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ASK OCE — September 20, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 14


by Stephen J. Dick, NASA Chief Historian


In this special feature, NASA Chief Historian Steven J. Dick offers insights about the NASA History Division and the resources it offers.

The NASA History Division is almost as old as NASA itself, having been founded within a few months of NASA’s establishment on October 1, 1958. Administrator T. Keith Glennan was influenced by the provision of the National Aeronautics and Space Act that the agency “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.” Glennan realized that NASA was going to make history, and so it has!

Under its first historian, Eugene Emme (also a World War II pilot), the History Office undertook a wide variety of projects, anchored by solid historical research examining NASA’s activities. The bedrock principle then, as now, was scholarly objectivity. The History Office has functioned under a succession of Chief Historians ever since, and has been a part of the Office of External Relations for almost a decade. The Division also coordinates with field center historians and archivists, most notably at its Annual History Review Meeting, where common issues, problems and opportunities are discussed.

The History Division operates under a five-year strategic plan with specific goals. Research, writing, and publication remain top goals, with emphasis on areas that have received little attention in the past. In addition to books on a variety of subjects, among the ongoing flagship publications are John Logsdon’s documentary history of NASA, Exploring the Unknown (6 volumes with 2 more to come), and James Hansen’s aeronautics counterpart, The Wind and Beyond (1 volume with three more to come).

History illuminates current controversies. Accordingly, the Division recently published the results of a conference on Critical Issues in the History of Spaceflight, which examines perennial issues at NASA, including motivations for spaceflight, NASA’s external relations, the relation between human and robotic spaceflight, the controversy over expendable vs. reusable spacecraft, and NASA’s many organizational cultures. The book, which also discusses the state-of-the-art in space history, is available from the History Division. In addition to published material, NASA has a large collection of oral histories.

The History Division is also undertaking studies of the societal impact of spaceflight, responding to the provision in the National Aeronautics and Space Act to provide for “long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes.” The Division will sponsor a conference on that subject this month.

Last but not least, the History Division maintains and provides access to the NASA Historical Reference Collection, some 2000 cubic feet of records located on the Headquarters concourse level. Under NASA Chief Archivist Jane Odom, the archives staff provides an invaluable resource for both internal and external inquirers.

Why is all this important? If we are to sustain multi-generational programs such as the Vision for Space Exploration, it is important that society be vested in those programs, that citizens understand in objective terms what NASA has done for the nation and the world, and that lessons be learned so mistakes are not repeated. History is essential for all these reasons, and also because it sheds light on the basic question of why we explore in the first place. NASA is arguably the premier agency for exploration in the Federal government, and an ongoing series of essays illuminates this topic.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Space Age in 2007, and the 50th anniversary of NASA in 2008, history is more important than ever. Don’t hesitate to visit us in person at NASA headquarters (CO 77), or at our website, where a tremendous amount of information is available, including full text of many of our books.

In This Issue

Message from the Chief Engineer

Leadership Corner: Rickover on Doing a Job

This Week in NASA History: JFK Challenges U.S. to Reach Moon by Decade’s End

First-Person Perspective: NASA History

Reaching for the APEX at Ames

Government Brief: FAA Publishes New Commercial Space Safety Standards

Copy That: Progress in Rapid Prototyping

A View from Outside: Russia and China to Collaborate on Mars Mission

Archimedes Archive: The Turtle

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