The U.S. space agency has a language all its own. NASA uses so many acronyms that the agency issues a book to its employees to keep track of them. And even when NASA uses ordinary words, they’re often imbued with special meaning, generally designed to take the edge off graphic situations. “When you’re inside,” says one NASA spokesman, “it’s not a problem understanding what we’re talking about.” It’s the rest of us who need some help. Here are our translations of NASA’s favorite lingo.

anom • a • ly n: a malfunction, sometimes serious

USED IN A SENTENCE: “Shortly thereafter, the X-43A began to experience a control anomaly characterized by a roll oscillation.” (Press release, “NASA Mishap Board Identifies Cause of
X-43A Failure,” dated July 23, 2003)

WHY NASA USES IT: “Anomaly” turns catastrophes into irregularities.

con • tin • gen • cy n: a type of problem that may turn out to be a mishap (see below), and for which a response can be planned in advance

USED IN A SENTENCE: “A Space Shuttle contingency has been declared in Mission Control, Houston, as a result of the loss of communication with the Space Shuttle Columbia at approximately 9 a.m. EST Saturday.” (Public statement, issued 12:10 p.m. EST on February 1, 2003)

WHY NASA USES IT: A “contingency” is an emergency but without all the negative connotations.

mis • hap n: an accident or catastrophe, such as a space shuttle breaking apart

USED IN A SENTENCE: “In the case of a high-visibility, mission-related Shuttle mishap, the NASA Administrator may activate an International Space Station and Space Shuttle Mishap Interagency Investigation Board.” (Columbia Accident Investigation Board Charter, dated February 1, 2003)

WHY NASA USES IT: “Mishap” is blame-neutral, suggesting bad luck rather than error. “We just don’t use the term ?accident,'” says a NASA spokesperson. “I guess it’s really not in our vocabulary.” Not when they have so many other words for it.

nom • i • nal adj: proceeding according to plan

USED IN A SENTENCE: “Telemetry from the Genesis spacecraft indicates that all spacecraft subsystems are reporting nominal operation.” (Genesis
Mission Status Update, posted
November 26, 2003)

WHY NASA USES IT: “Nominal” sounds so much more scientific than “normal.” Or, as one spokesperson
explains: “It’s spacetalk.”

re-plan n: a new plan or program timetable, often resulting in increased costs, usually issued when NASA falls behind schedule

USED IN A SENTENCE: “The change order implements a re-plan to the JWST program to accommodate the planned launch date of August 2011, which was announced earlier this year.” (Press release, “NASA Issues Modification to James Webb Space Telescope Contract,” dated September 3, 2003)

WHY NASA USES IT: “Re-plan” sounds as if the agency is making a plan, rather than breaking one.

var • i • a • bil • i • ty n: small fluctuations rather than a long-term trend

USED IN A SENTENCE: “NASA officials will join Department of Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to unveil the Administration’s strategic plan on long-term global climate variability and change at a press conference tomorrow.” (Press release, “NASA Joins Partners to Unveil Climate Change Initiative,” dated July 23, 2003)

WHY NASA USES IT: “Variability” suggests a process that is natural, reversible and not out of control. The climate may be changing, but that doesn’t mean we have to.