Technical Writing in Space

Updated 7/25/19, 11:18 a.m.

Following a discussion about future topics in space-related technical communication, I started to wonder about how tech comm is handled in space NOW. What followed was a fascinating discussion with a friend in the astronaut training business and some education for me (and now, you). Enjoy!

Tech Writing in SPAAAAACE!

The nice part about having a job in a niche field is that eventually you’re at most one degree of separation from someone who can answer a question. In this case, I got inputs from Marianne Dyson, one of the first women to work in Mission Control during the Shuttle era, and Eryn Beisner, a contractor at KBR, currently training NASA astronauts for zero-gravity tasks in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas.

As you might expect, most of the documentation/work instructions are written and produced for the crews back on Earth. Marianne explained how things operated early in the Space Shuttle era:

My experience was back in the dark ages (1970s/1980s) when all procedures were created by flight controllers and tested in system trainers, then simulators, then what we called integrated simulations with the crew and flight control team. Every procedure had to be tested and verified and pass through a control board for approval before publication–on paper–in what we called the Flight Data File. When I passed through Mission Control just prior to the last shuttle flight, I noted that the procedures I had written for the Loss of 2 Freon Loops (thankfully never needed!) were almost exactly the same as when they were published for the first flight back in 1981. But even back then, the crew sometimes had to make realtime changes to checklists–but they never wrote their own procedures without checking with Mission Control. The International Space Station (ISS) is very different in that way!

Eryn explained how things work in the ISS era:

“Commonly used procedures are published electronically ahead of time and stored in a library that that astronauts can access with their computers, onboard the Station. For unique or sudden cases, a special procedure will be created here on the ground and sent to the crew via a message system. It can be a Word file or PDF typically.

“The owner of the hardware or activity is responsible for creating the instructions and getting them onboard the station computer.”

Eryn also amplified Marianne’s point about how procedures are written:

Crew don’t write their own procedures, just for clarificationIt’s still done pretty much how Marianne described. We don’t have to go through a board now, but most of what she said is still accurate. It also highly depends on what the activity is and how many systems it requires.

One thing I was curious about was whether technical writing was actually done in space. The example I gave Eryn was, “Say there’s a new piece of hardware or a procedure on the ISS that isn’t covered by the materials they received or have on hand after arriving…Do the astronauts ever have to write up stuff of their own? Do they use pen/pencil paper/hard copy?”

And the answer was…

“They have access to pen, paper, printers, and iPads so whatever medium they like, they can choose.”

So yes, Heroic Readers, technical writing IS being done in space…and the astronauts are doing it!

Portability and Usability for Space Tech Comm

One method of technical communication I remember from the Apollo program were flight manuals and plans (they used the cover of one as part the mechanism for fixing the carbon dioxide filter in the Lunar Module in Apollo 13). These were three-ring binders no different from what you can find on any office today.

The astronauts also had wrist-mounted instruction book to keep them on track for their tasks on the lunar surface. I asked Eryn about whether NASA still used them and how they set them up so astronauts could turn the pages while wearing thick, pressurized gloves. Quoth Eryn:

“Yes for EVA [Extravehicular Activity] they have the Cuff Checklist, which is a little booklet with instructions for how to respond to various cautions and warnings from the computer in the EMU [Extravehicular Mobility Unit, a.k.a., the spacesuit]. The pages are thick plastic, which the crew can easily swipe with their gloved finger to turn the page.”

And now you know what I know. Thanks, Eryn!

The Future of Tech Comm in Space

What spurred my questions about space-related technical documentation was a Facebook discussion started by my former thesis advisor, who was seeking special topics for her undergraduate students on future tech comm issues. I, of course, brought up space (I’ll share the rest of those thoughts in another post).

To conclude this topic, however, future astronauts–NASA, international, or commercial–are likely to use the aforementioned mix of electronic and analog materials produced on Earth for much of the near future. The astronauts on the International Space Station write content as needed as (I’m guessing) a very small part of their busy schedules.

So what if you’ve got it in your mind to write documentation for NASA people in space or as one of them yourself? Eryn says there’s a group in Houston that handles content called the Systems Onboard Data File (SODF). Otherwise, you can try to become a NASA astronaut and hope you get the chance to write some work instructions on your mission.

In the long term, as human beings start building permanent homes beyond Earth, some of those habitats could be developed by private companies with broader, less stringent requirements for their personnel…especially as the population grows and can afford to become more specialized. However, as with space companies here on Earth now, they’re going to be hiring and sending up engineers and scientists first. That means, if you want to be a writer in space, you’re going to need to be educated about space.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to be a writer in space. It just might be a different path than you planned.

About Bart Leahy

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