From the AHA Activities column of the November 2013 issue of Perspectives on History
The AHA-NASA Aerospace History Fellowship
Andrew Simpson, November 2013
The AHA-NASA Fellowship totally changed the trajectory of my career," said Margaret Weitekamp, fellowship recipient for 1997–98. "It introduced me to scholars who are still my colleagues. It immersed me in the field of space history. And it put my research project on a different level, allowing it to be recognized by scholars nationwide." Weitekamp's experience is not unique among past fellowship recipients, several of whom credit the program with helping them gain entry to the growing field of aerospace history. Since 1986, the AHA-NASA Fellowship in Aerospace History has helped scholars at all stages of their careers by supporting a range of research and writing projects with the goal of promoting a better understanding of how public and private aerospace has reshaped the world, from the beginnings of human flight to the present.
Why Promote Aerospace History?
Before the mid-1980s, most aerospace histories tended to narrowly focus on technical development and celebrate, rather than critically examine, agency and industry actions. The turning point for the field was the incorporation of the methods of the New Social History and an understanding, as former NASA Chief Historian Sylvia (Fries) Kraemer has noted, that "the NASA story is about a great deal more than airplanes and spacecraft. It is about people, American culture, the research that goes on in our universities, and the structure and functioning of our largest organizations." To promote this broader understanding of the contours of the field, Kraemer turned to the American Historical Association, and then-executive director Samuel R. Gammon, to create a fellowship funded by NASA, but administered by the AHA, to promote the development of a new generation of aerospace historians.
Why Apply for the AHA-NASA Aerospace History Fellowship?
In a survey conducted in the summer of 2013, fellowship alumni were asked to describe how they felt this fellowship had benefited their careers. Respondents overwhelmingly cited the benefits of access to NASA collections at the agency's headquarters and field centers, and other repositories like the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Several fellows, including Marcia Holmes (2012—13) and Eric Schatzberg (1988—89), also noted that the six to nine months of support allowed them to gain experience in long-duration archival research early in their careers. Several other respondents noted that the fellowship's benefits extended beyond research, allowing them to complete manuscript chapters or peer-reviewed articles in leading journals.
Proximity to NASA's Program History Office, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, and the Department of Defense's various history programs was cited as important for encouraging interaction between AHA-NASA fellows and like-minded scholars working in the government or private sectors. As several fellows remarked, personal connections facilitated conference presentations and peer reviews for articles and manuscripts. For example, Hugh Slotten (1998–99) credits the connections he made as a AHA-NASA fellow with helping facilitate his later work with the Smithsonian Institution as the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History during 2010–11.
Who Are the AHA-NASA Aerospace History Fellows?
The fellowship competition is open to applicants with a doctoral degree or enrolled students in degree-granting programs in history or closely related fields who have completed all the required coursework for a doctorate. The decision to include professionals and graduate students from disciplines other than history has resulted in a diverse array of interdisciplinary scholarship covering areas such as aircraft technology and design, the global role of commercial aviation, new understandings of engineering and management theory, satellites and commercial broadcasting, the cultural history of airline flight attendants, and the interaction between NASA and universities around issues of science and technology.
Moreover, nearly all respondents noted the AHA-NASA Fellowship helped to prepare them for a range of different careers. While most have continued on an academic track, many have become federal historians, public policy specialists, or independent scholars. Especially important for those working beyond the academy was the experience in diverse and often highly technical collections, and the professional connections developed during their tenure. Several fellows have continued their contribution to NASA's historical efforts by serving as editors or authors for books in the NASA Historical Publication series.
NASA Chief Historian Bill Barry will lead a round table at the 2014 AHA Annual Meeting in Washington, DC about the fellowship. Panelists will discuss a range of issues including how the field has changed, the impact of the fellowship on their professional development; how the fellowship can alter scholarship in new and dynamic ways; and how the fellowship can help early career scholars position themselves in a difficult job market.
—Andrew Simpson is a visiting assistant professor of history at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During the summer of 2013 he was an intern in the NASA History Program Office.
Aerospace Fellows at the Annual Meeting
Aerospace History: Changes in the Field through the Eyes of AHA Aerospace History Fellows
Thursday, January 2, 2013, 1:00-3:00 p.m., Marriott Wardman Park, Virginia Suite C
Chairs: William P. Barry, NASA Chief Historian
Sylvia K. Kraemer, former NASA Chief Historian
Panel: Monique Laney, American University and AHA aerospace fellow, 2011
Hugh R. Slotten, University of Otago and AHA aerospace fellow, 1998
Margaret A. Weitekamp, Smithsonian Institution, and AHA aerospace fellow, 1997