Visionary Writing, Compliance Writing, and the Space Business

Over the course of my space career (as a citizen advocate since 1997 and as a professional since 2003), I’ve had the privilege of writing and editing many different kinds of documents, some more interesting than others, but all part of the space writing ecosphere, if there is such a thing. Today, I thought I’d share some of the documents you might encounter as a “space writer.”

Citizen Advocacy

A lot of what citizen advocacy groups like the National Space Society (NSS), Space Frontier Foundation (SFF), or The Planetary Society do is educate the public about particular aspects of space activity and then advocate a particular point of view, ideally without advocating for particular players in private industry. The 501(c)(3) non-profit tax status of such organizations is tied to advocating that sort of view without performing direct lobbying of elected officials.

Position Papers

Many non-profit citizen advocacy groups publish position papers regarding aspects of their particular topic of interest. These papers are then put distributed via magazines or websites or put into the hands of legislative staff members (a.k.a., “staffers”) via citizen lobbying campaigns, where advocacy group members make appointments to speak with staffers or sometimes even a Senator or member of Congress about their issues of concern.

Position papers often include an abstract on the first page that summarizes the group’s point of view, then a longer version after that, maybe 5-10 pages long. Examples of documents I contributed to can be found here and here.

In my view, such papers combine technical writing (discussing a technical topic), politics (arguing for a specific position within a political process), and marketing (using messages that appeal to a targeted audience). You don’t want to lie or shade the truth when you write such papers; instead, you do want to argue honestly for your position using what logical and ethical arguments make the most sense in your given situation.

Popular Articles and Opinion Editorials (Op-Eds)

Occasionally high-profile members of an advocacy group, such as a group’s executive director or chairperson of the board will submit or get invited to write an article in a more mainstream publication, such as a newspaper or general-interest magazine regarding the group’s views on a topic.

Articles are more fact-based, explaining how a specific technology works, in an effort to educate the public about it. Opinion editorials or “op-eds” are more explicit in advocating for a particular point of view, such as calling for Congress or the President to support or not support a specific program or technological development.

In both types of articles, you are likely to work as part of a team, incorporating inputs from multiple sources (including your own, if you’re lucky) from the person whose name will go on the submittal or the members of a dedicated policy committee. Again, factual articles are more straightforward in their presentation because you’re doing what you can to interest the public about a new technology or warning them about the dangers of another, purposely or through misuse. You want to engage the reader, but you’re not making any direct calls to action. An op-ed will call on voters or their elected officials to take a specific action for or against a given proposal.


“Visionary,” Forward-Looking Statements, and Marketing

As more and more private companies form to create new space-related products and services, each of them must make some effort to set themselves apart from their competitors. Just as a starting point, you can look at how the three best-known billionaire-funded space companies–Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic–describe themselves:

“Blue Origin was founded with a vision of millions of people living and working in space for the benefit of Earth. Blue Origin envisions a time when people can tap into the limitless resources of space and enable the movement of damaging industries into space to preserve Earth, humanity’s blue origin.”

“SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft”

“[Virgin Galactic is] the world’s first commercial spaceline, and our purpose is to connect people across the globe to the love, wonder and awe created by space travel.”

Obviously you only have to write that sort of statement once, but even creating those simple “vision” or “mission” statements can take a while, as you work with the founder(s) to explain the company’s goal(s) clearly and elegantly. Every statement by the company, from speeches by the CEO to marketing collateral to “forward-looking” statements to stockholders or internal team members, will be driven by that primary articulation of the company’s philosophy. In short, they shape the attitude, language, and culture of the company.

Technical Documentation

In the space industry, documentation is used most often to help technicians manufacture, assemble, test, operate, or repair a particular piece of hardware or software. This work is often written by practicing engineers or other technically oriented people who have hands-on experience with the product in question. It’s not the prettiest writing, but it gets the point across and helps get work done. As a writing guy (born English major), I usually don’t get jobs like this because the organization looking to hire a documentation writer wants someone who can do the work. That, my friends, is not me.

Compliance Documents

The bulk of technical writing that I’ve done for the space business consists of compliance documents. These are plans demonstrating to the launch authorities–NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the U.S. Space Force, just to name three–that your vehicle and the processes used to make it are safe for people and property. NASA, for instance, has a long list of documents that guide the building and operating of launch vehicles (rockets) and spacecraft (satellites, human-crewed vehicles, and other payloads).

Some of the documents a launch vehicle provider–anyone from United Launch Alliance to SpaceX to Rocket Lab–has to provide to answer the challenge of government paperwork:

Mission Assurance Implementation Plan (MAIP)
Systems Engineering Management Plan (SEMP)
Missile System Prelaunch Safety Package (MSPSP)
Software Safety Analysis
EEE Parts Control Plan
Material and Processes (M&P) Selection, Control, and Implementation Plan
Concept of Operations (ConOps)
Mishap Preparedness & Contingency Plan
Parts Stress Analysis
Software Assurance Plan
Orbital Debris Assessment Report and End of Mission Plan

Why are there all these documents? If you’ve ever watched the movie The Right Stuff, you might recall a sequence where a bunch of rockets blow up. It wasn’t just embarrassing for the country, it was frustrating for the engineers and technicians building and (not) launching the rockets. What the folks at the (then) U.S. Air Force and NASA learned is that because space launch was so difficult and dangerous, everything had to be watched and executed carefully. A great history of this process can be found in The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European Space Programs, which explains how a lot of different quality control processes had to be put in place to ensure that our rockets wouldn’t blow up. A commonly quoted staying of German rocket guy Wernher von Braun at Marshall Space Flight Center was, “We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.” As a technical writer, your job is to make certain the engineers have their processes in order so that the rockets don’t go boom. It’s unlikely that your particular words will save a life, but they can still help someone from making a careless mistake.

So when people say, “You work for NASA? That must be so exciting!” I have to nod and say, “It depends on the day.” Some types of writing are more exciting than others, but they’re all necessary, and more often than not the engineers will turn to a writer and say, “Do something with this.” Go forth and do good things.

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About Bart Leahy

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