It’s surprising and gratifying to see how many people have emailed me to ask for advice on getting a writing job at NASA. It’s come up again now and then; maybe I should write a book on how to get my job.
Anyhow, my most recent correspondent is more of a creative/fiction writer, but she wanted to know if it was still possible to get a job working at NASA. My thoughts are below.
You’ve read some of my background on how and why I got into writing for the space business, so I won’t repeat all of that. I’m not currently a NASA contractor (that contract ended in 2012), but I still support a small space-related business that works with NASA, Virgin Galactic, and other organizations doing cool things.
The work I’ve done has come in many flavors:
- Proposal writing for companies pursuing government (i.e. NASA) contracts.
- Technical papers for engineers/managers to present at conferences (some of the bigger ones are the National Space Symposium in Denver, CO, and the annual AIAA Space conference & exhibition, and the AIAA Joint Propulsion Conference).
- White papers for new products or programs–the primary target of these documents is usually members of Congress or their staffers, as the primary source of money for space activities is the U.S. Government.
- Technical program documents: this can include things like a Safety & Mission Assurance Plan, a Concept of Operation (CONOPS) Plan, or a Systems Engineering Management Plan (SEMP). These are guidance documents NASA or a commercial company uses to define how a particular mission or vehicle such as the Space Launch System will conduct its operations and under what conditions.
- Public outreach content: this has included mission blogs, journalism, media releases, flyers/fact sheets that are given out to the public, and even the text on the back of mission decals, explaining the symbolism or significance of a particular vehicle or mission.
In all of these documents, I get the opportunity to work with technical folks doing or leading the actual work. Engineers, as a general rule, are not fond or writing–and it shows! A lot of what I do amounts to taking Engineerish and translating it into plain but hopefully engaging English.
So yes, it is entirely possible for a writer to get a job at NASA or in the space business in general. The trick is, what kind of writing do you want to do, and where do your interests lie? My passion happens to be human spaceflight, which is how I got into the National Space Society (and from there into the Mars Foundation and Space Frontier Foundation) as a citizen space advocate. But that wasn’t enough for me–I wanted to know how things actually worked–so I slowly worked my way into space journalism and then finally NASA technical writing as described above. I’m somewhat interested in science (“How does X work?”), but I like engineering (“How can we make X useful?”) better. A peer of mine, Dauna Coulter, loves the science side of things and her writing is just gorgeous. She’s great at science storytelling, which might be a good niche for your interests. It all depends on what you want to do. But really, if you’re passionate about it and are willing to learn the lingo, NASA can find a use for your skills. Some folks in the organization–not all, but some–are coming to realize that HOW they communicate is as important as WHAT they communicate. They’ve got plenty of engineers, they NEED communicators.
Different types of space writing require different skill sets; if you know what you want to focus on, I can offer some more practical advice, but I hope you find this useful.