NCH Intervenes To Preserve History Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

In July, NCH was made aware by the leadership of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) that the history office at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Johnson Space Center (JSC) was likely to be defunded and closed at the end of the 2016 fiscal year on September 30. One historian in the three-person office had already been terminated. This situation was especially disconcerting because of the vital work of the JSC office in preserving the oral histories of astronauts and engineers, scientists, technicians and agency managers who blazed our nation’s trail into space.

The JSC history office was the 2016 recipient of OAH’s Friend of History award. The prize “recognizes an institution or organization, or an individual working primarily outside college or university settings, for outstanding support of historical research, the public presentation of American history.”

Under the current structure, each of NASA’s eleven centers across the country has its own history office.  Each is autonomous and operates under the purview of that center’s assistant administrator. The JSC historians are not federal employees but work for a contractor; thus they could be let go without the usual restrictive federal personnel rules applying.

On August 15, NCH sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. urging him to provide the funding necessary to keep the JSC office open with the resources it needs to be fully staffed and maintain the same excellent level of service to the historical community and the public it has provided in the past. The OAH and the AHA each communicated to NASA the same concerns regarding the imperative of continued funding for this work.

On September 23, NCH received a highly favorable reply from NASA’s Chief Historian William P. Barry. Stating that NCH’s “letter was both timely and impactful,” he reported that the history office was being restructured within the JSC under the management of a civil service employee and that the contractor staff was being retained with plans to add an additional person in the future. Assuring the AHA that “the attention of the very top management has been turned to the history program,” Barry told OAH president Nancy Cott that Administrator Bolden places “a high priority on having a strong history program at NASA” and that steps are being taken to strengthen the program, “including placing the office under the purview of the Chief Knowledge Officer.”

The outcome was the direct result of NCH working collaboratively with OAH, AHA and the Society for History in the Federal Government to achieve this common goal.