What is a “Space Writer,” Anyway?

Today’s entry comes in response to a note from Sharmila, who asked the following about my “How an English Major Got a Job at NASA” story:

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!

The good news is that there are many types of “space writer” out there. The bad news is that typically there aren’t a lot of them in any single organization and they’re often concentrated in space-heavy locations: California, Florida, Texas, Alabama, Washington State, and Washington, DC, just for starters.

Advocacy writers

I got my start writing about actual space activities in citizen advocacy (as opposed to science fiction). There are several volunteer space advocacy groups out there, including:

The Planetary Society
National Space Society
Space Frontier Foundation
The Mars Society
The Mars Foundation
Explore Mars, Inc.
Moon Society
Tau Zero Foundation
British Interplanetary Society
National Space Society of Australia

…and so forth. Each organization is, as I said, a volunteer enterprise/nonprofit, and each group has its own emphasis (robotic exploration, human space settlement, libertarian human space settlement, human settlement of Mars, human settlement of the Moon, etc.). Some of them have internal publications or magazines that publish articles of interest for their membership as well as advocacy messages they want to get out.

Note: Because most of these organizations are 501(c)(3) educational foundations of some sort, they cannot spend more than a certain amount of time or effort in lobbying the U.S. Congress or put out other information that might smack of supporting/denouncing particular candidates for public office. Be that as it may, “education” implies providing information that educates the public about the organization’s efforts.

Many of these space advocacy groups also run annual conventions, which bring together “the faithful” space-interested membership as well as experts from the space industry or science communities. I chaired such a conference in 2011, and there was a lot of writing to be done there. Our chapter had to write a proposal and presentation to sell the Board on our city, then develop a lot of marketing and sponsorship information packets to bring in potential sponsors. Most of this work is done, as I said, on a volunteer basis, though I’m pretty certain Ad Astra and The Planetary Report still pay their writers for feature articles. You can find mine still lurking out there somewhere.

I’ve defined space advocacy as a combination of technical writing, marketing, and politics, in that you have to get your facts/technology right; you have to add a little gee-whiz excitement to get people interested; and you have to include a message that will convince the general public or their elected officials to vote a particular way.

Business and marketing writers

I’ve spent the bulk of my space-writing career as a space business writer. Unlike an advocate, someone who’s writing for an aerospace company can be said to have a job in the space industry. Among these jobs are: aerospace reporters, proposal writers, technical/white paper writers, education/outreach writers, and other business writers. At one time or another, I’ve done all of those, often while collecting the same paycheck.

Aerospace reporters

One of my side gigs right now is doing journalism for a website dedicated to covering space-related activities (SpaceflightInsider.com). Space journalists (Frank Morring, Leonard David, and Jeff Foust being the best that I know) are folks who do not work directly for an aerospace company but who share information about space activities and provide an assessment or explanation of what’s going on. Not all of these assessments or explanations are unbiased–though I hasten to add that my three favorites maintain reasonably unbiased views in their non-editorial writing. Some publications, for example, think the private sector can do no wrong and that NASA can do no right. Others have the opposite view. Some publications–and I think Spaceflight Insider is one of them–try to report the news as it is in a relatively unbiased (albeit pro-space) fashion, reporting on progress and problems with equal veracity. It’s a media jungle out there, and everyone is struggling to put out content that will capture readers.

Proposal writers

These are the people working for aerospace or other technical companies hoping to sell a space-related product or service to the government [I’ve also written intra-government proposals, where different offices within NASA were competing for internal research and development (IRAD) money] or another company. This type of writing is a lot more technical than feature-story article writing, as you’re getting into the nuts and bolts of how some new widget will actually work. Some of that information can be highly technical, export-controlled, or proprietary. Proposal writing is also marketing writing, because you are using your words to sell your company’s or team’s product. As such, it differs from journalism because it has no pretensions of being unbiased: you want your stuff to win. Technical proposal writers develop their content through one of several ways, including conducting internal and external research; editing content provided by subject-matter experts; or interviewing SMEs and writing content based on those discussions. Proposal teams can be distributed across the country or all crowded together into a single room to get the work done. The bottom line for proposal writers is: get the proposal out the door and get the program sold.

Technical/white paper writers

My first job at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center was ghost-writing technical papers for several of the managers for the Ares Launch Vehicles. These papers were presented to other engineers at technical conferences for groups such as the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), and the Joint Army-Navy-NASA-Air Force (JANNAF) Conference. Depending on the type of hardware you’re writing about and the interests of the organization audience, you might be required to write about the same stuff multiple times, just from slightly different angles for multiple conferences. This type of writing can be more technical than the proposal writing described above, as the author is generally less interested in “selling” a program and more interested in demonstrating capabilities and progress (“This is where your tax dollars are going”). White papers are a variation of technical or conference papers. They tend to describe existing or nearly existing technology that could be used to solve another problem, not directly related to its original mission.

Education/outreach writers

While conference papers are focused on reaching the aerospace technical community, education and outreach writing is usually geared toward a more general audience: the space-interested public, visitors to the various NASA centers or a NASA event booth, public/elected officials, or educators hoping to get their younger students interested in science or engineering through space-related content. The content is still technical, albeit simplified to match the educational level of the audience. This can include relating space technology to more familiar Earth analogues for comparison. I recall working with the education and outreach team on a fact sheet that was going to be distributed at several public events, including NASCAR races. So while I was digging up facts and comparisons between the Ares I rocket and, say, the horsepower of your standard Indy car, the graphic designers were putting together an image of an Ares flying down a racetrack straightaway.

Some engineers I know call this type of writing “dumbing down,” forgetting that they, too, were once in fourth grade and unable to do calculus or describe how turbopumps work. I don’t mind this type of writing at all, though I confess to being more effective with students age 18+. If what I write gets students interested in space or wanting to pursue science or engineering as a career, then I’ve done my job.

Other business writers

Into this category, I would lump folks like me who, when I worked full-time at a defense contractor or at Zero Point Frontiers, wrote marketing brochures, web content, press releases, executive sales correspondence, and other internal publications necessary to keep a business running. Some of these tasks require teaming up with a graphic designer and engineering experts; others require a frank discussion with a CEO asking for something very specific.

Engineering and scientific writers

You will notice that as I’ve gone further down the list, the level of involvement with the actual science or hardware increases. Engineering and scientific writers are, for the most part, actual engineers or scientists handling or building equipment or are sufficiently familiar with the technology that the scientists/engineers trust them to write down procedures for how the actual work gets done: exploring the universe, designing a telescope, building a rocket, or launching a spacecraft. At NASA, I helped write or edit several dozen of the internal operational plans that the agency needed to describe how they planned to design, develop, test, fly, and evaluate their launch vehicle. This could include the Systems Engineering Management Plan (SEMP), Concept of Operations (CONOPS), Payload User Guide (PUG), and other internal documents. This is as close to working on the hardware as an English major is likely to get, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s a real kick. Much of this work can be described as process or technical documentation.

Science writing is a slightly different category from writing technical (engineering) papers or documents, in that most of the engineering journals I’ve written for–aside from IEEE–are not peer-reviewed. Science paper writing (say, for Nature, perhaps the premier outlet for sharing scientific knowledge) is written by scientists for scientists, with the expectation that it will be reviewed, picked apart, and eventually replicated to confirm the results. I suppose the reason I put science writing in such a different category is because the engineering author knows what he or she is trying to accomplish at the outset of a project. Scientists go into things seeking the unknown. They have to provide data to back up their assertions about their discovery and a lot more background research to encompass every study that came before.

Science writing–whether you’re talking about life on Earth, conditions on Mars, or the potential existence of “dark matter” in deep space–is simultaneously more detailed and less certain than engineering paper writing. The authors are expected to use all of the proper nomenclature/terminology and the approved, scientific passive-voice style to demonstrate that they are, in fact, real scientists and know what they’re talking about. For me, science writing is the most challenging type of space writing because it requires that you be able to speak the language of science, which includes statistics (at a minimum) and often calculus and a few other forms of math. For the most part, even engineering writing that includes equations has been more comprehensible to me. Your experience could vary.

To sum up…

This entry attempts to capture the breadth and diversity of what it can mean to be a “space writer.” Again, the good news is that there are multiple options you can pursue. The bad news is, if you want to work on the hard stuff, you need to know more science, technology, engineering, or math than your average English lit major. If you’re eager to learn, though, the sky is no longer the limit.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in advocacy, careers, documentation, engineering, journalism, marketing, proposal writing, reader response, science, technical writing, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

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