Archive for the 'NASA' Category

Technical Writers? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Technical Writers. Oh, Wait…..

Imagine: A quiet day at the office. Working away, on-target and on time, when suddenly the universe hurls a supermassive monkey wrench into your plans. All you can do is scramble to adapt. There’s no one there to help you. No one there to guide you. And it’s life or death because “your office” is… SPACE!


Sound like the plot of the latest Hollywood blockbuster? Well, it is. We can all relate to this situation from Gravity, the latest movie starring Sandra Bullock. We’re in the middle of an important task, we’re alone, and technical problems arise. What’s a user to do? We consult the manual!

Who writes this stuff, anyway?

User manuals are not generally known for ease of reading. No one I know takes them to the beach or on vacation as a pleasure read. And yet we have them. We have them because we need them. But who actually writes these manuals? In recent years, some in the technical communication industry have noticed a trend toward Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) as technical writers. A recent internet search for technical writing jobs reflects this trend. Requirements include “Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science/Engineering or a related technical discipline,” “Bachelor’s degree and five years work related experience or a Master’s degree and one year work related experience in a relevant technical discipline,” and “Bachelor’s degree (in related technical field) or equivalent, and zero to two years of related (technical writing and copy editing) experience.” It would seem the “writing” part of technical writing is taking a back seat to the technical aspect. While knowledge of the topic is certainly important, knowledge of writing, specifically the methods and theories of technical writing, cannot be overlooked.

In space, in the office, or at home (SPOILERS)

In Gravity, Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, who finds herself alone and faced with the need for knowledge of complex equipment. What does she do? All her other resources have been cut off – her communications with NASA have been lost and (SPOILER ALERT!) all the other astronauts are dead. So she gets out the manual, just like any user would do. And, voila! She’s alone no more. It’s as though she has a technical writer with her.


Dr. Stone’s best chance of getting back to Earth alive is to pilot a Russian Soyuz capsule from the International Space Station back into Earth’s atmosphere. Piece of cake, right? Sure, until that monkey wrench enters orbit. How about a ship that’s out of gas AND has a dashboard written in Russian (which she doesn’t read)? Luckily for Dr. Stone, there’s a manual in English. Assuming that manual is accurate, easy to follow, and well organized, she should be home free! (This is where we hope NASA hires good technical writers, or she’ll never make it home.) The craft of a technical writer – conveying the right information, and only the right information, when, where, and how the user needs it – is what she’s counting on now. Whether at home, at work, or in orbit, all users need accessible information that works for them in their specific situation – even a situation like Dr. Stone’s, that the technical writer probably never dreamed of.

User Needs — in Space and on Earth


Dr. Stone has a task she must complete; like most users, she dips in to the manual, finds the information she needs, and dips out again. Most do not read the entire manual. (Ron Byrne offers insight into why in the HCi Journal of Information Development.) Even though some users (like Dr. Stone) may have been trained on the product or a version thereof, situations arise where very specialized information is needed. Information that can take a user

from this   Image

to this       Image

or from this Image

to this        Image.

Who can best convey this information? I vote for trained technical writers. Chunking, relevance, consistency, and hierarchy – these are ideas that technical writers have thought about, are experienced with, and know how to execute. (More on these components of information mapping on the TechWriter Wiki and I’d Rather Be Writing.) Others have argued that technical writers are necessary for clarity and to reduce costs, to act as user advocates, and as usability experts. Add to that someone whose documentation can get me home in one piece – or just help me make the printer work – and it’s clear. Technical writers? Yes… we do need them.

– Mandy Hughes


All about Space X’s Dragon Capsule

The Dragon capsule, built by the company Space X, made history by completing the first private flight to the space station and back. Over at the Atlantic, the capsule and its flight are broken down by the numbers. For the more visually minded, check out the cool infographic below:

See inside SpaceX's private Dragon space capsule and Falcon 9 rockets in this infographic.
Source All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

Playing at Work by Heroic Technical Writing

Check out this great post from HeroicTechnicalWriting, a blog by NASA technical writer located right here in Huntsville. The post, Playing at Work, describes how play factors into the work of a technical writer:

Play can take many forms, but for me, it’s mostly a matter of rearranging ideas or words or combining them in unexpected ways. Part of the enjoyment for the writer is arranging words in just the right way to accomplish the end you want. Sometimes it’s like playing with words like blocks or Legos: the solution I’m searching for must be correct and elegant.

The post also argues that play allows technical writers to imagine the perspective of the user, kind of like “method acting for the writer”. It also offers some great comparisons between the work of technical writers and English majors. Give it a read, and check out the rest of the blog for more great insight!

Apollo 1 Infographic

Nasa recently released this infographic commemorating the Apollo 1 disaster. It’s an interesting example of risk rhetoric and the emotional impact that infographics can achieve:
Find out why the three Apollo 1 astronauts died in an accident on the ground, in this infographic.
Source: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

Behind the Scenes of the Kepler Telescope

With the recent announcement that the Kepler mission has confirmed another 26 new planets, it’s worth checking out this video that shows how the Kepler telescope and team do their work. The video offers some approachable explanations of Kepler’s technology and a great behind the scenes glimpse of a science team in action.


Curiosity Rover Set to Launch

NASA hopes to launch its newest Mars Rover, Curiosity, this morning if the weather stays clear over Florida. Curiosity, an SUV-sized rover equipped with a laser that can zap rocks to determine their chemical makeup, is NASA’s latest effort to determine if Mars ever offered a climate supporting life. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory offers a cool interactive graphic that allows users to explore the rover up close.

Two Planets Discovered Through Crowdsourcing

NASA frequently invites the public to engage in crowdsourcing data gathering efforts through projects like their Be a Martian game and their plan to give the public input on potential photo targets for High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment currently circling Mars. Now, there’s evidence that these crowdsourcing efforts are bearing fruit. NASA recently published a paper that two new planets have been identified through crowdsourcing effort “Planet Hunters” (you can read the announcement and the technical paper at the link, or get involved in Planet Hunters here). Well done, crowd!

Exciting Day for Star Wars Nerds

Starting today, we know that planets with two suns don’t just exist in George Lucas’ imagination. NASA announced today that the Kepler Telescope discovered a planet orbiting two stars. The NASA press releasepage also includes a great animated video of the planet, nicknamed Tatoonie, orbiting its stars.

Kepler Data Visualization and Data Fatigue

Earlier this year, the Cosmic Variance Blog at Discover Magazine posted this very cool visualization of planetary candidates discovered by the Kepler satellite. The image and video make these findings tangible and exciting. Months later, the blogger looks back on the visual when contemplating the overwhelming feeling of data fatigue he’s been experiencing. The post highlights one of the challenges faced by technical communicators: how to make things interesting and appealing at a time when people are drowning in information. The blogger writes: “We are being swamped by data in unprecedented forms and quantities, and it’s a crucially important task to sort it all out and understand how we can use it.” Great tech writing should help with this process of sorting out and using the nearly limitless amounts of data we have available.

Graphic Design Flashbacks

The AIGA Design archives hosts a cool archive of charts, diagrams, graphs, and maps that’s worth browsing.  They also uncovered a NASA graphics standards manual from 1975. This Flickr site offers photos of several pages for a more in-depth look.