Technical Writing Paths to and from NASA

One of the most common questions I get from Heroic Technical Writing readers is: “How do I get a job at NASA?” Mind you, I’ve written a few articles talking about the space writing biz outside of NASA as well, but NASA is still the center of many U.S. space activities. Today I’ll be reviewing some of the paths that my tech writing peers and I took to work on the Ares Projects (2005-2010) and where we ended up after that. While some folks might find it surprising, there is life after NASA as well. (Fair warning: this post is longer than most.)

The NASA Tech Writing Environment

In 2004, in response to the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, the (George W.) Bush Administration proposed a follow-on program that would give NASA’s human spaceflight program a new focus. Eventually called the Constellation Program, the goal was to develop rockets, spacecraft, and other systems to send human beings to the “Moon, Mars, and Beyond.” The Ares Projects, based at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, were responsible for designing, developing, building, and testing the launch vehicles that would put the hardware into space. The technical writers supported the project (management) office for Ares, writing a variety of outputs for the managers, include education and outreach materials (e.g., brochures); conference papers w/PowerPoint presentations; speeches; and “other duties as assigned.”

The Ares Projects got as far as one test flight before undergoing a review by a group of experts commissioned by President Obama. The committee suggested (more or less) that the program would not achieve its intended milestones unless it was given more money. Neither the President nor Congress was interested in spending the money the committee said would be needed, and so the program was mostly shut down. Congress insisted that two elements of Constellation be preserved: the human-rated Orion spacecraft and the heavy-lift launch vehicle, now known as the Space Launch System (SLS).

Tech Writing Paths to and from the Ares Projects

What inspired this post was something a manager said to me in 2011: “You’re, at most, five years away from getting out of content generation and into management.” She was both right and wrong. I spent a year as a communications “manager” with no one reporting to me. Then went back to freelance writing and generating content, where I’ve been happiest and most comfortable. However, I thought it would be useful to share some of the other paths that others in my NASA peer group have taken. For the sake of their privacy, I’ve given fictional names to these tech writing pros (except for me), but their stories are real.

Donna

“In the scheme of things, it really was just another writing/editorial gig for me. I learned new stuff, did the work, got a paycheck and moved on, which (tech or no) is pretty typical for folks in editorial/publishing/media careers.” Donna has since gone back to freelancing, though not particularly in the space business.

Joe

Joe was already a technical writer at NASA when I started there, supporting MSFC overall. When we were peers on the same contract, he wrote conference papers for the Ares managers, though he also wrote the quarterly video updates that the project put out to keep the public up to date on our progress. After I left, Joe found himself promoted to managing other writers within NASA.

“Since transitioning to management, my technical writing has been limited, but it’s still a function I’m called on to perform. Most often, this is in an oversight/quality control editing capacity, but I have also written white papers and strategic communications plans, and while managing a team of communicators I was also responsible for development of all the Center’s collateral material (though that often involved other writers, rather than all the writing falling to me).

“In my most recent role (managing a different team since the last quarter of 2019), my duties have mostly been in developing communications strategy for the Center, aligning our messages and ‘brand’ with Agency priorities. I still perform a fair amount of editorial quality control over my staff of writers and researchers, but creation of original content is probably no more than a quarter to a third of my time.

“Having been in management a relatively short time (5 years), discussions about the ‘next step’ of my career path have been fairly abstract. If I remain in the government contracting world, the only obvious step from here is program management over an entire contract staff, which might or might not even involve communications work – it would be a transition fully into ‘project management,’ for which I studied and received my PMP certification in 2018. If I were to leave my current industry, it would likely be for business development/proposal writing, consulting, and management, which would put me more back in the content creation mode than I have been.”

Mike

Each element of the Ares Launch Vehicles had its own manager, so those managers were, in effect, our customers. I had as many as six at one time, which was a bit stressful when all six wanted conference papers written for the same event. I was glad when Mike came on board because it took some of the stress off my plate. He supported managers I did not. He described his path to NASA writing this way:

“Journalism grad. About 14ish years in newspapers, including 10-11ish as a newspaper science/space reporter. 2-3 years as NASA contractor public affairs writer. Back to newspapers for 1-2 years. Then technical writer for a NASA contractor supporting various projects and center staff.”

Unlike me, Mike has stayed on with NASA. When we all got dispersed  in 2010, he found himself writing speeches for the Marshall Space Flight Center executive offices. Eventually, as the new program for the heavy-lift launch vehicle ramped up, he started supporting the SLS office, where he’s working today.

Me

You can find most of my how-I-got-to-NASA story on the “Writing for NASA” tab of this blog (see above), but the short version is this:

  • Long-time science fiction and space fan.
  • Got into space advocacy in my late 20s.
  • Went back to school, eventually getting a master’s degree in tech writing to prove I could “speak tech.”
  • Wrote and performed other activities as a private space advocate while writing for Disney and then a defense contractor until I applied and interviewed for a job at Marshall.

I left direct NASA contracting when my friend Jason hired me to be Chief of Communications at his engineering firm in downtown Huntsville. I spent a year there, doing all things related to communications (proposals, public relations, and engineering documents) until getting downsized by a government shutdown, which squeezed most of the money out of the company. I’ve been freelance tech writing since early 2014, taking on jobs ranging from instructional design for the healthcare and automotive industries to writing reports, engineering documents, and proposals for a variety of space-related companies.

The Moral of the Story

The bottom line is that there’s no single path to get where you want to go, and just because you end up where you want to be, that doesn’t mean you’ll stay there. Life is dynamic. Your path can and will change as well.

About Bart Leahy

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