X has actually explained to me why they do – they’ve just looked at me like I’m psychotic. Personally, I am heavily dissapointed, and even a bit heartbroken by what I saw there. I was expecting amazement and a glimpse of the future, and instead I walked out with dread. Of course, I am happy we went, because it was very eye-opening and informative to see – I merely think the Dragon may as well be named the Icarus.

As a writer, I was immediately struck with the urge to “sound the alarm” on this inevitable tragedy though fiction. In 2013, I charted out a script outline for an indie film called Goliath, which tracked industrial espionage and quality negligence between a Boeing-like company and a Space X-like company. I eventually reduced this into a short story called “Goliath,” which was a 3000 word mock interview between a reporter named Sofia Morgan and the reckless Elon Musk-lite CEO of Goliath Aerospace. In the interview, the CEO takes Morgan on a tour through the facility and it strongly mirrors what I myself saw at Space X, heard from the tour guides, etc. At the end of the article, Morgan recounts the devastating explosion that occurred two weeks later on Goliath’s launchpad, and how all the signs of imminent failure were foreshadowed – but their hubris was too high to see it.

I submitted it to one anthology last summer, it was rejected, and I shelved it. I was hoping to revamp it this summer – next month, even. In fact, Sunday morning, I even wrote it on my to-do list. Then I heard the news.

I’m not sure if it’s a story that needs to be put out there anymore. I think I missed my shot. That’s not to say it can’t be enjoyed anymore, but now I think it’ll come off as reaction rather than foresight. Predicting trends is always more impressive than following them.

The moral of the story? If you see something coming that no one else does, write a story about it! And get it published! Your window will come and you’ll be ready. But if you write it when the event has passed, you may have missed the boat.

When An Old Project Surprises You

It’s never fun to shelve a project. To admit temporary defeat. To say “all this work I’ve done isn’t paying off in the immediate future, if ever.” But in order to keep improving our craft and using our time wisely, it is a necessary part of being a writer. But the fun part is picking up such an unfinished story a year or two later and saying “Wow. This is actually really good.

The project I speak of is The Shadow of Saturn, a dramatized memoir about my time as a NASA intern. I cranked out 50,000 words of it for NaNoWriMo 2012, rewrote most of those 50,000 words (see Thomas, I do sometimes stop in the middle of a draft and go back! :P), then shelved it indefinitely. I just wasn’t ‘feeling’ it anymore. I was feeling Paradisa more, so I started Paradisa and didn’t look back.

This book was my first attempt at writing after a three-year hiatus. I cringed at every word. I hated writing it because I felt so self-conscious about my style. Which is why I was so delighted to pick up that unfinished draft yesterday, flipping through it, unable to stop reading, constantly thinking “This is actually a decent start.”

I already have a full outline finished for this book, although it is way too long. One of the reasons I never finished it is because the outline puts it at about 150,000 words. That is longer than this novel has any right to be. So maybe I’ll futz with the outline some this week. After my Paradisa edits, of course :P But I’ll need something to work on during my next beta round so…perhaps this is a worthy side project.

As I read, I just kept thinking, “I want other people to read this book.” And because it’s a memoir, I need to get it all down before my memory starts waning. I’m already three years removed from the experience. I don’t want it to grow much longer.

Anyway, thought I’d chime in with a happy Monday post ;) You can see my scene counter has gone down slightly in the sidebar. Just 11 more to go. How was your weekend, Pressworld? And have you ever dusted off an old project with delight?

Beating The Publishing Odds

1 in 1000.

That’s a commonly cited rate for an author’s odds of publication.

But those odds don’t scare me. I’ve already beaten those odds. I’ve been the 1 in 1000 before. I’ve actually been the 1 in 50,000 before. Chances are, you have too. Everyone has had something extremely unlikely happen to them, something monumentally unusual (my dad survived a place crash when he was 19. I like flying with him because the odds of him experiencing that twice in his life are astronomical). Everyone has accomplished something despite life being stacked against them.

I got into my NASA internship by the skin of my teeth. Sure, I had a good teacher recommendation, which probably helped me get into the top 50 candidates (out of about 1500, I’ve heard). But the SC Space Grant can only send 6 people per year to NASA internships. It doesn’t matter if NASA program wants you if SC’s funding runs out.  And by the end of March 2012, when I was selected, all six slots had filled.

Literally fifteen minutes before Marshall called SC Space Grant to request me, one of the slots freed up. A Citadel student revoked his acceptance. I was pulled out of Physical Chemistry to chat with the Space Grant ladies upstairs, who told me I had to make the choice immediately. If I didn’t take this slot, another student would probably be summoned by one of the Academies to replace it. Some luck, huh?

As for the 1 out of 50,000, I placed 2nd in a pool of 100,000 students when I was in 7th grade. I had the 2nd highest score on some national math competition. I still think that was a fluke, and just a result of daily practice (thanks Mr. Derrick), but hey, I’ve still got the plaque. (I also think that I may have that ratio wrong, but I’m going with the “odds of placing 1st or 2nd in a pool of 100,000” line of thinking. Which I suppose would be 1 to 50,000. As you can see, I was better at math when I was 12 :P)

Let’s also consider that the odds of getting a novel published, for skilled writers who actually know their craft, is not far off from the odds of getting a job any other field. I’ve heard that “1 in 20” is the magic ratio for “full requests per group of queries.” If you send out 20 queries, at least one agent should request a full….and that’s how you know you’re on the right track and have a publishable book. After 50-100 queries, a marketable author should have an offer of representation.

I’m amused to say that those odds are identical to how my chemistry job search went after college. My odds were almost consistently  “1 interview per 20 job applications.” By the end of my 5 month search, I submitted about 60 applications. I ended up with three interviews, two of which turned into job offers.

They want you to believe that publishing is competative…and it sure is. But so is everything else! No one approached me and threw dollar bills at me to be a chemist. I had to bust my butt to find a job, particularly because chemistry is a scarce field in my town. There are maybe two dozen chemists in Charleston who aren’t Ph.D professors or managers. And you can bet that The Citadel, CofC, and CSU all graduate a few dozen chem majors every year. I certainly beat the odds and came out on top in this field….so why not writing too? All I have to do is be as marketable an author as I was a chemist. ;)

I’m Published!…Sort of.

At 22, I am still an “aspiring” author. Of course, that’s a nice way of saying “unpublished.” I’m not ashamed of that at all, since I am so young and this is honestly the first time I’ve attempted to be published.  It’s like being the first 200 feet into a marathon.

So imagine my amusement when I recently discovered that my name has been included in a published work – it’s just not fiction.

When I was a NASA Academy intern in 2012, I worked in the Environmental Control and Life Support Systems branch of Marshall Space Flight Center. I helped build an instrument called the Methane Purification Assembly, which is part of a resource recovery chain. Basically, you filter a stream of methane, carbon dioxide, and water through the MePA, and it absorbs everything but the methane. The methane travels on to other instruments to be broken back down into hydrogen (and acetylene, but that’s filtered out and discarded as well). If successful, this instrument will join others aboard the International Space Station, and will get us closer to achieving longterm life support beyond Low Earth Orbit.

Turns out this research has finally been published, and you can find it on the NASA Technical Documents server! And my name is on it! You can find it here. You can actually download the entire paper (it’s only 11 pages) and read it, if you’re  so inclined. Either way, it’s proof that I do have one publishing credit to my name ;)