As a supporter of space R&D and member of the National Space Society, I worry when any space program--government or commercial--gets a bad rap. Certainly when the Government Accountability Office indicates an entire orbital system has a possible 20% chance of failure, it's even more worrisome.
The GAO report released earlier this year raised concerns about the reliability of the government and its contractors. The inquiry brought attention to the vast overbudgeting and delays affecting replacement of aging GPS satellites. Amid rampant job loss and troubling economy, Americans don't want to hear about technical problems with a government program that costs millions extra and is three years late. It's enough to make even the strongest R&D supporters balk. The cynical reaction and desire to pull the plug on funding for these programs is exacerbated when it's a space program.
Although the majority of space projects do not directly effect our everyday lives, the one type of space vehicle that does is the satellite--especially GPS satellites. GPS is used, aside from personal navigational devices, for various military and civil purposes from pizza delivery to geocaching. The loss of service or reliability of GPS devices could drive an already face-down economy into the ground, bankrupting logistics companies and tying the hands of rescue workers. The consequences resulting from loss of services provided by the satellites would be disastrous.
Despite the hype and fears surrounding the GAO's report on the condition of the GPS satellite network and reports of GPS device problems, concerns about the latest GPS satellite were laid to rest in a teleconference hosted by Col. Dave Madden, Commander of the Global Positioning Systems Wing of the Air Force Space Command's Space and Missile Systems Center. The teleconference fielded questions regarding extension of the GPS IIR-20(M) early orbit checkout. The Air Force Colonel and his staff discussed the technical condition of the satellite, but also briefly addressed the GAO report.
The technical questions primarily pertained to the more recent reports of GPS inaccuracy at high elevations which appear to be due to inclusion of the first L5 frequency equipment. The L5 technology paves the way for the next generation of GPS satellites scheduled to launch later this year and early 2010. Because these future satellites do not use the same configuration, there is little chance that the same issue will occur. In the mean time, the slight variation is being negated by commands sent from the ground. Of course, this new satellite is not yet connected to the constellation, so the variations cannot be linked with recently reported GPS problems and failures.
In his closing statement, the Colonel asserted that the GAO report has "caused worry and could damage confidence" in the satellite program. He indicated that there remain 30 satellites in the constellation and the Air Force expects reliable function through at least 2015. He pointed out that the GAO report failed to take into account standard operating procedures such as powering down auxiliary functions of older satellites to prolong the satellite's lifespan. Finally, Colonel Madden said that the Air Force is "making steady progress to ensure users are able to take advantage in orbit and on the ground" of the "greatest GPS capability, accuracy and performance."
Ultimately, success or failure of space missions affects the future of human space travel in a variety of ways. First, the technologies used in scientific and military space vehicles are the foundation for human exploration and commercial ventures. Second, failure in any space mission is guaranteed to cause delays in other space R&D. Third, budgeting for space programs is more difficult when things go wrong. And finally, the national opinion of such programs becomes discouraging and space programs lose tax-payer support. 
For more about the GPS IIR-20(M) and its new L5 funcationality, read these articles:
Modernization Milestone: Observing the First GPS Satellite with an L5 Payload
Spirent GPS/GNSS Newsletter
United States Air Force Successfully Transmits L5 Signal from GPS IIR-20(M) Satellite

 

Recently, Ann Handley posted "Everything I Need to Know About Twitter I Learned in J School" which is a very useful discussion of using Twitter from the Journalism perspective. Although I do not disagree with her comments,  I'd like to offer the Technical Communication perspective:
1. Be concise.
You only have 140 characters, so real estate is limited. Make the best use of it by using the right words. Most technical communicators feel they've grasped the art of brevity, but Twitter puts it to the test.
2. KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid
Simplicity is refining your thoughts to the barest essentials. Mentioning two or more unrelated thoughts in a Tweet is likely to confuse your followers. Confused followers tend to leave. And what's the point of tweeting if no one is listening?
3. Context is king.
Make good use of # hashmarks to indicate the subject. Even though you're limited to 140 characters, you can provide access to external sources which elaborate on the context. Link to articles, blogs, or tweets for further elaboration.
4. Focus on the task.
What do you want your followers to do? Think? Respond? Follow a hyperlink? Consider the ultimate purpose of the tweet and how you can best help your followers achieve that goal.
5. Use active verbs.
Active verbs are shorter and easier to follow than passive verbs or verbal nouns. This may mean breaking grammar rules, but those are more flexible than the 140 character limit.
6. Use relevant graphics.
If you link to a picture, make sure the picture is either the focus of your tweet or somehow elaborates on what you are telling your followers. Leave it out if the relevance is not obvious.
7. Cite sources.
Retweeting is polite and helps your followers know where you got the information. There may be more to it than just a lone tweet and followers can follow-up or just follow the original tweeter. Moreover, the person you retweet will RT you back and you may gain followers from their pool.
8. Know your audience.
The most important part of any communication including Twitter is to know what your followers want to hear. If you can humorously tell them how you ate mashed oats for breakfast and they'll appreciate it, then do so. But if they're following you to hear about politics, news, or fashion, you can leave out the oatmeal tweet.

 

Last summer we began transitioning to an Agile workflow. In the fall my group implemented scrums and sprints. As the lone writer, I had already been regularly attending developer meetings. I didn't really see the difference except for the frequency and length of scrums versus meetings. However, several things became apparent including that our productivity has improved. I started reflecting on what exactly it is about Agile that makes our team more productive.
It dawned on me that the effectiveness of the scrum meetings is largely due to the approach Agile takes on deadlines. Instead of some vague, out-there-in-the-future delivery date, we have a two (or four) week expiration date for the work we're doing right now.
Most of our guys lean towards being B-type personalities: folks who tend not to notice a deadline until it's immediate. Not to say the developers and testers always put things off to the last minute, but rather that they're generally in the habit of taking it slow and easy until the deadline is nearly upon us. This habit leaves very little time before a deadline for full testing and even less time for completely updating documents.
But in an Agile sprint the deadline is always just a few weeks away. Suddenly the delivery date isn't an intangible concept, but a real and immediate matter. After several sprints, the developers are beginning to understand that the deadline must include QA and Doc completion.
With this pressure of a looming deadline and better understanding the Definition of Done, we're finding an amazing degree of reliability in our own team. No longer is there the impression of indifferent coworkers failing to take things seriously until the time is critical and everyone is under stress.
The immediacy of the sprint deadline is ensuring that everyone feels a sense of urgency for deliverables. And that makes the whole team more productive.

 

Despite the number of unemployed right now, jobs in the field of Technical Communication are abundant. Take, for example, the jobs listed on the Lone Star Community's job bank. I'm not really looking for a job, yet recruiters are practically knocking down my door, phone, and inbox to inform me of the latest tech writer job.
Check out this graph from indeed.com showing that "technical writing" has it's ups and downs, but has generally been on the rise.


Although the jobs including "technical writing" have been decreasing for the last six months, we're still doing much better than Fall '07-Spring '08 as well as Fall '08. Keep the faith: what goes down must come up.
 

Rumor has it that the price of belonging to the Society for Technical Communication is going up next year. This bothers me because their services have decreased recently, yet the organization is nearly broke. While I sympathize with their plight and worry about the increase, I still have to ask whether $175/year is so much to pay.
Admittedly, this price is a lot to swallow all at once and a few folks have suggested that they let us pay dues monthly, but it's not nearly as bad as some think.
As a quick reminder of the benefits, here's a little list:
- Networking
- Monthly meetings
- Special Interest Groups
- Job bank
- Retail discounts
- Summit discount
- Webinar discounts
- Continuing education
- Leadership opportunities
- Mentors
- Practice & experience
- Publications
- Insurance
- Prestige
- Recognition
- Competitions
- Awards
I'm sure I left out a few things and not all of these will be useful to all members. But the point is made, so I'll move along.
Now, what else can you get for $175?
- 2 stroke 49cc engine/motor
- hamburger
- pewter pitcher
- bread machine
- 14 issues of Baseline
- sapphire & diamond ring
- Primacy HP, Michelin's Grand Touring Summer tire
- men's sterling silver engravable dog tag necklace
- under eye lightening treatement
- Dutch Windsor office chair
Of course if you are the government, $175 will get a a handful of office supplies. But my point here is that for this amount you could be getting something far less useful or valuable.
What's more, to put this into perspective, the cost of an STC membership is $14.58 per month, $3.37 per week, or $0.48 cents a day.
Others may disagree, but I'd consider it a good investment.

 

 In a room full of engineers, no one would be shocked to find numerous science fiction fans. Yet many people seem surprised to find technical communicators in fandom.
Scifi and tech comm have a long history together that begins with engineering writing. Engineering writers were the earliest tech writers and often the same engineers wrote, read, sold, bought, and promoted early science fiction.
Engineers and scientists enjoy playing with new ideas, but some of the best theories cannot easily be tested. The wonderful thing about SF is the opportunity to skip the messy, expensive (or impossible) experiments and get right to the application, usefulness, and consequences of an idea.
One of the earliest engineering dreamers was Jules Verne who wrote several science fiction stories, explaining in great detail how certain technologies might work. His clear conceptions of mechanisms and functions set the stage for others to dabble with similar devices, yet the stories still manage to entertain the reader. Verne did not let the technicality interfere with readability and this became the standard for all great modern scifi. The same standard is also a mainstay of TC.
Tech comm has a tradition of objectivity which may seem threatened by scifi themes such as social values and subjective experiences. But, in fact, this is a natural and compatible element of writing about science and technology. Faced with new, untested devices, technical writers must predict what type of audience might want to use it. They create stories about the those who would use such a device, the environment it might be used in, and what these users might want to know. It doesn't take too much to stretch the imagination from What Is to What If. And as soon as you're in the realm of What Ifs, you've achieved science fiction.
More than ever, tech writers are expected to predict the future and anticipate needs. Habitual SF readers find this easy which translates into success as technical communicators.
To the technical communicator, the usefulness of SF is more than stretching the imagination; it's tapping some of the greatest minds for possibilities and results which would otherwise be unavailable to one person or team. The usefulness of TC to science fiction is a little more obscure.
Any professional writer who has taken a course in technical writing would admit the effect it has on his or her writing. The clarity and focus of TC helps authors stay on topic and precisely approach a subject even when the subject matter is not factual. It's even been suggested that the great writers of the 21st century will come from technical writing just as the great writers of the 20th came from journalism.
This interaction between TC and SF will continue to develop as leisure readers become more tech-savvy, teachers incorporate more science fiction in classwork, and the scifi genre becomes more mainstream. Eventually, tech writers will be ubiquitous in fandom rather than an oddity.

 

These are the signs that you've outlived your usefulness to the world of technical writing:
10. You translate your spouse's every word into Plain English.
9. It's not the graffiti that bothers you, but the misspelling of "mother."
8. SMEs ask YOU questions.
7. Your name appears on every wikipedia edit page.
6. Upon hearing the Next Big Thing you think "I want to document that!" before thinking "I want one!" (Thx K. Mulholland)
5. 
You carry whiteout and a dictionary next to your lipstick and compact (or in your pocket protector).
4. Reference sites link to you.
3. You actually know how to use a semicolon.
2. You make your kids write a business case for why they should have something (like the latest phone). (Thx B. Graham)
1. You refuse to bookmark this list due to the number of grammatical and punctuation errors.
Bonus sign you've worked in tech writing too long:
OED calls you for suggested definitions of new terms.