NASA’s Chief Historian

We’re talking to William Barry about history, era’s of spaceflight and program heroes.

Caroline Sheen

William P. Barry became NASA’s chief historian in September 2010. He joined the agency in 2001, after 22 years in the U.S. Air Force, where he flew KC-135 tankers and served on the faculty of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He got his doctorate from the University of Oxford in England in 1996; his dissertation was on Soviet missile design bureaus and manned space policy during the 1950s and ’60s. Barry holds a commercial license for both powered aircraft and gliders. He spoke with senior associate editor Perry Turner in late 2011. 

Air & Space: Is there a program or era of spaceflight that you're particularly drawn to?

Barry: Frankly, I've been a space geek for as long as I can remember. In fact, the first thing that I can remember is sitting in front of our black-and-white TV and worrying about whether John Glenn's heat shield would stay in place when he reentered [Earth’s atmosphere] in 1962. From there my obsession only got worse. From building models to writing for information to watching the entire Apollo 12 EVA [extravehicular activity, or spacewalk] on TV — even though there was nothing to see but a squiggly line across the screen. My early passion was the human spaceflight program, but my tastes quickly grew to cover anything space-related.

I'd always been curious about the Soviet space program, and eventually, when I was doing my doctorate in the early 1990s, I realized that there was a new opportunity to ferret out the truth about it. So I've done most of my academic research on the Soviet program and my curiosity continues to draw me in that direction. But I'm at a loss to think of any space history topic that isn't interesting.

When you're researching aspects of NASA history and you come across parts of the institution's history that are unflattering or painful, how do you handle those? Are people reluctant to revisit those times?

If we sweep mistakes under the rug just because they are uncomfortable to talk about, then you might just as well shut down the history program. The whole point of recording, analyzing, and interpreting NASA's history is so that we can learn what and how we did things right — and wrong — and hope to apply those lessons to the future. Sure, people at NASA don't relish discussing the things we got wrong, particularly when our brothers and sisters here paid for those mistakes with their lives. (I happened to stop by NASA headquarters to pick up some work on Saturday February 1, 2003, and finding out about the loss of Columbia that morning was like a punch to the gut. I still get that sick feeling when I think about it today.) But space exploration is a tough and demanding endeavor, and we historians have it relatively easy — we can certainly do our part and face a bit of mental or emotional discomfort.

Tell us what goes on in NASA’s History Office, on a day-to-day basis.

We coordinate with the various history efforts at the NASA centers around the country, we collect and organize research materials in the headquarters reference collection, we answer lots of questions about NASA history from the public and from within NASA, and we disseminate NASA history in a variety of ways.

One of our primary methods of getting the word out is through books and monographs. We usually hire historians under contract to write those books, and at the moment we have 34 active book contracts in various stages of development. So I spend a fair amount of time dealing with contract management and reviewing manuscripts. 

Do NASA historians travel to research things? Have any recent travels proved particularly profitable?

I don't get to do a lot of that sort of travel myself. When I do travel, it is usually aimed at building bridges and outreach for the NASA history program.

One of my goals is to visit the history and archival staff at each of our centers. My most recent trip took me on a sweep through California, where I made one-day visits to Dryden Flight Research Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Ames Research Center. I could easily have spent a week at each place and still feel like it wasn't enough. It was great to meet so many of the people who have made NASA and NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics — NASA’s forerunner] and everyone who has a passion for telling their stories. As a pilot and a space geek, I'm still amazed at the doors that get opened for the NASA Chief Historian. The pleasure is indescribable.

Which heroes of the space program have you met on the job? Were there any surprises?

Wow — that would be a very long list. Let me mention two that I met while working at NASA before becoming Chief Historian. On my second day at work here at headquarters I was busily trying to figure out something on my computer in my cubicle when I heard someone at the coffee machine. (I was the new guy, so I got that odd cubicle with the coffee machine in it. As it turns out, this was a great way to get to know everyone.) I turned and found then-Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Flight (and astronaut) Bill Readdy making a cup of coffee. He sat down and we had a great, wide-ranging chat. Then he apologized for interrupting my work and went on his way. Like many of the other astronauts and senior NASA officials I've met, I was struck by his humanity. Sure, he's brilliant, has flown in space (three times), and had a highly responsible position, but by the time I got back to work I felt as if we had been old friends.

In a similar way, while on a trip to Russia a few years ago, I wound up sitting next to cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev at lunch. Krikalev now runs the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center outside Moscow, but at the time he was more renowned as the holder of the record for the most time spent in space. Once again, I was impressed at how he simply shrugged off his celebrity and came across as a "normal guy." (Well, brilliant, but normal.) This has been par for the course: The heroes of the space program don't think of themselves as heroes. Most of them seem to see themselves as people who have been lucky to pursue their passion.

Are there any space pioneers, from any country, that the NASA history office has not yet interviewed but hopes to?

There is so much NASA history still being made that I think the history program will always be challenged to try to catch up. And that is a great thing.

We do have an active oral history program and we maintain a running list of "targets." Some of these are covered by authors working on specific history projects and others we manage to interview when we can. The experts on oral history at NASA are at Johnson Space Center [in Houston], so we coordinate closely with them throughout the year to make sure that we capture as much of the story as we can with the resources we have available. We also post the transcripts of these interviews on our Web sites so that researchers and aerospace enthusiasts alike can see what is available. If you have a suggestion about someone that you think we should interview, let me know. We're happy to take suggestions.

Are there any eras or programs that are under-documented at the NASA history office and that you'd like to document better?

On my mind at the moment is solar system exploration. We've had some excellent scholarship on this topic, but as we approach the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first successful planetary probe, Mariner 2, launched to Venus in August 1962, there is much about the revolution in our understanding of our "neighborhood" that seems worth more study. We are holding a symposium on this topic October 25 and 26, in conjunction with the National Air and Space Museum, our Science Mission Directorate at NASA, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One of the products is a book on solar system exploration at 50. I'm pretty excited about this now, but we've got a long list of other, as yet understudied topics that I expect will keep me excited for as many years as I'm here.

Of all the historic spaceflight figures who are now deceased, who would you most like to time-travel back and talk to?

This is an easy one. Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the legendary Soviet chief designer. He was the genius behind the early Soviet space program — not because he was a brilliant scientist or even the best engineer. More importantly, he knew how to make the balky Soviet system work, how to inspire his people, and perhaps most importantly he was fearless in the pursuit of his dream of space exploration. The Soviet space "program" was really very much a shoestring operation in the early days, yet they continuously one-upped the U.S. at almost every turn in the early 1960s. Why? I think it was largely the force of Korolev's determination. Political gridlock, the thin-ness of the Soviet space effort, and the sheer size of the U.S. effort meant the Soviets were falling behind by the mid-’60s. But Korolev still had some surprises up his sleeve. Had he not died in January 1966 I'm sure that the race to the moon (and have no doubt, there was a race) would have been much closer. By all rights Korolev should have died when he was shipped off to the Gulag during the purges of the 1930s, yet he not only survived, but through a series of remarkable gambles and successes he sparked the space race of the 1960s and humanity's first steps off the planet. I keep a picture of him in my office to remind me every day of what one determined and focused person can do when the knock of historic opportunity sounds on the door.


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