When I was seven years old, I wanted to be an “-ologist.” Biologist, geologist, meteorologist, volcanologist, zoologist, you name it. I wanted to study the world around me, explore the curious lifeforms, rock forms, and other mysterious phenomenon. As I got older, I found a love for creative writing, especially fantasy writing. The idea of sharing stories of worlds I had made up in my own head was thrilling to me. When high school came around, my favorite books were all in the philosophical literature category, including Thoreau, Emerson, and Plato to name a few. I enjoyed analyzing essays, classical literature, and became fond of critically thinking. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, when I stumbled upon the opportunity to attend an engineering summer camp, that I even knew mechanical engineering was a career option.
Now, I am a junior in college studying mechanical engineering with an emphasis in aerospace. As I dive deeper into the world of developing space, I find it difficult to keep from discrediting myself. There are so many technically inclined minds in this field; some individuals have been studying space facts since they were children, others have generations of engineers in their families, and I had seemingly wasted my time studying philosophy and creative writing in my adolescence. How could I compete with my peers who had been studying this field for years before I even knew it existed?
I attended SATELLITE 2019 in May, and although it was the most beneficial choice I’ve made in my academic development and technical career, it was intimidating — to say the least.
This was the first conference of any scale I had the opportunity to attend and I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that it would be an experience that would help shape my technical, networking, and listening skills. I learned about roughly 300 new companies working in fields I didn’t know existed until I learned about them on the exhibition floor.
With each booth came a grand informational setup, with each representative came a new story. I heard new organization names, met executives, technicians, and people who had traveled across the world to be at SATELLITE. The expanse of knowledge I walked amongst blew me away. I would ask a question and be greeted with ten new ones. It became apparent that areas of science I previously believed to be obsolete were more pertinent than ever. I quickly assumed I had no idea what was going on in the world of aerospace.
Then I began noticing something. Not everyone in attendance was a technical engineer, and even if they were, the topics being discussed spanned a broader perspective that purely technicalities.
One particular panel that piqued my interest was the Space Leaders forum on Navigating the Fractured Geopolitical Landscape. There, on the stage, were representatives of space organizations from across the globe, including Majed Alonazi representing Saudi Arabia, a country which has a space agency that is just over a year old! The panelists discussed how to collaborate on international space projects when each country has their own political strife with each other. Maneuvering around political squabbles to work on a scientific mission for the greater good of human kind is an exhilarating idea to expound on, and when such intelligent and insightful leaders get together to discuss where the difficulties lie, what threats lie in the cracks of the divide, and other explosive topics, its relieving to see such comradery displayed between the players.
As I left the panel, I noticed I had applied the ethical philosophies I had studied in high school to the discussion. I started to look for other ways to apply my love for philosophy and creative writing to the field I loved before I knew it existed: space exploration and development.
I made the connection again when I listened in on the rising problem of space debris. What is the best way to avoid space debris? Should it be removed or merely avoided? What technologies have been or are being developed to undertake this issue? What ethical issues are brought up in the problem-solving process and how should they best be handled? These are new rising problems that don’t have set solutions. As much as engineers like to believe everything can be represented by numbers and simulated by software, there are philosophical issues that must be debated and when a conclusion is reached, it is essential that the solution be effectively communicated to those who are involved.
I finally drew a connection between my experiences at SATELLITE. Time is far from wasted when it is spent improving skills outside of one’s technical field. As engineers and scientists, it is crucial to understand this. Being an innovative thinker takes creativity, which means looking at a problem from new viewpoints. Changing one’s perspective from the technician to the customer, looking at a problem like a biologist instead of an economist, or even from the perspective of a clueless undergraduate junior who secretly loves philosophy and creative writing will elicit innovative solutions. It is important to become experts in our fields of study, but to become the best experts we can, we need to ask questions, get curious, and get creative, which means embracing all the subjects we’re passionate about, even if they seem useless in the long run. Hint: they never are.