Alphabet Soup and Working in the Technology Business


Source: NPR

For the first Christmas I spent at Marshall Space Flight Center, I gave Ares Project Managers Steve Cook and Dan Dumbacher each a small gift bag. Inside each bag was a can of alphabet soup, “as a way of returning the favor,” I told them. My boss let me get away with it because, while I was being a smartass, I was at least getting along with my customers.

But seriously: I spent the first six months filling up my head with acronyms, filling up one handwritten journal per month as I tried to understand the hieroglyphics and codes that engineers used while designing and building large space systems.

If you want to be a technical writer, you have to do this as a simple survival mechanism. It’s how you learn the language your subject matter experts are speaking.

NASA’s been famous for generating long lists of acronyms, which serve the very useful purpose of avoiding having to say “polybutadiene acrylonitrile” (PBAN) or “space shuttle main engine” (SSME) every time they come up in conversation. Surprisingly, though, I didn’t learn the acronym-collection process at NASA first, but at Walt Disney World, of all places. I collected acronyms for my own reference, and then, when coworkers saw what I was doing, they wanted a copy. A lot of my personal acronym lists became shared documents because they’re necessary, not just for individual documents but everyday use.

The acronym list I maintained for the Ares Projects was 48 pages long. I’ve heard that the list for the Space Launch System (SLS) has exceeded that. Regardless of the project, whether it be aerospace, information technology, biotechnology, energy, or any other technical field, the discipline you’re supporting will have its own specialized language and mental shorthand. The better you learn that language, the better–not just how things are spelled, but how they’re pronounced (for example, a Design Specification for Natural Environments or DSNE, is pronounced “Disney”). The acronyms of technology are only proliferating, so the better you prepare yourself, the more likely you’ll be able to understand and respond when someone asks you to “edit the Disney” one day.


Bonus Feature: Some aerospace acronyms just for you. It’s not intended to be comprehensive, just to give you some clue as to how these Acronym Lists work.

ARC  Ames Research Center
CDR  Critical Design Review
DFRC  Dryden Flight Research Center (this has probably changed–Dryden was renamed for astronaut Neil Armstrong in the last year or two, but acronym inertia is sticky)
GSFC Goddard Space Flight Center
ECLSS Environmental Control and Life Support System
EELV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle
ELV  Expendable Launch Vehicle
FRR  Flight Readiness Review
GEO  Geosynchronous Orbit
GOX  Gaseous Oxygen
GRC  Glenn Research Center
HEO  High Earth Orbit
HTPB Hydroxyl-Terminated Polybutadiene
ISS  International Space Station
JPL  Jet Propulsion Laboratory
JSC  Johnson Space Center
KSC  Kennedy Space Center
LAS  Launch Abort System
LCC  Launch Control Center
LEO  Low-Earth Orbit
LH2  Liquid Hydrogen
LOX  Liquid Oxygen (also LO2)
MAF  Michoud Assembly Facility
MCC  Mission Control Center
MCR  Mission Concept Review
MEO  Medium Earth Orbit
MMH  Monomethyl Hydrazine
MMOD Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris
MPCV Multipurpose Crew Vehicle
MSA  Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle-to-Stage Adapter (this is an example of an acronym within an acronym)
MSFC Marshall Space Flight Center
NTO  Nitrogen Tetroxide
PBAN Polybutadiene Acrylonitrile
PDR  Preliminary Design Review
RLV  Reusable Launch Vehicle
RSRM Reusable Solid Rocket Motor
SLS  Space Launch System
SSC  Stennis Space Center
SSME Space Shuttle Main Engine (now known as the RS-25, the main engines for the SLS)
VAB  Vehicle Assembly Building
VTOVL Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing
WSTF White Sands Test Facility

Eat up, your soup’s getting cold!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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