Friday, July 22, 2011

Witnessing "history"?

3...2...1... We have lift off! Space shuttle Atlantis blasted off for her final voyage on July 8, marking the end of NASA’s 30-year old shuttle program, and I was there. Honestly, it is bigger on TV. But television doesn’t adequately capture the physical sensation of participation.

The feeling of excitement was palpable, beginning when we checked into the hotel. There was the child clutching his planet-covered pillow, the students wearing their Georgia Tech Aerospace Engineering tee shirts, the news crew with their giant cameras, and us (my parents, sister, brother-in-law, five-year-old nephew, and a good friend from college). Only a few hours later, the wake up call came and bleary eyed we rendezvoused in the elevator just before 3:00 a.m. to head to the Kennedy Space Center. There was traffic. There were lines for security. There were lines for admission. Then we were there.

Clutching our tickets for the 4:45 a.m. breakfast with an astronaut, it began to sink in. We were taking part in a historic event...or at least that’s how the news kept billing it. As someone who was there, I’m not sure that would be the adjective I’d use.

Let’s back up for some perspective. I am part of the shuttle generation. The first shuttle launched in 1981 when I was five--right when permanent memories start forming (that's me, age seven, in the middle of the photo at the left, at NASA in Houston). I clearly remember the Challenger explosion, or more accurately, Mr. Baker (the elementary school principal) running through the halls yelling for the teachers to turn off the televisions. We were all ready to watch the first teacher in space, but suddenly it was silent and we were all sent home to have our parents explain what we had just witnessed.

I briefly toyed with the idea of rocket science when considering colleges, but space had become a bit pedestrian. It was no longer news to watch a shuttle launch. With the exception of identifying Orion in the night sky, I didn’t think much about space, but I also didn’t realize how much the shuttle program was still a part of me. I was in graduate school when Columbia was lost during reentry. Pairing Challenger and Columbia seemed like a no-brainer for a history of science and technology lesson. Most of the students couldn’t care less. They were not children of the shuttle program.

When President Bush canceled the shuttle program and President Obama cut NASA’s budget, I didn’t think too much about the implications of space exploration. But when NASA announced the end of the shuttle launches, I knew it was my last chance to participate in shuttle festivities, and I knew I wanted to be there.

And so I found myself waiting for hours, surrounded by thousands of other space enthusiasts, anticipating the end of an era. It feels strange, as a historian, to be marking an historic event in the present. My fellow shuttle watchers didn’t share the sentiment. They had nothing but hope and excitement and a feeling of privilege (and maybe a bit of luck) to take part in the event.

Most of the day had the atmosphere of an oddly subdued party. Even the most amateur meteorologist could look at the clouds in the sky and see there was a good chance the launch would be canceled, so we all just milled about, looking at exhibits at the visitor complex, silently hoping that everything would be all right, and following the live feed from NASA.

Former astronauts were on the stage sharing their experiences as the crew went through their final checklist. As it got closer to launch time, Ground Control began giving thanks to all of the men and women who had made the 30 years of the shuttle program possible. Misty-eyed patriots cheered at each remembrance. The crowd gave a collective shout of joy at T minus five minutes, T minus three minutes, T minus one minute. Then, at T minus 31 seconds, someone ordered a hold. I don’t think anyone in the crowd took a breath. We just waited. It had to go up. It just had to. Countdown resumed, and the crowd started chanting. then...nothing.

We were all at the visitors center complex, which is eight miles from the launch pad with a line of trees blocking the horizon. We knew it would take a few seconds before we would see the shuttle, but I don’t think anyone thought those seconds would be so interminable. Then someone shouted, and the crowd surged forward, and you could see the trail of fire through the sky. The shuttle popped into the clouds, reemerged moments later, and was then lost to the clouds for good. A successful launch.

Hours of waiting for seconds of viewing. Is this what it looks like to see history as it unfolds? I’m a bit of a skeptic. Despite the fact that I now own the official launch program, have bought a lanyard for my grand finale launch ticket (shown at left), and mailed some commemorative covers to my Postal Museum friends, I’m left unconvinced by the historic nature of the event.

Don’t get me wrong. It was fabulous, and a memory I will hold dearly. But is it history? Regardless of what the souvenir merchandise available in the gift shop claims, I don’t think we will know for several decades. I believe that determining the historic-ness of this final shuttle launch depends on the future. Is this the moment America hands over manned space flight to Russia? Is this the beginning of an even stronger international collaboration with the space station? Is this the necessary cut needed to jump forward to deeper space exploration and potential travel to Mars? Or does this launch mark a turning point where American society looks internally towards its own planet rather than dreaming of space?

What are the responsibilities of public historians or historians of science and technology or the media or simply space enthusiasts to mark an event and call it history? What material culture should we save, what memories should we document, what stories should we perpetuate?

~ Allison Marsh


  1. Since the shuttle landed after this final trip yesterday, I guess the shuttle era really *is* "history" now, Allison! Your questions are well posed, though. I've been reading Paul Williams' book "Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities" lately, and I'm wondering whether this rush to declare things as "history" is part of the same rush, and what that all might mean. Sometimes it seems to me that the label "history" now tends to get slapped onto anything that seems the least bit significant or out of the ordinary. Has "history" become a kind of premium brand (often in a marketing sense) for news and events in an information-saturated world? And sometimes this declaring of things as historic feels like a cry to be heard above all the noise - a kind of anti-modernism trying to assert itself in what we typically experience as a fast-rushing spate of happenings. All of this gets amplified within the short cycles of our various media, of course, including our own tweets and texts and photo streams.

    I'd be interested to hear what historians studying the space program have to say about all this. Public history does work to attach the past to the present in many ways, so maybe, from a historian's perspective, this is history simply because it's the end of a long tail that's attached to older stories and technologies.

  2. One of those great on-going discussions. I have been branded old fashioned for my insistence that events need time before we can really understand their importance in terms of history. I am only partly joking when I say it's not history until it's aged for 50 years. Time is the distance historians need to begin to understand any event's role in any reasonable context.

    On the other hand, time is the curator's enemy when it comes to helping future generations come face-to-face with their history. The conflicts of history and (time) distance are what we battle on a regular basis. Our job is to secure objects that provide a record of our culture and society. We must collect pieces of material culture that will do that job. To do that curators must from contemporary events with eyes on future relevance.