Archiving the Final Frontier: Preserving Space History for the Future

Zoë Jackson, May 2018

An artist’s rendering of the docking of the two spacecraft on the Apollo-Soyuz mission, 1973. NASA/Wikimedia CommonsIn July 1975, a NASA Apollo spacecraft linked up in space with a Soviet Soyuz capsule. With the spacecraft docked in place, an American astronaut shook hands with a Soviet cosmonaut, signaling an end to the space race between the two nations. To ensure that the trailblazing joint mission was captured accurately for the historical record, NASA contracted two historians, Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell, to record its development and results.

The two, as they described later, scoured the correspondence of participants and “stalked the halls of joint meetings in Houston with tape recorders in hand,” eventually producing a compelling narrative of the US-Soviet partnership. Such instantaneous access to sources and materials, however, is atypical in the field of space history and, in this case, was only made possible because of institutional support from NASA.

Space history is a thriving subfield within the history of technology. Studying the history of space programs and spaceflight, as historian Pamela E. Mack wrote in 1989, can provide valuable insights into “the interactions of government policy, public opinion, and scientific and technological progress[.]” Newer work in the field puts space history into conversation with cultural, social, and economic history. Yet research in space history is often hampered by large gaps in the archives—many relevant documents related to space programs were never officially archived due to neglect or to a lack of understanding of their worth. Now, with the emergence of New Space—the entry of private industry into the business of spaceflight—the field faces a new challenge: ensuring that future historians have access to archival materials representing the full range of both public and private actors in the field of spaceflight.

To answer this challenge, Gregory Good, director of the Center for History of Physics; Angelina Callahan, head of the US Naval Research Laboratory history office; and Jonathan Coopersmith, professor of history at Texas A&M University, organized “To Boldly Preserve: Archiving for the Next Half Century of Space Flight.” The conference was aimed at “identifying under-­represented historic actors (including New Space firms and groups of people)” and “demonstrating what records can be collected from contemporary practitioners.”

One scholar said there could be gaps in the archives so “profound” that historians don’t even know they exist.

Attendees included historians and archivists from NASA centers, archivists and curators from the National Air and Space Museum, directors of private museums and libraries, university archivists and librarians, and engineers. For two days in March, stakeholders discussed the work they and their institutions are doing to archive space history, offered suggestions about best archival and preservation practices, and brainstormed next steps. The conference was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and hosted by the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in College Park, Maryland.

Attendees discussed why certain people or stories were never recorded in archives. Holly McIntyre-DeWitt, archivist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, pointed out that many engineers working in space programs held on to their papers instead of donating them to archives because of the sense of legal and intellectual ownership they felt over them. Michael Robinson, professor of history at the University of Hartford, described his project researching Connecticut aerospace contractors and their significance to NASA achievements in the 1960s through the 1980s. The engineers designed and built crucial equipment like portable life support systems, but their stories were never recorded because they were contractors. It’s possible, attendees speculated, that these records are still stored in people’s attics, their existence long forgotten. In general, attendees noted, from the 1950s to the 1960s, a major period for space exploration, neither private companies nor the government had much concern for history. John D. Ruley, a freelance science, technology, and history writer and editor, noted that it’s possible that during these periods, there were no archivists preserving relevant records.

There’s also a dearth of underrepresented voices or perspectives in the archives and the historical record. Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program (2016), asked: “What’s not yet in the collections? What will be lost if it never gets there?” Erinn McComb (Del Mar Coll.) spoke about wanting to teach her students about the Cold War by focusing on Latinos as users of technology but found that little had been written on the subject. Tracy Grimm, the Barron Hilton Archivist for Flight and Space Exploration at Purdue University Libraries, explained that although institutional archives may be more stable than community archives, their commitment to “archival neutrality”—an approach that mandates objectivity in collection-building—can result in a paucity of minority representation and the preservation of the status quo.

One way to get to these voices and to recover important stories concerning the history of space is through oral histories. Robinson spoke of the need to conduct oral history interviews with engineers to capture their stories before they passed away. Reagan Grimsley, head of special collections and university archivist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, said that UAH collects oral histories to get the memories of minorities and women and to “illuminate factors other than the technical” in the history of space exploration. Grimsley noted that UAH collaborates with local individuals and community partners to preserve these interviews. Charles House, an engineer and chair of the Association for Computing Machinery History Committee, pushed for getting amateurs involved to help collect oral histories. Attendees also discussed using oral histories to engage engineers, managers, and other leaders in the field with space history.

In fact, a prevailing challenge facing historians and archivists is to get the leadership of government agencies, ­private space agencies, and other organizations to care about space history and archives. When the leaders don’t care, organizations face severe constraints regarding funding, staff, and storage to properly archive materials. Resources for historical work at the NASA Johnson Space Center, for example, have “dwindled,” according to Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, a historian who works at the center. Lack of resources, she said, has resulted in less staff time to deal with the thousands of digital records and images that the center is supposed to be cataloguing. NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, stated that he constantly has to justify the need for a chief archivist to his leadership.

Companies are thinking about the future and how to promote their products, not the past.

Presenters stressed the need to educate leadership and to emphasize the value of creating archives and hiring archivists. One way to get leaders on board, presenters noted, is to show how knowledge of the history of space exploration can be useful to companies and agencies because they can learn from what was successful or attempted in the past. When all else fails, use flattery to engage management, some attendees counseled.

Even when space agencies are willing to work with historians, there’s often a disconnect between their interests and historians’ objectives. Geoffrey Nunn of the Museum of Flight in Seattle spoke about his institution’s ded­ication to recording and educating visitors about the con­tributions of New Space agencies. Nunn ascribed the apparent disregard for preserving history to a lack of understanding of its significance. Companies are thinking about the future and how to promote their products, not the past. He described an engineering model on loan and displayed at the museum that a company recalled because it did not reflect its current direction.

In archives that have already committed to preserving materials related to the history of space exploration, scholars often face problems using or accessing records. Cameron Hunter, a PhD student at the University of Bristol, related a concern with overclassification that makes many sources unusable. Hunter described documents so redacted, it was impossible to glean any meaning from them. He argued that there could be gaps in the archives that are so “profound” that historians don’t even know they exist.

Difficulty with obsolete and digital formats is also a widespread problem for archivists and researchers alike. Other thorny issues include privacy, access, and copyright. Molly Stothert-Maurer, processing archivist at the University of Arizona Special Collections, noted that many documents they receive cannot be made available to all researchers as a result of regulations such as ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations)—some restrictions, for example, allow them to release materials only to US citizens.

Both days ended with brainstorming sessions about specific actions that could be taken to improve archival collections. A common refrain was the importance of establishing and maintaining standards for the preservation and description of physical and digital records. Attendees also stressed the need for members of the space community to get to know one another and to collaborate. Williams suggested developing a listing of each archive’s collection goals and ensuring that objects and records get to the most appropriate place. Grimsley quoted Donald Ritchie who, in Doing Oral History (1995), encouraged scholars to “think forward or get left behind.” In organizing and attending the conference, this community of space historians, archivists, and engineers took one small step toward ensuring that the field and its records would endure.

Zoë Jackson is editorial assistant at the AHA.

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