Friday, March 27, 2015

Keeping Florida in the Space Game, One Legislator at a Time

Communication. As a scientist-in-training, I was told over and over again how important communication is. I didn’t know what form of communication may take in my career. Students are often pushed to the front of the class or auditorium to give presentations, a mostly self-taught skill that is often more valuable than the material being presented. Outreach to fellow students, younger students, and the general public was encouraged and common. But no one ever taught me how to communicate to legislators and appropriators, those who set the laws and grant public funds. This, too, has been a self-taught skill, one that I am still learning.

Wednesday was my third Florida Space Day. Before joining the ranks of Tallahassee-bound space professionals, all I had done was speak to a few policymakers in Washington, D.C. about space science, once. That first year, I was so excited to spread the love of space in Tallahassee, but also so nervous. My knowledge of state issues was limited and I didn't feel like an informed enough spokesperson for the industry. Thankfully, an expert on my team did most of the talking, so I listened, learned, and spoke up when I felt the need. One year later, I had absorbed enough information and developed enough confidence to jump into the conversation and add my spiel to the mix.

This year, I was the veteran in a small team with two newbies. The need was for me to lead the discussions. I wasn't sure that I was ready to do the talking, but as the saying goes, fake it until you make it! I read up on the issues of the moment, studied our legislative targets, and listened to advice from others as to what points were the most important this year. I convinced myself that even though I have much to learn, I do know what I’m talking about, enough for a 10 minute conversation at least.

One of my teammates was well established in the industry working for a large engineering company and could pipe in with extra information and his own two cents. My other teammate was an undergraduate engineering student, as nervous as I was during my first time, but could speak about her desire to stay in Florida to work in aerospace after she graduated. With my knowledge of the industry and my experience with a new start-up company, I added another component to the discussion. We were a good team.

This year, my team was assigned seven legislators to visit and speak with. By the end of the day, we had spoken with four legislative aids, met with one Representative of the Florida House, and dropped information off at two offices who were unable to meet with us. Additionally, we sat in three talks with government officials who spoke about how the space industry in Florida effects their work. It was a full day!

As always, everyone we met was so supportive of the space industry. Some people dream of being astronauts as a child and never lose that dream. That is true for me, and that is true for some of the legislators we met who went on to other fields. We in Florida our proud of our space heritage and so excited for the new space endeavors that are taking place or will soon take place here.

There is fierce competition elsewhere, so we Floridians really need to work to keep the space industry here growing and thriving. I read just today that Florida is #3 in the nation in the aerospace industry. We used to be #1, and last year we were bragging that we were #2. SpaceX chose Brownsville, Texas as the site for its private spaceport because the Shiloh launch site isn't moving forward fast enough to be a real option, and Blue Origin is about to announce their orbital launch site and may very well choose another east coast option. As supportive as everyone in Florida is of the industry, we need to continue to improve and evolve or we will slip further into obscurity and history. I am making it my mission to ensure that doesn't happen.

In the rotunda of the capitol building, STS-34 astronaut Mike McCulley sat greeting passersby and signing autographs. I struck up a conversation with him about what kinds of planes he used to fly. NASA had a table with “swag” so I grabbed a sticker or two. I was also honored to be interviewed by Jason of SpaceFlight Insider about my company Swiss Space Systems and how I was participating in Florida Space Day.

In addition to communicating with legislators and their aids, we also communicated with the public at large. I was part of a small team live tweeting the event. I gathered space-loving quotes from the legislators and officials who we met with and posted pictures when I could. When I can't attend an event, I always appreciate it when others who are there keeps me in the loop real-time via Twitter, and now that I’ve taken up tweeting, I've decided to do what little I can.

Normally, a group of space geeks would be outside watching the skies during a launch day. But we were half the state away, too far to see the afternoon’s ULA Delta IV launch with our own eyes. So we broadcast the launch on the monitor in the rotunda and encouraged everyone in the area to gather around to see it. A dozen or so of us were in a conference room waiting for a meeting which was about to begin at any minute and couldn't break away, so several people streamed the launch on their phones and we all gathered around to watch, commenting on the beauty and pointing out technical details. Had anyone walked through that door, it would have been pretty obvious that we were a group of space enthusiasts!

The day wrapped up with a reception on the 22nd floor of the capitol building. Crowds mingled, food was eaten, and speeches were given. My favorite moment was when former astronauts Bob Cabana and Mike McCulley stood up at the podium together to answer questions that only astronauts can answer and reminisce about old times. We applauded the rocket launch and the day, celebrating another successful Florida Space Day. As the sun set, I wished Tallahassee goodbye and see you next year!

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