"We Can Lick Gravity, but Sometimes the Paperwork Is Overwhelming": NASA, Oral History, and the Contemporary Past

By Launius, Roger D. | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

"We Can Lick Gravity, but Sometimes the Paperwork Is Overwhelming": NASA, Oral History, and the Contemporary Past


Launius, Roger D., The Oral History Review


Abstract Over the forty-five years since its creation, NASA has completed literally thousands of oral histories with people involved in the agency and its programs. These include formal oral histories that collect information on the career of the individual, and shorter oral histories focusing on specific activities. While many were done by scholars working on book projects there have been many, and increasingly so in recent years, completed to capture the recollections of space scientists and engineers without a larger project envisioned. This presents a major resource for understanding the history of the U.S. space program. This article discusses the nature and extent of the oral history collection at NASA, the processes in place for the collecting of oral histories, and the very real but underappreciated challenges of using oral history in recording the evolution of the agency.

The quote used in the title of this essay is attributed to Wernher von Braun, a senior National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) official in the 1960s and the father of the German V-2 rocket of World War II. It is an enticing statement, conjuring up visions of the power of rockets lofting great spacecraft into orbit, large-scale technical organizations, and governmental bureaucracy. But did he ever say it? And more important, what insights does it offer into the history of NASA, the career of Wernher von Braun, and the larger story of space exploration? The quote was ascribed to von Braun in a 1958 news story, but never confirmed elsewhere. (1)

I use this quote as an entree into the fascinating world of oral history and its place in understanding the evolution of a major federal agency in the last half of the twentieth century. NASA has collected literally thousands of oral histories from people involved in the agency and its programs. These include formal oral histories that collect information on the career of the individual, and shorter oral histories focusing on specific activities. (2)

Scholars working on book projects have undertaken most of these oral histories, and have deposited transcripts, along with the other primary source materials researched in the writing of their works, in the NASA Historical Reference Collection maintained by the NASA History Office at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. Since 1996, NASA has sponsored an aggressive "career" oral history project that has completed more than one hundred oral histories with senior NASA officials, especially astronauts and project managers. The agency has also undertaken "career" oral histories with former NASA administrators and center directors.

Yet, reliance on oral history invokes several significant philosophy-of-history questions for NASA and its history program. First, the oral histories preserve the bias of the interviewee, and when there are few written documents--as is the case for many sensitive issues--this raises the question of credibility of the overall historical record. Second, the interviewees often have only a narrow perspective on the past, even the past in which they were principal actors. Third, the uses of oral histories in preparing scholarly books for NASA is a necessary but difficult issue that has not received the critical attention it deserves.

The NASA History Program

First established in 1959, the NASA History Program is one of more than forty public history functions in the federal government. It is an ongoing, long-term effort to provide a comprehensive understanding of the organization's institutional, cultural, social, political, economic, technological, and scientific development of aeronautics and space. (3) The program resulted from an executive order, first issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and periodically reemphasized, that federal agencies record objectively the history of their activities in order to assess policy and departmental effectiveness.

The leadership of NASA created and has maintained this historical program for two principal reasons:

* Sponsorship of research in NASA-related history is one good way in which the agency responds to the provision of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 to "provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof;" and

* Thoughtful study of NASA history can help agency managers accomplish the missions assigned to the agency. …

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