NASA’s Chief Historian

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

(Caroline Sheen)
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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?

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