What Can Go Wrong? Let Me Count the Ways

Each industry has its own special challenges, from agriculture to zoology. And because human beings remain imperfect, the universe chaotic, and accidents inevitable, engineers have taken do developing plans for how to handle the situation when–not if–things go wrong. Below are some of the documents you might encounter if you’re a technical writer in the aerospace engineering or space science fields working with NASA.

Human Factors

NPR 1382.1A NASA Privacy Procedural Requirements – “The purpose of this document is to set forth the procedural requirements for safeguarding individual privacy through the protection of personally identifiable information (PII), regardless of format, which is collected, used, maintained, and disseminated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).”

What could go wrong: Unauthorized individuals could acquire and misuse personally identifiable information (PII) about NASA or contractor personnel. By complying with NPR 1382.1A, any NASA contractor is agreeing to take whatever steps are necessary to protect PII.

NPR 1660.1C NASA Counterintelligence and Counterterrorism – While the contents of this document are considered sensitive but unclassified (SBU), it’s not difficult to guess its purpose.

What could go wrong: An organization or individual not complying with this plan could enable serious bad actors to perform acts of espionage or terrorism on NASA personnel, hardware, or facilities.

NPD 1920.1 Scientific Integrity – “It is NASA’s policy that NASA’s workforce, as well as external entities who review proposals for or receive NASA funding to support research and development projects or who advise the Agency, maintain the highest standards of scientific and technical integrity in compliance with applicable Federal laws, Agency directives, and regulations. These standards include selecting the most meritorious NASA research and development activities through open and fair competition, peer review and other appropriate merit review processes, and avoidance of actual and perceived conflicts of interest; avoiding fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results; openly sharing results and methods not subject to classification or privacy standards; disclosing assumptions and biases in sharing and applying scientific information and data; and acting honestly and transparently in using and serving on advisory committees and in engaging in professional development activities.”

What could go wrong: Without a clear ethics policy (and accompanying enforcement mechanisms), individuals conducting research for the agency could take ethical shortcuts or outright lie in the process of performing an assumed investigation into scientific truth.

NPR 2800.1B Managing Information Technology – “By implementing IT procedures and requirements that are aligned with NASA`s Strategic Plan and integrated with its strategic management process, NASA seeks to make measurable improvements in mission performance, cost of program/project development and operations, and service delivery to the public through the strategic application of IT.”

What could go wrong: Without a solid IT plan, NASA or its contractors could be running outdated equipment, losing critical data, or lacking the staff needed to maintain the computer hardware that keeps the agency’s various technical and business operations functioning.

NPR 7123.1C NASA Systems Engineering Processes and Requirements – “This document establishes the NASA processes and requirements for implementation of Systems Engineering (SE) by programs/projects.  NASA SE is a logical systems approach performed by multidisciplinary teams to engineer and integrate NASA’s systems to ensure NASA products meet the customer’s needs.  Implementation of this systems approach will enhance NASA’s core engineering capabilities while improving safety, mission success, and affordability.  This systems approach is applied to all elements of a system (i.e., hardware, software, and human) and all hierarchical levels of a system over the complete program/project life cycle.”

What could go wrong: Engineers and scientists are alike in that they try to follow consistent processes, whether they’re developing experiments or building hardware. The reason is simple: quality control. If you use different processes for designing and building hardware, you run the risk of a multi-million-dollar rocket or spacecraft (satellite, crewed vehicle) failing catastrophically. Aside from the monetary risk, the chemicals required to launch things into and through space can kill people if they fail to operate properly. Engineering processes also include reviews and quality control procedures to ensure multiple people are being designed and built safely.

NPR 8580.1A Implementing the National Environmental Policy Act and Executive Order 12114 – “NASA is committed to environmental stewardship, sustainable design, and green engineering and therefore identifies and manages potential environmental impacts of its proposed actions. It is NASA’s policy to integrate environmental considerations early in planning and decision making.”

What could go wrong: If harm to the natural environment is not taken into account during the manufacturing, transportation, or launch of space hardware, human and other life could be harmed or killed.

Why All This Should Matter to You

There are dozens more NASA requirements covering everything from contamination control to discrimination in the workplace. As you find yourself encountering, reading, and absorbing the implications of these requirements, you can learn to internalize the “rules of the road” if you observe behavior or actions that are outside the norm. The goal here is not to make yourself the regulations cop. Think of yourself more as a programmatic conscience, that helpful officer who reminds Captain Kirk, “But Captain, the Prime Directive clearly states…”

About Bart Leahy

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