How an English Major Got a Job at NASA

“I want to write for NASA.”
“NASA doesn’t hire writers, they hire engineers.”
“We’ll see.”

–Actual discussion between ten-year-old me and my mother

I’ve been writing about space–either in fiction or non-fiction–since I was at least 10. Blame it on Star Wars,  I was too late to catch Star Trek when it was new. From there, I found written science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and so forth. The more I read, the more I was interested in space-related fiction. I kept up on happenings in the space program, and found it fascinating. But I can tell you, I was lazy. I also didn’t get a NASA job straight out of college. The road to NASA and space writing was a bit more convoluted than that.

The closest I got was moving to Orlando, which had a Lockheed Martin plant down the street and the Kennedy Space Center 50 miles to the east. Lockheed wasn’t interested in a fresh-out-of-college student at that point, much less a fresh-out English lit major. So I went to work for Disney instead. I kept trying to submit resumes now and then, but the space folks just weren’t convinced an English major could do important things like write about rockets and missiles. So I tried other things. I wrote letters to the editor of the Orlando Sentinel about space. I joined the National Space Society so I could become a member of a pro-space community. I did a lot of volunteer work for them, starting with presentations, and working my way up to letter-writing campaigns, policy papers, and eventually convention operations.

But I kept my eyes on a space writing job.

I actually became quite anti-NASA for awhile, liking the private-sector space business more, but after I got a master’s degree in technical writing, I found the same problem as before: aerospace companies did not want to hire English majors. However, a friend knew a friend at a mid-size defense firm in Alexandria, VA. They didn’t mind hiring an English major: they wanted a proposal writer. And here’s what sold me on them: “We’ve got plenty of engineers; what we need is a writer!”

After a couple years there, the guy who hired me lost his job, as did his boss, as did his boss, when the company was bought out. They took me with them to a different contractor, one doing non-defense work, which was not space. As yet another office was being closed, I applied for a job in Huntsville, AL, where I had some friends. The ad said only “technical writer.” During the phone interview, the nice lady said, “You do realize this is writing for Marshall Space Flight Center, right?” I said, “No. Pardon me while I drool.” (Yes, they hired me anyway.) By the time they flew me down to Huntsville for a whirlwind tour and set of interviews, I had the portfolio and enough space-related samples to show that yes, an English major can get a job in the space business. Been there for five years now.

Bottom lines for getting where I wanted to go: determination, relevant volunteer work, proven willingness to develop the credentials necessary to get the job. It can be done, for the space business or other brain-intensive job, even if you don’t know calculus.

Follow-Up:

This has been one of my more popular posts, so if you’re interested in learning more about this subject, please check out my “So You Want to Write for NASA” tab above.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in careers, job hunting, personal, technical writing. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to How an English Major Got a Job at NASA

  1. LD says:

    I know this is an old article but it was just what I was looking for. I’m currently in the middle of deciding whether I should leave my engineering degree (still progress) to pursue a career in writing (my first love). It’s tough because I’m a senior in engineering so this would be a HUGE change for me. I have tons of work experience in IT/engineering but no degree. It feels like I’m walking away from a major part of my life but no matter what I do, I always miss my writing. This article really give me hope.

    As a means to get back to my writing, I started a blog about my second love: b-movie. It’s a bit NSFW but is a nice little creative outlet. Bmoviebrunette.com

    Thanks for this perspective!

    • Bart Leahy says:

      Thanks for reading! I realized that I didn’t have the patience to be an engineer because I didn’t have the patience to do the required math. I CAN do the math, I just don’t enjoy it enough to go through X years of schooling to get a P.E. Best of luck wherever your journeys take you!

      • LD says:

        Thank you!

        Regarding the math, I feel the same way! I too can do it but I HATE IT! At my current internship, I dabble in tech writing and have found that I love that more. Plus, the engineers are TERRIBLE at writing so I spend tons of time correcting their atrocious grammar and reports. I’ve got until the fall to decide on what I want to do but knowing that there are people out there experiencing this same dilemma is soothing. And the whole reason I wanted to go into engineering is because I want to work for NASA so, in the end, it’s nice to know that I won’t have to give that up. 😀

        Also, as a tech writer, did you have to get some sort of special degree or certification? Or, did you just continue to align yourself with the experience that eventually helped you get to your present career?

  2. Bart Leahy says:

    See this post, which goes into a little more depth about my actual career path and practical advice: https://heroictechwriting.com/2011/10/19/how-to-get-my-job/

    • Becca holt says:

      Hi Bart,
      I want to first say how big of a fan I am! Your work has helped numerous students in search for their dream career and calls attention to the use of English is diverse curriculums. I am currently a senior majoring in English literature at UAB. To be frank, you have my dream job and I am currently looking for an internship that corresponds with this ( technical/proposal writing in a scientific/research environment). I am confident this would help me in my future as a writer/student and also shine light on English based jobs in scientific settings. I have researched internships at the Huntsville location, but have come up short. I would be honored to learn from someone like you! I am willing to observe and experience any opportunity available!

      (I would love to email specifics about internships, if this could even be a possibility.) **fingers crossed**

  3. Saleah Blancaflor says:

    Hi Bart,
    This is a great! I know this is an old post, but it’s very insightful and nice to know that NASA hired a technical writer! Funny; I was actually searching “writing jobs for NASA” and this is the first post that popped up. I was an English major too and love writing, but have also been interested in space and science (I just don’t actually like doing the mathematical part of it lol). I’d definitely be interested in knowing more about your career path up until now!

    • Bart Leahy says:

      Howdy, Saleah! Thanks for reading! I’m actually starting a book on how English Majors can get a job at NASA (or some other high-tech place), so stay tuned. Otherwise, do a search for “NASA” on this blog, and you’ll find some of my other thoughts on the subject.

      Salud,

      /b

  4. Pingback: Hello World! Kat in the Hat – CHICAS WHO WRITE

  5. Hi. Thanks for the post! Something that I needed. I’m pursuing CSE undergraduate course but am very interested in space and astronomy. Started my own blog to explain the phenomena through stories. My aim, too after engineering is over, is to join a space organization as a writer. Was wondering if you could outline the general job of space writer.
    Thanks in advance!

  6. This is awesome! I agree in that writing about space/science is so utterly fascinating. Good work!

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