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The Life and Times of a Public Historian

Steven J. Dick inside a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in star City, outside Moscow

Steven J. Dick inside a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in star City, outside Moscow

Steven J. Dick has spent his professional career as a public historian, most recently as Chief Historian for NASA, a place where the study of history has real-world consequences in policy development and planning.

For almost 30 years now, I have worked as a public historian, first at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, and for the last five years as NASA Chief Historian. Quite aside from the omnipresent political environment in Washington (my office at the Naval Observatory was 100 yards from the official residence of the Vice President, and NASA Headquarters is three blocks from the U.S. Capitol), the job has been alternately challenging and routine, rewarding and frustrating, almost never boring and at times overwhelming.

In the tight history of science job market of the 1970s, I was hired as an astronomer at the Naval Observatory on the basis of my B.S. in astrophysics. During the time of Halley’s comet, I spent three years on a mountaintop in New Zealand making astronomical observations under beautiful dark sky conditions – a highlight of my career. My primary job was scientific, but all the while my history of science training (History and Philosophy of Science, Indiana Ph.D., 1972) was percolating in the background. I began work on the history of the Naval Observatory, one of the oldest scientific institutions in the U.S. government, publishing articles as I went along. I seized the moment on my return to Washington in 1987, when I was appointed the official historian for the Naval Observatory. For a few idyllic years I was able to do history full time, until other duties were thrust upon me. In the end, writing a full-scale history in the midst of these other duties took some 15 years. But working with astronomers gave me a ground-truth appreciation of their ways of thinking, and being present at the institution I was researching gave me invaluable historical insights, not to mention proximity to documents and oral history subjects. The result of this research, Sky and Ocean Joined: The U. S. Naval Observatory, 1830-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2003), I believe shows the value of being close to one’s subject while maintaining the historian’s foundational principles of objectivity and independence.

There was one more advantage to being at the Observatory: working mostly on my own time, I was able to make use of the Observatory’s unparalleled astronomy library to produce my volumes on The Biological Universe: The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science (CUP, 1996) and Life on other Worlds (CUP, 1998). Finally, working at a scientific institution allowed me to become active in the historical branches of scientific societies, the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society, and the History of Astronomy Commission of the International Astronomical Union. The interactions with both scientific and historical colleagues, in effect spanning the “two cultures,” have proved rewarding. The moral of the story is to be creative in making use of whatever opportunities come your way.

The Naval Observatory experience prepared me for NASA, but the differences have been legion. The Observatory had less than 200 employees. By contrast NASA HQ itself has more than 1,000 employees, more than 20,000 civil servants at its 10 Centers nationwide, and untold numbers of contractors. It also has a world-class history program, established a few months after NASA’s founding in October, 1958. The History Office currently has seven full-time employees at Headquarters, and most of the 10 Centers (including Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California) have an historian or archivist, or both. All the Agency historians and archivists keep in touch to discuss common interests, and once a year we gather at one of the Centers to discuss common issues and problems.

So what does the NASA Chief Historian do? Three duties consume most of my time: book projects, conferences, and internal and external inquiries. Currently, the office is sponsoring some 44 book projects, ranging from NASA’s international relations to its planetary protection, life sciences, and aeronautics programs, as well as a broad array of books on the history of the space and earth sciences, and other specific NASA programs. The History Office oversees these books, usually written by qualified historians, from the procurement process, through research and writing, peer review, and production. They normally appear in the NASA History series, or in the New Series in NASA History published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Occasionally, the Chief Historian has time to actually research and write history, ranging from historical essays (, to anniversary publications (America in Space: NASA’s First Fifty Years, 2007), and more standard scholarly history, including (with Jim Strick) The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology (Rutgers University Press, 2004).

Over the last few years the History Office has sponsored or supported conferences on topics related to the history of spaceflight, all of which have been published in proceedings that are also accessible online (see They range from how much risk should be undertaken in the name of forward-looking exploration (Risk and Exploration: Earth, Sea and the Stars (2005)), held in the aftermath of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, to perennial issues in spaceflight history, including motivations for spaceflight, human versus robotic exploration, issues of access to space, and historiographical problems such as the relation of space history to other fields of history (Critical Issues in the History of Spaceflight (2006), modeled on Marshall Clagett’s Critical Problems in the History of Science). In addition, Remembering the Space Age (forthcoming in 2008) was undertaken last year for the 50th anniversary of the Space Age, and attempts to place space exploration in the context of world history. Contributions from a cross-section of scholars, including Pulitzer-Prize winner Walter McDougall, make it clear that the legacy of the Space Age is far from assured as a long-term factor in history. Finally, for NASA’s 50th anniversary, this October we are holding a conference, “NASA’s First 50 Years: An Historical Perspective.” Such anniversaries invariably raise the question of celebratory history versus objective history. We try to keep the two separate, leaving the celebratory part to public affairs. On the other hand, it is my experience that objective history can often be the best kind of public affairs. While press releases are ephemeral, history is forever.

Internal and external inquiries are an additional never-ending source of work. While most of the official records of NASA, as other government agencies, are housed in the National Archives, the History Division at Headquarters maintains 2,000 cubic feet of records. Internal inquiries come from a variety of sources, and help fulfill our goal of providing NASA senior leadership with historical information, analysis, and perspective vital to planning, policy development, and decision making, including lessons learned. Recent examples include a study of Administrator Sean O’Keefe’s decision not to service the Hubble Space Telescope, a decision subsequently overturned by the current Administrator, Michael Griffin. Mr. Griffin also inaugurated a study of NASA culture, a follow-up to Howard McCurdy’s book Inside NASA: High Technology and Organizational Change in the U.S. Space Program (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). This study, and follow-up studies, are being used to improve NASA management communication and practices. Through it all, independence and objectivity remain foundational. While this is true for all historians, in public history these principles are more likely to be tested by fire. Our constant mantra is that non-objective history does no one any good.

In addition to these activities, the NASA History Office offers three grants to encourage scholarship in the history of spaceflight. The fellowship in Aerospace History, administered by the American Historical Association, covers all aspects of the history of aerospace from the earliest human interest in flight to the present. The History of Science Society Fellowship in the History of Space Science funds a nine-month research project that is related to any aspect of the history of space or Earth science, from the earliest human interest in space to the present. And the NASA Fellowship in the History of Space Technology, offered by the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) funds one predoctoral or postdoctoral fellow for up to one academic year to undertake a research project related to the history of space technology. Further information on these fellowships may be found at

Public history also involves a good deal of travel in a variety of roles and venues. In connection with our publication of the English translation of the memoirs of the seminal Soviet/Russian space pioneer Boris Chertok (now 96), I travelled to Moscow, where I joined with the U.S. Ambassador to host Chertok at a symposium in his honor, was interviewed by the Russian media, and had the opportunity to meet numerous officials and cosmonauts at Star City, their training center outside Moscow. For a recent meeting “Imagining the Space Age” held in Germany, we examined the European experience of spaceflight and its societal impact compared to the American experience. For the 50th anniversary of Explorer 1 in January, I was among 1,500 people who dined under the newly restored giant Saturn V rocket, suspended from the ceiling in the new Davidson Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Occasionally history becomes mainstream in a big way, as when the Columbia Accident Investigation Board penned an entire chapter on history, declaring that the organizational causes of the accident were rooted in the Space Shuttle program’s history and culture, and that “history is not just a backdrop or a scene-setter. History is cause.” Public history can be much more than an academic exercise, resulting not just in knowledge, but in action. High-technology and high-reliability organizations such as NASA must attempt to learn the lessons of the past, even if they are not always clear.

In many ways this article only covers the tip of the iceberg. Readers interested in more information about the NASA history office can see our Web site at, which includes our annual report (, our quarterly Newsletter (, our online publications (, and much more. We encourage you to visit us next time you are in Washington.

Steven J. Dick can be reached at


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