I Was Asked To Speak At A Space Event For No Compensation. Here’s How I’m Fighting Back
Allow no one to take advantage of your time in 2022.
I love spaceflight and have loved it since I was a toddler growing up not too far away from Florida’s Space Coast. I’m one of the lucky few who was able to turn a childhood fantasy into a daily reality: I have published hundreds of spaceflight articles, and co-host what I think is one of the best up-and-coming podcasts in the space genre, Space and Things. But the journey from being a space-obsessed Florida kid to a space content creator wasn’t exactly a linear voyage — not even close.
I joined the United States Navy right after high school in 1997, and shortly thereafter attended the Naval Nuclear Power MM “A” School and the Naval Nuclear Power School in Orlando, Florida. While I no longer work in the nuclear field, those experiences — as well as my introduction to the naval fleet aboard the USS George Washington (CVN-73) in 1999 — have always stuck to me like flypaper. I spent much of my time studying in a bid to pass some of the very challenging exams; aboard the ship, much of my time was spent down in the engine room, with little time afforded for sleeping, eating, etc., the stuff that most normal people do to survive. You may ask, well, why did you volunteer to work so much? I chose that lifestyle because I wanted to earn the GI Bill and the Navy College Fund. My immediate goal following my six-year enlistment was to go back to college, and finish my education — and to fund it on my own, with no student loans.
And fund it I did. In 2003 following my honorable discharge, I re-enrolled in Saint Petersburg College (I had briefly attended there following high school). Within five years — not four, because I had no idea what I wanted to do career-wise — I earned my Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degree. I worked relentlessly to keep up my grade point average (there are guidelines, with the GI Bill and college fund, for keeping up one’s grades), and proudly graduated near the top of my class. I briefly worked in education, but my dream was to become a freelance writer with a focus on spaceflight. That was my life’s dream.
Finally, in 2009, I decided, why not aim for your dreams? So I did.
What followed were some of the hardest times of my life. During the first year, NOBODY at any periodicals or websites wanted to accept my work, even after revisions. I worked at a department store part-time to bring in an admittedly meager income. There was no money after bills. It almost goes without saying that a writer’s life can be demoralizing, and you’re rejected more than you’ll ever be accepted. At the end of 2010, I decided to stop waiting for the “right website” to launch my career, and put things into my own hands — I started my spaceflight blog, This Space Available. In those days, it was an independent blog, available via Blogger.
You may have noticed I’ve written a bit of a book about my early career. But there’s a reason for that.
Fast-forward nearly 12 years later, and my hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. My blog was picked up by the National Space Society in 2019 and has been a resounding success. I’ve been recognized as an industry expert, and have spoken at many spaceflight- and aviation-themed events. I even was named one of the top 10 space influencers by the National Space Society in 2018, and I’ll always be proud of that accolade.
However, this past weekend, I decided it was best for me to bow out of an event happening in Orlando in January. Let me explain why, what mistakes I made in initially agreeing to moderate a panel at this event, and how I will be fighting against this in the future.
My Side Of The Story:
I agreed to moderate this panel during the fall months, and I failed to ask organizers if I would be compensated for travel and lodging (I live in Saint Petersburg, Florida, a bit of a drive from Orlando). I assumed, at the very least, I’d be compensated for those expenses. Last week, I asked one of the event organizers about lodging and was redirected to an Internet link — advertising rooms at the hosting hotel, which retail for approximately $300 a night. This is not a fee, as a freelancer, I can easily afford, and I was also informed no hotel compensations would be made. I was also not offered any other compensation for my travel and time — it bears mentioning I was planning to take time off from my day job to attend this event, which would result in me using vacation days.
It is my belief that event speakers, especially freelancers, should be compensated in some way to speak at and/or attend events, whether it’s aid with travel expenses, or a speaker’s fee (even a small speaker’s fee). I realized my failure to ask about these things, upfront, would result in me doing “free work.” I have been part of this industry for over a decade, long past the threshold I should be expected to do “free work.”
To run an efficient, effective panel, it takes a lot of time and effort for me to talk to panelists, and put together the working order of a panel. This is because I want event attendees to get their money’s worth, and I want them to feel good walking out of the panel. So imagine how it must feel when the moderator isn’t receiving their money’s worth…or any compensation, at all. In an ironic twist, this panel was supposed to cover aerospace workforce development. It’s kind of difficult to retain a workforce without respectful compensation, don’t you think?
I’ve also worked exceedingly hard throughout these nearly 25-plus years — often at the expense of my own physical and mental health — to receive the education I needed to become a writer and speaker at the top of my field, and while I did earn the GI Bill and Navy College Fund, it wasn’t an inexpensive, emotionally easy process. While my space endeavors have been successful, I’ve often been the only one tirelessly promoting my own work, as I’m still considered an independent writer (meaning I don’t write for a big national publication). This means I’ve had to take on the role of writing and promoting my work — not an easy day-to-day life.
I deserve to be compensated for my education, time, and expertise. Asking for appropriate compensation — maybe a place to stay, a small fee, and/or gas money — is not unreasonable. Being offered nothing is.
Here is what I am doing effective in 2022 to prevent this kind of thing from happening again: I will be offering an itemized breakdown of my services and what I feel is appropriate compensation upfront when I am asked to donate my services at new events. From there, I will draw up a contract that will determine how much my time is worth at this particular event.
It might sound harsh and off-putting, and I understand I might lose some opportunities, but I am tired of being asked to do “free work.” Emotionally, it is draining and upsetting to be at the top of your field, but have your time and efforts reduced to nothing.
In conclusion…please, please respectfully compensate freelancers.