Sunday, 16 December 2018

Historians Reconsider Apollo 50 Years Later

Opening session of Apollo Dialogues Workshop from the back of the room. Chris Gainor photo.

On December 7, the NASA History Division and the National Air and Space Museum’s Space History Department held the Apollo Dialogues workshop to discuss spaceflight history today and act as an “incubator” for new work in the field. The workshop took place ahead of celebrations for next year's 50th anniversary of the first human footsteps on the Moon on Apollo 11.

There are not many serious historians and writers who specialize in spaceflight history, and so the 70 participants, including me, who came to the workshop at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. constituted one of the larger recent gatherings of people working in this area.

 The one-day event was divided into four parts, each starting with a speaker followed by discussions around tables organized by topics such as science, international questions, innovation, society, myths, culture, race, gender, and business. Based on their choice of topic tables, every workshop participant had a unique experience.

In opening the workshop, NASA Chief Historian Bill Barry said he is regularly reminded of the public demand for new views of space history when filmmakers call him asking if historians have produced “the next" Hidden Figures, the book and the 2016 hit movie that told the story of the African American women mathematicians who worked for NASA at the dawn of the space age.

Barry and the other organizers promised “provocative” speakers, and Asif Siddiqi of Fordham University, who is renowned for his work on the Soviet and Russian space program, fulfilled that promise with his opening talk.

Apollo, Siddiqi said, has been “overwritten,” particularly in the form of positivist narratives that isolate Apollo from other events of the time. Apollo was an integral part of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, yet this reality is often ignored in histories of Apollo, both by spaceflight historians who concentrate on the Apollo program itself, and by historians writing on the Cold War who often ignore or marginalize the space race in their accounts.

The history of the race to the Moon needs to move beyond the traditional astronaut- and leader-centred accounts to new and broader perspectives, such as those of the women in Hidden Figures who overcame discrimination to help put NASA's first astronauts into space, Siddiqi said. The history of spaceflight must take more account of power relationships in society and the world.

Finally, he spoke about the impact of Apollo on succeeding space programs that have suffered in comparison because Apollo had set the bar of success so high.

The second speaker, Emily Margolis, a Johns Hopkins University postdoctoral fellow at the National Air and Space Museum, discussed the uses of social media in spaceflight history. While social media can be used to trace popular discourse on space and to obtain historical data, its dynamic nature means that it is far from a permanent record.

Washington Post reporter Christian Davenport, the author of The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, spoke about the challenges of getting information on private space companies such as Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin that are taking a larger role in space exploration than in the past when governments dominated this area. Bezos has been very secretive about Blue Origin, Davenport said, and Musk has become famous for his thin skin, and these realities affect what we are allowed to know about their work.

The fourth speaker was Johnson Space Center historian Jennifer Ross-Nazai, who addressed the need to give more prominence to the large numbers of women who made Apollo possible. We now know about the small groups of women who worked to join the ranks of the early astronauts or used their special skills in the space program such as the women of Hidden Figures. But these accounts miss much larger numbers of women who worked in clerical and other traditional female occupations to make Apollo a success, Ross-Nazai said. Another forgotten group is women married to men employed in the space program who supported their work by taking on enlarged family responsibilities.

Many interesting discussions took place at the individual tables during the day. In my case, I joined a discussion of the international aspects of Apollo. I have written about the role of Canadian and British experts in Apollo, and others have covered the German and Soviet aspects of early space programs. But Apollo also benefited from scientific work done in other parts of the world, and the first lunar landing expeditions were followed with great interest around the world and even played a role in the diplomacy of the time.

I also took part in a sometimes contentious discussion about Apollo’s impact on science. Almost all historians agree that Apollo was motivated by a desire to establish dominance in the Cold War rather than to advance science, but the limited scientific work on Apollo led to major findings about the development of the Moon and our solar system, including the Earth. Because much of the knowledge gained from Apollo was subject to scientific dispute for several years, Apollo’s scientific legacy is not as well known as it should be.

The fact that Apollo will soon be half a century in the past means that it is already moving out of living memory. Younger people who were born long after the astronauts returned home from the Moon look at Apollo in different ways from the people who made Apollo happen or followed the news coverage in real time on television.

Back in 1969, many people saw Apollo as a part of humankind’s inevitable march of progress. Today the concepts of progress and exploration are looked at with more skepticism than they were at the time of Apollo. The success of Apollo doesn’t appear as inevitable as it once did. Instead, some scholars suggest that Apollo was a fluke or even a stunt. As we know, many people refuse to believe it actually happened at all. Or was Apollo a twenty-first century event that took place prematurely in the 1960s?

These questions and many others raised at the Apollo Dialogues workshop will provide some new perspectives for historians and writers talking about Apollo in the coming anniversary year and beyond.

The Apollo Dialogues workshop will stimulate our historical work in this area, and it may even generate new and thought provoking historical works about our first steps on another celestial body.



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