Writing About the Space Business with Authority

Lately I’ve been doing a project for Spaceflight Insider that has required me to do a lot of research on launch vehicles (the engineers’ term for the rockets that get things off the ground). The challenge, sometimes, is getting the information I need without being an employee or having an “inside source.”

Why is space-related information hard to find?

Rockets are pretty hard to hide once they’re ignited. The forces a vehicle has to generate to get into orbit–a minimum of 250 miles (402 kilometers) in altitude and a speed of 17,500 miles per hour (28,163.5 km/hr)–also create a lot of bright flame and unbelievable noise. Everyone can see it–we can hear the mission control person reading off the speed, altitude and distance downrange–so what’s the big secret? Several things, actually, not all of them having to do with the rocket:

  • To comply with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR): ITAR is a headache for much of the space industry because it prohibits useful products, ideas, and technologies from crossing international borders. The purpose of this prohibition, of course, is to keep nations or other organizations unfriendly to the U.S. from acquiring knowledge or technology they could use to build a missile, which would then be fired at us. Or, worse, some specific weakness might be revealed that a hostile power could use to interfere with or destroy our hardware. This means that sharing things like technical details about how a rocket is made or operates cannot be shared in an online payload user guide.
  • For purposes of state: Some customers–particularly military and intelligence-gathering agencies–don’t want everyone to know the precise orbit of a satellite. As a result, the mission control announcer will sometimes read off the speed, altitude, or distance numbers on a time delay so that anyone listening in can’t get the actual data they need to track it.
  • To protect the secret sauce: Every company has its proprietary secrets for building a better rocket. So while you might learn that a particular rocket is made from an aluminum honeycomb of some sort, you won’t be able to find out what the precise materials, thicknesses, or techniques are to make that honeycomb a reality. The laws of physics are known to pretty much every industrialized nation–the specific ways people have devised to exploit them are covered by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and, sometimes, government classification (see above).

Where can you get information in a guarded environment?

So how do I get information if everything’s such a big secret? Obviously, I work with what official public information the manufacturers or agencies publish online. Occasionally I’ll break down and go to a private site with good reputation and a lot of data on the vehicle(s) in question. I’ve even been known to acquire actual books with good data in them. It’s crazy what you can find in libraries sometimes.

Most of the time, my reporting doesn’t require me to get into the nitty-gritty of Rocket Company A or Government Agency B’s secret sauce unless the failure of that secret sauce is the point of the story. At that point, I have to start emailing the public affairs office to see what the official word is. If I can’t get much of an answer from the official line, I start contacting other people I know in the business and ask them for some sort of insight.

This approach works for science as well as engineering, though it’s much easier with scientists sometimes because they generally are not trying to protect anything proprietary or classified. Also, if asked about their favorite field of study, a scientist is happy to speculate (within reason) and can usually be counted on for a pithy quotation or two. Engineers, often more reticent, don’t like to speculate about some situations, because they don’t have all the data, aren’t familiar with the specific technology, or have a natural conservatism that prevents them from making snap judgments. All of these are admirable attributes in someone building expensive, dangerous hardware, but it makes for difficult reporting at times.

Sometimes, if I have a deadline pending and little chance of getting the information I want on time, I have to scale back my expectations about what I can report. As it happens, I assume that I am writing for members of the space-interested public, which can include anyone from aerospace engineers and other professionals to family members or friends of mine who don’t speak space much better than I do, but count on me to explain things in ways that someone with a high school diploma can get without having to check Google.

Final thoughts

The important thing to remember when writing about aerospace engineering or any other technical subject is that, as they used to say on The X Files, “the truth is out there.” Patient research can generally turn up the facts, insights, or technological information you need to explain it properly to your intended audience. How much of that information is easily or publicly accessible will, of course, vary by your position, employer, audience, and purpose in writing the document you need to write. The more you research, though, the better you become at understanding how the technologies work and whom to ask about what. All part of the fun of being a heroic technical writer.

About Bart Leahy

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