Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the category “What If Your Story Isn’t Set on Earth?”

International Space Station (ISS) Reference Guide

International Space Station (ISS) Reference Guide – http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/508318main_ISS_ref_guide_nov2010.pdf

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Where can I find the treadmill on the International Space Station?
  • What are the scematics of the water recovery system for the International Space Station?
  • What are the specifications of the Japan Experiment Module Kibo?
  • What is the Mobile Servicing System and what does it do?
  • How is the ISS protected for meteors and space debris?


This guide appears to be a fairly complete guide to a writer who is envisioning creating a small orbital outpost. The guide is a 50MB PDF file containing 140 pages of materials.

Oriented to the general public, it is divided into the following chapters:

  • What it does – Describes the goals of the Station.
  • Research guide – Explains the main research areas of the station and what equipment is used for it.
  • How it’s put together – Specifications of the various modules that make up the International Space Station.
  • How it’s supported – Overview of the nations supporting the ISS, followed by specifications of supply vessels for the station.
  • How the crew lives – Includes photos of sleep, exercise and work. Covers basic health care issues. The photos are keyed to the corresponding sections of the station.
  • How it works – An explanation of the systems that run the station along with specifications for space suits and manipulator arms.
  • How it’s built – Shows an expanded/exploded view of ISS elements along with an illustrated chronology of construction.
  • Missions – Personnel and dates of mission for the first 24 expedition crews, along with information about shuttle, Soyuz and unmanned missions to the ISS.
  • Appendix – Resource guide for further reading, an acronym list related to space station operations and a short glossary.

International Space Station (ISS) home page

International Space Station (ISS) home page – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • How does the energy expenditure of reaching Earth orbit compare to that of reaching the surface of Mars?
  • What would a Earth space station astronaut see outside their window?
  • What is the habitable volume of the International Space Station?


The International Space Station has two advantages for writers of outer space stories. It’s an ongoing mission, so there is lots of information about its workings and tasks being done by the various expedition teams. The other advantage is that they have a video archive at http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?collection_id=14555. There is also a live video feed at http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/iss_ustream.html which sometimes shows the view of earth from the Station. Writers wanting to depict weightlessness in a realistic way or to show what crewmembers see out their window just have to point their browser to the archive and start watching.

A note about combining different items to inform yourself. Start up the live video feed. If you see Earth in the window, open a new browser window, load up the ISS home page and then click on “station tracker.” This will launch a java app that will show a zoomable world map. Crank it up to its highest magnification and your map view ought to approximate what is going by the Space Station window. Now you’re oriented.

The web site for the ISS is broken up into into a number of sections:

  • Research & Technology
  • Crew & Expeditions
  • International Cooperation
  • Living & Working
  • Building & Assembly
  • Ground Facilities
  • Images & Videos
  • Facts & Figures
  • News & Media Resources

It may be helpful to comb through the news archives under “Crew & Expeditions.” While it is mostly mission news, there are some really helpful science bits, like Tyranny of the Rocket Equation by Expedition 30/31 Flight Engineer Don Pettit. This article gives a plain English overview of the limits of where rockets can take human beings and specifications about the correct proportions of fuel to payloads.

Planetary Protection (Alien biohazards)

Planetary Protection – http://planetaryprotection.nasa.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • How were the Apollo astronauts quarantined?
  • What solar system bodies are deemed worthy of protection by NASA?
  • What measures were taken with Mars Global Surveyor to avoid contamination of Mars?


With the motto, “All of the planets, all of the time”, this site is devoted to educating scientists and the general public on the measures that NASA takes to ensure that Earth life (humans aside) stays on Earth and that any potential biological organisms in the Solar System are not accidentally unleashed on the Earth ala The Andromeda Strain.

The site is divided into the following sections:

About Planetary Protection – General discussion about what Planetary Protection is and why it is considered necessary for both Earth and possible homes of life. Not all solar system bodies are accorded the same level of protection. NASA’s Planetary Protection office places solar system bodies and space missions into one of five categories where Category I is a mission to a body deemed lifeless, such as the Moon or the Sun and Category V is a probe returning a sample to Earth from a body deemed at least somewhat capable of sustaining life (i.e. soil samples from Mars.) Descriptions of all five categories can be found at http://planetaryprotection.nasa.gov/about-categories.

Solar System Bodies – A brief section describing which bodies fall under which categories of protection.

Solar System Missions – This section lists past, current and future solar system missions which were considered subject to Planetary Protection protocols. The short article on the failed Mars Climate Orbiter indicates a small possibility of contamination of Mars by the Orbiter’s crash onto the Red Planet.

Methods – This page describes how sterile conditions for space probes subject to Planetary Protection protocols are created, current sterilization and life detection methods. According to the page, while research into new methods of assigning biological risk are being developed, current practice uses what was developed in the 1975 decontamination of the Viking landers. This section could be useful for stories where characters are trying to avoid cross-contamination

Course – If you’re part of the scientific community, you can sign up for a class in planetary protection. Enrollment is limited and course materials do not appear to be online.

Documents – This one of the more information intensive portions of the site with links to numerous reports. Some that might be of interest to writers thinking about first contact or Andromeda Strain scenarios are:

  • A Draft Test Protocol for Detecting Possible Biohazards in Martian Samples Returned to Earth
  • NPD 7100.10E: Curation of Extraterrestrial Materials
  • The Planetary Quarantine Program: Origins and Achievements, 1956-1973
  • Chronology of Lunar and Planetary Exploration, 1957-present
  • Preventing the Forward Contamination of Europa
  • Evaluating the Biological Potential in Samples Returned From Planetary Satellites and Small Solar System Bodies

News of Interest – Various media articles from 1999 to present on the subject of Planetary Protection.

Links to More Information – Various links to materials on solar system bodies and astrobiology, including Astrobiology Magazine.

Glossary of Terms – A basic glossary related to Planetary Protection protocols. Definitions vary from a sentence to a paragraph.

Contacts – Allows you to contact NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer.


Astrobiology Bibliography

Astrobiology Bibliography – http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/hqlibrary/pathfinders/astro.htm

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What sorts of life bearing compounds are found in meteorites?
  • What can Martian meteorites tell us about life?


An overview of items related to the search for life on other worlds. The bibliography is broken up into the following sections: Policies, Books, E-Books, Articles and Reports, Internet Resources.

In the books section, remember that interlibrary loan is your friend. Take the entry as it appears on the bibliography to your local library and they ought to be able to help you.

In the articles and reports section, you’ll want to copy and paste the titles that appear in entries with a link to NTRS (NASA Technical Reports Server). The link merely takes you to the search screen for the server. Searching the title will usually bring up the report. Articles will also usually be available from your library through interlibrary loan.

Intriguing items from the bibliography include:

  • Berendzen, Richard. Life Beyond Earth and the Mind of Man: A Symposium. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Scientific and Technical Information Office, 1973.
  • Greenberg, Richard. Europa: The Ocean Moon: Search for an Alien Biosphere. Berlin: Springer-Verlag; Chichester, UK: Praxis Publishing, 2005.
  • Hoyle, Fred, and N.C. Wickramasinghe. Astronomical Origins of Life: Steps Towards Panspermia. Dordrecht; Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000.

Astrobiology (NASA)

Astrobiology (NASA)  – http://astrobiology.nasa.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What is the Galactic Habitable Zone?
  • What can earth glaciers tell us about life in outer space?
  • What are the lakes on Titan made of?


The website is divided into a number of sections. Sections that appear to be more useful for writers and the general public include:

About Astrobiology – A brief overview of what is meant by Astrobiology.

Astrobiology Roadmap – From the website,

The Roadmap addresses three basic questions: how does life begin and evolve, does life exist elsewhere in the universe, and what is the future of life on Earth and beyond? Seven Science Goals outline the following key domains of investigation: understanding the nature and distribution of habitable environments in the universe, exploring for habitable environments and life in our own Solar System, understanding the emergence of life, determining how early life on Earth interacted and evolved with its changing environment, understanding the evolutionary mechanisms and environmental limits of life, determining the principles that will shape life in the future, and recognizing signatures of life on other worlds and on early Earth.

The Roadmap was last updated in 2008 and is available as a 16 page PDF file. Previous roadmaps from 1998 and 2003 are also available.

Analysis Groups– Clicking on names of analysis groups will bring up a description of the group and work products, if any.

Current analysis groups include Outer Planets Assessment, Mars Exploration Program Analysis, Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis, Lunar Exploration Analysis, Venus Exploration Analysis, and Small Bodies Assesssment

Education and Outreach – A set of articles and multimedia aimed at students and the general public. At least one of the articles is focused on the use of story telling in science education. Other articles are about early earth or reflections on exoplanets.

Seminars and Workshops – Webcasts of lectures from the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Webcasts seem to last about an hour and are somewhat technical but can be followed along. Lectures during 2010/2011 included:

  • Hydrothermal Conditions and the Origin of Cellular life
  • ESA/NASA ExoMars/Trace Gas Orbiter: A Search for Extant Habitability and Habitancy
  • Anaerobic Thermophilic Lithoautotrophs: Life Without Light and Oxygen
  • Permafrost Astrobiology: Field Expedition to Terrestrial Analogues of Martian Habitats and Inhabitants

This section also links to webinar archives on astrobiology from other institutions.

Events – A listing of upcoming meetings and symposia. Some on exotic topics like Volvox (Volcano dwelling algae).

Directory – Directory of every astrobiology team member. Information varies. All staff records will have an e-mail address. Some may have listing of current projects and publications.

Article archives – Appears to be a reverse chronological, tagged listing of every item appearing on the website. Notable items that appeared in 2011 included:

  • Timeline of a Mass Extinction
  • Great Lake on Europa
  • In Search of Virus Fossils
  • Living in the Galactic Danger Zone
  • Jupiter’s “Grand Tack” Reshaped the Solar System

Ask an Astrobiologist – An archive of Q&As related to astrobiology, astronomy and science in general. Answers can be searched or browsed by newly answered  or popular. Questions will be answered in 2-3 weeks and you’ll get a link with the answer. Users are encouraged to search or browse for answers first. There are also many resources for debunking 2012 myths.

Some of these sections link to the component institutions of NASA Astrobiology – NASA Astrobiology Institute, Astrobiology Science & Technology for Exploring Planets, Astrobiology Science & Technology Instrument Development and Exobiology & Evolutionary Biology. This makes the navigation somewhat odd at times. Just click on the AB Home or “Astrobiology Home” to find your way back to the primary website.

Video Glossary from Lawrence Livermore Labs

Video Glossary from Lawrence Livermore Labs – http://videoglossary.lbl.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Where do extremophiles live?
  • What might a biologist look like?
  • What is cellular senescence?


If you are more of an auditory/visual learner, this site might be for you. Scientists from this National Laboratory spend a few minutes explaining particular terms. Sometimes there are visual aids, but most of the time it’s like a face to face chat. Or face to face short monologue. Some of the definitions available that might help a space based story be true to hard scifi are:

  • antimatter
  • artificial photosynthesis
  • cosmological inflation
  • dark energy
  • dark matter
  • extremophile
  • galactic emissions
  • gravity
  • gravitational lensing
  • measuring the universe
  • neutrino astronomy
  • plasma
  • quarks
  • solar cell
  • supernova

Aside from the benefit of the scientists’ knowledge is the opportunity to observe a scientist speaking on a subject of interest to them. See the variety of people who can be scientists and engineers. What do they look like? How do they dress? Notice anything special about their mannerisms or patterns of speech? Do they use stuff on their desk as props?

Imagine the Universe (NASA)

Imagine the Universe – http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What is an accretion disk?
  • What is Fermi acceleration?
  • When were the first X-Rays observation satellites?


This site is intended to provide astronomy and astrophysics information for people 14 years and older. It is provided by the Goddard Space Flight Center of NASA and focuses on high energy physics. Think stars, galaxies, black holes, quasars and related objects rather than planets, moons and comets.
The main reason I put this resource into the book is for its excellent dictionary section. If you’re not already well versed in astronomy, put down your pen and look up this section before writing the words light year, parsec, astronomical unit (AU), or black hole.

The other sections of this site are Science, Special Exhibit, Satellites and Data, Teacher’s Corner, Ask an Astrophysicist, and Resources.

Science – Collection of topical articles organized into: The Basics, Cosmic Objects, Cosmic Questions, and the Search for Answers. The last group of articles focuses on the tools that high energy astronomers and astrophysicists use in their work.

Special Exhibit – An in-depth treatment of a scientist, satellite and/or other topic. This area is also home to the Imagine the Universe Theatre Archive and the Featured Scientists Archive.

Satellites and Data – This tells the story of satellites used to detect high energy radiation (X-Ray, Gamma and Cosmic) and has a section on how the data is processed into useful information and new discoveries. Information on particular satellites goes back to the 1960s.

Teacher’s Corner – Lesson plans, PowerPoints and other resources that would be useful to orienting yourself on particular topics. The PowerPoint “Life Cycles of the Stars” would be helpful to run through if your story involves Red Giants or Supernovae.

Ask an Astrophysicist – This section has two pieces – an archive of questions arranged by topic and a form to ask a question. The scientists behind this section are a small group of volunteers, so they really, really want you to browse or search the archive for an answer before submitting a question. Members of the general public can send one question per email and no more than one question per week. It usually takes a week or two to answer a question, so this isn’t instant gratification.

Topics in the archive include binary star systems, dark matter and dark energy, exoplanets, Milky Way and other galaxies, relativity and Supernovae and their remnants. One Q&A with implications for writers is “Is there a possibility that a nearby star could go supernova and destroy the earth? Or have other bad effects on us?”

Resources – Links to outside resources on most of the topics covered in Imagine the Universe.

Glossary of Astrophysics Terms

Glossary of Astrophysics Terms – http://web.archive.org/web/20150321110136/http://ie.lbl.gov/education/glossary/glossaryfa.htm

Note: Seems to have dropped off the live web soon after March 2015.

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What is helium burning?
  • Why are there more protons in the universe than neutrons?
  • How is nuclear fusion different in stars heavier than the Sun?


Definition of astrophysics terms slanted towards high energy research. Contains links to animations and additional background materials.

Cosmicopia: An abundance of cosmic rays

Cosmicopia: An abundance of cosmic rays – http://helios.gsfc.nasa.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What is an isotope?
  • What are galactic cosmic rays?
  • What’s the effect of cosmic rays on eyesight?
  • What are the 10 most abundant elements in cosmic rays?


From the website:

“Cosmicopia contains an abundance (a cornucopia, if you will) of information about cosmic rays, the Earth’s magnetosphere, the Sun, space weather, and other exciting topics in space science. Brought to you by the ACE mission and the cosmic ray group at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, this site is aimed at the general public and intended to be accessible to interested readers without a background in this area of science.”

The site is part tutorial and part links to other resources. It is broken up into four sections: Basics, Cosmic Rays, Sun and Space Weather. The Cosmic Rays section includes a FAQ page.

Story and Scene Ideas

Writers need to know about cosmic rays, the magnetosphere and space weather if they send characters into space for any extended period of time using 21st Century technology. If your character is in an unshielded ship headed to Mars when a solar storm breaks, he will die. Add some shielding or explain how your character has been genetically altered to resist radiation. Same goes for when she and her companions are exploring Mars. One the first tasks should be to find or create shelter.

Knowing about space weather can help add spice to stories on earth too. A strong enough Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) could potentially bring down power grids and scramble satellite communications if the proper precautions are not taken.

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