The Poetical Stuff

All industries have their own lingo.  The space business does.

I left my job as a space lawyer at the Federal Aviation Administration last summer.  In addition to missing a whole bunch of people, I miss the language.  I remember in Scaled Composite’s early days for SpaceShipOne, which is a rocket that launches from a carrier aircraft, I was on an email chain between my space folks and some aviation people.  One of the aviation people called the carrier aircraft the “mothership.”  With my soul full of joy and gratitude both, I thought how lucky I was to work in a job that allowed me to see some technical dude using the word “mothership.”  I’ve been in arguments over whether to call something a “spaceship” or an “orbital transportation vehicle.”  (Being a simple kind of gal, I preferred the former because it’s more easy to understand.)

But these terms have nothing on what the guys at the ranges say.  A federal launch range is one place you can launch your rocket from.  A commercial launch site is another.  Following in the footsteps of Heinlein and other science fiction writers, we call them all “spaceports.”  But I digress.  What do the guys at the ranges say that is so charming?  First, there’s the minus count.  You know, “3, 2, 1…”  Then there’s the plus count.  That’s for after the rocket takes off. There’s GO/NO GO and others.   There are lightning commit criteria, hazard zones, flight termination systems, black assets, and jettisoned stages.  The range is red.  The range is green.

The risk criteria are expressed in terms of “expected casualty.”  Most of the ranges are run by the military, after all.  When the FAA borrowed that term for its own regulations, I asked if we couldn’t use something less gruesome, like, maybe an “isolation factor”?  No way. That’s the word.  Everyone knows what it means, and this is one the lawyer doesn’t get to touch.  I didn’t even get to say “I told you so” for years, because that’s how long it took for someone else to object, and at that point expected casualty was in the Code of Federal Regulations.  One of my favorites is “exoatmospheric.”  That one’s kind of intuitive and means you’re outside the atmosphere, of course.

Then there’s the MFCO, which is pronounced mif-coe and stands for missile fight control officer.  He’s the guy who sits with his finger on the button ready to destroy the launch vehicle if it goes off course. (One of the great things about America is that there are industries where safety is achieved by blowing things up.)  We got a bunch of the MFCO’s together to interview once, to match what they did with what their handbooks said they did.  The biggest question one other person and I had was what did we call them as a collective?  A herd?  A flock?  A gaggle?  Then it came to us.  They were a murder.  No one else has picked up on this, but it’s still right.

There are other words, mysterious words you think you know because they are in English, and that is your native tongue.  But, no.  They are used differently, mysteriously, in ways not encountered elsewhere.  They are words like “support” and “tools” which mean neither support nor tools. I still couldn’t tell you what they really mean, though I might be able to use them in a sentence.

As a writer I want to use these words to add flavor to the story, to sprinkle little details that add verisimilitude and credibility and make the readers think they are there.  It’s a fine line to walk, however, for one must be able to distinguish between those that are beautiful and obvious, like the “minus count,” and those that are just difficult jargon.

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