Reader Response: What Kind of Reports Do You Write at NASA?

This week’s reader letter comes from Brittany, a student who had questions about the types of reports I’ve written for NASA, who I wrote them for, and what sorts of legal or ethical issues could be tied to those reports. There is no short version for that, except to say I wrote a lot of reports of varying flavors, and that the ethical/legal issues varied by the product and the audience. Read on to learn more.

I interspersed my answers within Brittany’s message, so that seems the best way to organize this post.

Mr. Leahy,

I have a report to prepare on how much and what kind of technical writing a specific job requires. Because I am a publishing and professional writing student and a space advocate, I’ve chosen to write about the technical writing of technical writers within NASA. If you could take some time out of your busy schedule to answer some of my questions, it would be greatly appreciated! My questions for you are as follows:
What types of reports and or manuals (if any) did you have to prepare while working as a tech writer for NASA?
When I worked at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), 2006-2012, I wrote a variety of conference papers, which were essentially status reports on the status of the Ares Launch Vehicles and (later) the Space Launch System. These reports covered different aspects of the vehicles, from specific elements such as first stage, upper stage, or boosters to the overall program or the test flight program. On occasion, I also contributed to or edited internal planning documents such as the Certification of Flight Readiness (COFR) or Systems Engineering Management Plan (SEMP). On rarer occasions, I wrote internal documents in response to Congressional or White House (Office of Science & Technology Policy/OSTP) inquiries about the progress of the program.
As a freelance writer (2014-present), I’ve written (as part of a group) or edited some internal planning documents for future exploration programs, such as the agency’s Mars exploration plans. Another project I worked on was a summary of technology development roadmaps, which are essentially NASA’s best attempt to describe what future technologies are available in space exploration or what sorts of tech they want to work toward building. Other work has been of an outreach nature, such as informing internal or external customers of another NASA center what sorts of progress or contributions their group has made.
Who were your target audiences?
These vary by product. Conference papers are usually for other engineers in the aerospace field (AIAA, JANNAF, International Astronautical Federation, etc.). Internal planning documents are meant for higher-up managers, who want to know how a program plans to manage/conduct a particular aspect of vehicle development, such as systems engineering, or approving a flight test. Intra-government reports would go to staff members of the legislative or executive branches wanting to understand how NASA was justifying a program decision or expenditure. Outreach products can go to internal audiences, such as other NASA centers unaware of what X center is doing or to external audiences, such as industry or academic institutions interested in partnering with the center or looking to use a particular technology.
Are there any legal or ethical issues you needed to be aware of when writing?
Most technical papers dealing with rocket propulsion and guidance are subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which are designed to prevent hostile nations from getting hold of information they could use to build missiles to attack us. Those papers go through a review by an export control officer to ensure that they aren’t revealing too much of NASA’s “secret sauce.” Those restrictions are loosened somewhat for papers delivered to conferences that require security clearances (JANNAF). Congressional or presidential inquiries can be treated as “sensitive but unclassified” (SBU). This happens if the questions relate to policy matters like, “Do we really want to continue funding X Program?” Sometimes I couldn’t share those responses with my employer because of the SBU rating, even when the content could affect job security–mine or hers.
In other situations, if I had to write an internal technical report and my employer was competing for a contract to build a piece of technology mentioned in the report, I’d have to “firewall” myself (avoid communicating with the manufacturing side of my employer about the report).
Even outreach products can be scrubbed for legal or other sensitivities. For example, a center might be in negotiations with a company to use their technology (or for the company to use a particular piece of NASA tech) but hasn’t concluded those negotiations yet, so any reference to that company might get scrubbed from a report.
And so goes the wild and crazy world of a NASA tech writer. Like many government organizations, NASA has its own lively share of forms to fill out and obey. To quote former MSFC Director Wernher von Braun, “We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.” But if you love it and you have a sense of mission, even the reports can be darned interesting to write.
Thanks for reading, Brittany!

About Bart Leahy

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