Assaulting the English Language One Acronym at a Time

Throw this away; it will do you no good here.

When a person first goes through the gates of Johnson Space Center and begins his or her career in human spaceflight operations, he or she will enter the workplace with dreams of embarking on a grand adventure to advance humanity’s reach into the unfamiliar expanse of the cosmos.  That person will walk in the doors with a mixture of excitement and nervousness ready to make a difference.  Then, he or she will speak to their coworkers and out of their mouths will spew a stream of inscrutable letters and numbers that have some vague tie to the English language.

The first challenge that every new employee must overcome is learning to speak the language.  At this point, it’s cliché to say that NASA has its own language.  Except, this particular cliché is based in absolute fact and you have no idea the depth of the problem until you become immersed in the culture.  NASA is hardly unique when it comes to jargon, but we seem to take personal delight in developing new, obscure terminology, and then simplifying that term by turning it into an acronym.  On-board the International Space Station (ISS), we don’t have air conditioners; we have Common Cabin Air Assemblies (CCAA).  We don’t have a gas mask; we have a Portable Breathing Apparatus (PBA).  We don’t have computers; we have Multiplexer/De-multiplexers (MDMs).

We will make acronyms into words, such as the acronym for the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint (SARJ, pronounced Sarge) or the Station-to-Shuttle Power Transfer System (SSPTS, pronounces SPITS).  We have acronyms that stand for multiple things; LCA can stand for Lab Cradle Assembly, Loop Crossover Assembly, or the Load Control Assembly.  We have different acronyms for the same hardware; a laptop, identical in hardware, will either be called a Station Support Computer (SSC) or a Portable Computer System (PCS) depending on how the computer is used.

We don’t just use acronyms for hardware; we use them for facilities such as the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) or Space Station Training Facility (SSTF).  Inside the SVMF, you’ll find the Space Station Mockup Training Facility (SSMTF) and formerly the Shuttle Mockup Training Facility (SMTF) which you could reserve for use through the Operations Control Center (OCC).

We also use them for meetings such as the Flight Operations Integration Group (FOIG, pronounced either Foyg or Foe-ig depending on who you’re talking to).  We use them to identify organizations positions such as Visiting Vehicle Officers (VVOs) or Integrated System Engineers (ISEs, pronounced ice).  We use them for forms, files, and reports; be sure you know if you need to file an Anomaly Report (AR), Discrepancy Report (DR), Change Request (CR), or some other report.  Yes, someone even created TPS reports, though I don’t remember what it’s supposed to stand for.

I’m not sure if it was heartening or disheartening to learn that the love and overuse of acronyms in spaceflight was not limited to NASA.  Each international partner brings with them their own set of terminology.  Perhaps the most egregious example of our overuse of acronyms came with respect to cabin lighting.  We don’t have cabin lights; we have General Luminaire Assemblies (GLAs).  Those same pieces of equipment in the European Columbus module were called MLUs – Module Lighting Units.  Eventually, both sides reasonably agreed to use one term for those lights.

Despite our over-reliance on these word jumbles there is usually a method to the madness.  Every component has an official name or operations nomenclature (ops nom for short).  Once the ops nom is approved, that name is used consistently in every piece of documentation – reference manuals, training briefs, schematics, procedures, flight rules, etc. – so that everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about when you use that name.

In critical operations, it is important that there is no ambiguity when you are referring to a specific location or component.  In fire response, when an astronaut reports to mission control that the crew believes there is a fire in the LAB1D6 rack, everyone on the crew and on the ground knows exactly what they are talking about.  When the ISS computer system spits out a message that says the LAB1P6 CCAA has failed, everyone involved knows what that means in as few characters as possible.

To get to that level of understanding takes time and is the first obstacle that any new person must overcome.  There have been several noble attempts to compile references to help new people sort through all this terminology, though most lists are incomplete.  That’s why even our official system allows employees to make inputs and updates.  The use of acronyms is pervasive, though, and once accepted into the culture, people don’t often consciously realize when they are using them.  The meaning behind the acronym then becomes irrelevant, and the acronym is used as the name.  Plenty of people have forgotten the words or titles that acronyms stand for, even the ones they use on a daily basis.

To train people properly on these titles, we do exactly what I’ve done here.  Wherever possible, we relate the terms to the common, Earthly objects to which they refer.  With that, enough repetition, and immersion in the environment, you’ll be speaking NASA-ese in no time at all.  But, should you ever switch departments, projects, or programs, expect to have to learn a whole new set of terminology.

Despite the common acceptance of acronyms, we do recognize that they are overused.  When the Constellation Program was in its infancy, a recommendation was passed forward to call a light, a light or to call a pump, a pump.  Even though we can use complex terminology, it helps every person entering the organization if they don’t have to learn a new language when they walk in the door.

Although sometimes, acronyms are used because they are fun, such as when the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office was called C3PO.  But since we all have our inner (or outer) geeks here, we’ll always use acronyms like that.