The Pioneer Gold Plaque: Just Another Flawed User Manual

Pioneer_plaque_reducedWe all want to do quality work, right? Give me another hour, Boss, let me speak to the SMEs again. I’ve almost got it right where I want it. But all too often, the powers-that-be press the Publish button, and what’s done is done. If you want to know all the ways in which our reach exceeds our grasp, nothing brings the message home quite like a textless graphic on an interstellar probe.

What can we learn about user manuals from this most famous of gold plaques? My goodness, what can’t we learn? Starting with…

Rushed deadlines: When Carl Sagan and Frank Drake designed the plaque for the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 missions over 40 years ago, NASA gave them only three weeks to finish the job. As usual, the more important the project, the less time management will give you to create the documentation. If you’re not ready in time, that’s tough, because no one holds up a product launch just to complete the technical writing. Especially when the product launch is at the top of an Atlas-Centaur rocket that creates over 10 tons of thrust at launch. Talk about a rushed deadline! This can lead to all sorts of mistakes, like…

Obsolete content: Well, technically, it wasn’t obsolete when it was authored. But go ahead and count the planets at the bottom of the plaque. Yes, I know, Pioneer was launched decades before Pluto was downgraded. But unlike the traditional paper-based manual, that gold plaque will retain its obsolete content for thousands of years. And the only thing worse than obsolete content is…

A missing line: This is a classic error, especially with print documentation. Blame it on the printer, blame it on Microsoft Word—whatever you do they’ll blame it on you. The fact remains that there’s a crucial short line that’s missing from the Pioneer plaque. Did you spot it yet? That’s right, there’s a short line that indicates the rings of Saturn, but no equivalent line for the rings of Uranus, discovered only five years after Pioneer launched. Then there’s the short line missing for the rings of Jupiter, and another for the rings of Neptune… What’s that? Oh, that missing short line. Well, that one’s because of the…

Misunderstood project manager: Sagan admitted later on that the female figure was left anatomically incomplete because he misunderstood how NASA would react: “In retrospect, we may have judged NASA’s scientific-political hierarchy as more puritanical than it is.” This error is nothing like traditional technical writing, because with the Pioneer plaque omission, most people blame the project manager (NASA). In the real world, when the project manager is misunderstood, most people blame the tech writer.

Unknown target audience: Here’s another reminder of our line of work. How many times have you written something without knowing enough about the person on the other end? When Sagan and Drake were drafting the Pioneer plaque, all they knew about the person on the other end was: It’s not a person. But whether it’s a person, a little green man, or the Borg, there’s one thing that makes the Pioneer gold plaque the quintessential piece of technical writing:

In all likelihood, no one’s ever gonna read it.

Dan Goldstein

Dan Goldstein was born and raised in Ithaca, New York, known to its denizens as “ten square miles surrounded by reality.” In tenth grade, Sylvia Mintz taught him everything he knows about writing. Years later (thirtieth grade, approximately), Neil Churgin taught him everything he knows about technical writing. Since 2002, Dan has specialized in Regulatory Affairs and Quality Assurance for medical devices, which is actually a lot of fun.

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