Reader Response: English Majors in the Space Business, Revisited

A new reader, Nick, responded recently to one of my posts on English majors working for NASA. I keep adding to my advice as I get more questions and have more/new space-writing experiences, so I thought I’d add a bit more to the ongoing discussion…glad to know there are still folks like Nick out there.

First, here’s Nick’s message:

Hello! I’m a still pretty recent graduate from undergrad studies, with a Bachelor’s in English and a minor in Creative Writing. I’ve read through this post and the one from 2011 about writing for NASA, and I’m just curious what a yokel from Indy like me can do to begin moving down that path. I’ve considered a lot of different paths, everything from going back to school for science to going back to school to continue my writing path, but I was hoping someone with your experience would know more about that sort of thing. In your older post you mentioned getting a Master’s in Technical Writing, do you think that is a good way to get moving toward the sort of thing I’m getting at?

First, don’t sell yourself short as just a yokel from Indiana. I’m a suburbanite English major from Illinois, and I managed to find a life in the space business. I’ve got peers in the space biz who have majors in philosophy, journalism, or classics. Stranger things have happened.

Next, regarding paths…it occurred to me that I’d use this opportunity to share the various customers I’ve had, documents I’ve written or edited, and subject matters I’ve covered in the space industry to give you an idea of what sorts of jobs are possible.

Customers

Subject Matter/Topics

  • Launch vehicle/space propulsion
    • Solid rocket boosters
    • Liquid- propellant engines
    • Electric propulsion
    • Spacecraft/payload integration
  • History of the Apollo program
  • Program management
  • Systems engineering
  • Flight testing
  • Satellite-based weather/climate observation
  • Mars rover/lander science
  • Life elsewhere in the solar system
  • Human space exploration architectures
  • Astronauts
  • Presence of water on Europa
  • Military satellites/launches
  • Student launches/experiments/cubesats
  • International Space Station science
  • Commercial flight testing/launch vehicles/launches
  • NASA personnel announcements
  • Ground support equipment (GSE)
  • Space policy

Products

  • Conference papers
  • Speeches
  • Web articles
  • Social media posts
  • Engineering plans
  • News stories
  • Proposals
  • Outreach brochures
  • Space museum exhibit caption text
  • Explanatory text for NASA mission stickers
  • Mission concept of operations
  • Opinion editorials (op-eds)
  • Policy/position papers
  • White papers
  • Meeting minutes
  • Fact sheets/vehicle descriptions
  • Responses to legislative/executive branch queries
  • Executive correspondence

How This Affects Your Job Search

The above recitation, while not exhaustive, offers the space-interested English major some idea of the breadth of what it means to be a “space writer.” You need not be confined to writing press releases for NASA–though I know people who do. There are a lot of potential options.

While I did not do ALL of the tasks listed above for ALL of my customers, there was sufficient repetition for you to get the idea that the writing needs of space organizations are varied and often overlapping. Also, while you might not have experience with all of the contents possible in the space industry, if you’ve had to produce assignments for your university classes, odds are that you have experience writing some of the types of documents. In addition, I’d offer the following basics for space job hunting:

  • Learn the vocabulary. This includes learning about the basic systems and subsystems of launch vehicles, crewed spacecraft, satellites, science spacecraft/landers/rovers, telescopes, etc.
  • Find out which companies (or other organizations) are NASA contractors, then find out who’s hiring. Failing that, look for subcontractors.
  • Volunteer for or create your own chapter of a recognized space advocacy organization (Planetary Society, National Space Society (NSS), Mars Society, Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), Explore Mars, etc.).
  • Keep up to date on the industry. This means reading Space News, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, and some of the specialized space blogs covering whatever topic(s) interest you: NASA, commercial space, science, international space, International Space Station, astronomy, etc.
  • Get “smart” about the business and start blogging (or writing letters to your local paper) about it so you can show you “speak Geek.”
  • Read books on the history of space exploration, including U.S., Russia/Soviet Union, Europe, China, Japan, India, etc.; space advocacy books on the various potential human destinations: the Moon, Mars, asteroids, space settlements, etc.; astronomy, planetary science, solar science, and Earth science (as practiced from satellites); humans and the equipment used to keep them alive in space, and so forth. There are some fantastic books out there; I’ll post a more exhaustive list on Thursday.

Anyhow, those are the “big picture” pieces of advice I tend to offer. And I’ll conclude with this important task: figure out which parts of space interest you the most, then figure out who’s doing them and what they might need in the way of communications. And keep trying. The more you do and the more you learn, the more likely it is that someone will notice and want to put you to work. That’s been my experience, anyhow. Your mileage might vary.

 

About Bart Leahy

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