The Case for Making Space History Preservation a Collective Effort

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Space history preservation and dissemination cannot be a one-person, or a one-entity, show as the community continues to evolve utilizing new media, and showcasing new voices. Historic documentation, film footage, images, and artifacts should be made more easily accessible and not insanely monetized for generations of future researchers, who will be tasked with putting the world’s current and future spaceflight activities into context. The practice of historical gatekeeping needs to stop. There are several organizations that already preserve artifacts from a wealth of different programs, which include — but are not limited to — the ones listed below. While they technically “own” certain artifacts, the organizations make them readily accessible to historians and enthusiasts alike:

  • The Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project: This non-profit has collected a wealth of incredible materials related to the pioneering Viking Mars missions, whose landers were the first to successfully touch down upon the Red Planet in 1976. The organization’s mission statement very clearly relates why the Viking project was not only pioneering, but also essential for future spaceflight: “Viking technology, methodology, and lessons permeate aerospace missions today from throttle-able terminal descent engines of Blue Origin and SpaceX, to camera systems on Spirit and Opportunity, and industries from healthcare to manufacturing and computing. But equally important are the peer influences, that have continued to extend Viking reach into asteroid recovery OSIRIS REx, Hubble, Orbital ATK, and the educational and cultural fabric that guides future generations through teaching and the arts. Viking influence can be seen everywhere. Our mission is to preserve and share the history, artifacts, and documents of Viking and to extend the understanding of the mission beyond the iconic achievements into the personal experiences of Viking through conducting Oral History interviews and supporting dialogue and interaction between the Vikings and the public through activities and educational materials.” The non-profit’s efforts were awarded in 2020 with the Ordway Award, one of the highest accolades given to space history entities.
  • Smithsonian Air and Space Museum: While this museum may be perhaps the most famous aerospace-related museum in the world, it also loans items out to a wealth of other air and space museums, and is a treasure trove for researchers (I’m hoping to get there to study Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill’s papers at some point within the next year).
  • Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight book series: Published through the University of Nebraska Press and edited by Colin Burgess, this series of books — while being sold for a small profit — has been and continues to be incredibly helpful for space historians looking for new information, and enthusiasts looking to know more via fun reads. A variety of authors — from first-time writers to seasoned historians — have contributed to the series, truly making it “a people’s history of spaceflight.” The series was also a 2020 Ordway Award recipient. Recently published books in this series span from the career of NASA’s George Low, rocket plane programs, a new Al Worden autobiography, to a long-awaited Ron Evans biography. The chapter on Dr. Philip Chapman in Burgess’ book Shattered Dreams, which is part of this series, inspired several articles I wrote about Chapman (with Chapman’s participation) for the National Space Society. Which leads me to…
  • National Space Society: Formed in 1987 when the L5 Society — one of the first grassroots space societies, dedicated to the vision of space settlement pioneer Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill — merged with the National Space Institute, the NSS possesses a wealth of information via its website and its flagship magazine, Ad Astra. Many of O’Neill’s 1970s interviews and articles discussing space settlement are still available through searching the NSS’ website, making it an excellent resource for those looking to know more about what O’Neill’s “thing” was during that era. Full disclosure: my space history blog, This Space Available, is also accessible via the NSS blog.

I personally feel the relationships formed between researchers and these types of entities are mutually beneficial, if not monetarily beneficial. The original non-profit and/or institution obviously would receive credit for having the artifact or documentation, while the researcher/historian may have deduced something new and perhaps novel from the artifact. A great example of this is provided by the author of the recently published George Low biography The Ultimate Engineer (a part of the aforementioned Outward Odyssey series), Richard Jurek, who accessed Low’s papers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). While RPI owns the documentation — ostensibly so it’s accessible to future scholars, who might want to study Low’s career, or the history of early NASA — Jurek’s book used Low’s papers to great effect, and showed readers insight into a figure who was simultaneously a NASA legend, but who also somehow was rarely discussed.

It is also my personal belief that overly monetizing and gatekeeping space history — or any history — not only serves to make it less accessible to some, but also cheapens the legacy of whichever program is involved. If we are to inspire future generations to love a particular program or era, it has to belong to the people, not a person.

I don’t plan on checking out any time soon, but I hope when that time comes, This Space Available is still freely available (pardon the pun) to readers, and I hope other writers and space history buffs continue to carry the torch.

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Emily Carney

Emily Carney

Space historian and podcaster. Space Hipster. Named one of the Top Ten Space Influencers by the National Space Society. Co-host of Space and Things podcast.