Op-ed | Thinking historically about NewSpace

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This op-ed originally appeared in the April 23, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

For about the past decade, the space industry has been going through a historically significant inflection point, and it has historians concerned. The rapid growth and diversification of the space industry, often referred to as “NewSpace,” presents a challenge for historians and museums who are working to communicate this story as it emerges and preserve it into the future. As the business of space becomes increasingly privatized, and companies more frequently adopt a fast and lean entrepreneurial style, it complicates efforts to establish and preserve a publicly accessible record of the industry’s progress.

At the beginning of March, a group of nearly 90 archivists, curators, and historians met at the American Center for Physics in College Park, Maryland, for a National Science Foundation-funded conference titled To Boldly Preserve: Archiving the Next Half-Century of Space Flight. The Museum of Flight joined the event to report on our work engaging with NewSpace companies. This conference marked the first time the historic preservation community has gathered to tackle the challenges presented by the NewSpace era, and to begin working toward solutions to help ensure that 100 years from now, a comprehensive record of this important time remains accessible. If we are going to succeed in this effort, however, we will need the space industry’s help.

To understand historians’ concerns, think about the future. Imagine your company is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. What materials and information would you want to have on hand for the big centennial? Biographies of your founders? The evolution of your company logo? Your first flight test vehicle? A collection of stories told by 100 years of dedicated employees? Will you publish a book? Will someone make a documentary? Now back to the present. Which of those materials are accessible now? What formats are they stored in? What is your company doing today to ensure those things will be around for your centennial? These are the questions that concern those of us working to chronicle this moment in space history.

The first 50 years of human space exploration, dominated by government agencies and large prime contractors, produced a paper trail as a natural byproduct of the bureaucratic processes inherent to government programs. Ponderous as these processes can seem at times, the mountains of documentation they produce form the foundation of aerospace history. As we now approach a rapid-fire cadence of 50th and 60th anniversaries of the early Space Race, historic source material is in no short supply. The first half-century of spaceflight is well documented, in large part because of the extensive records generated by traditional data management practices.

Those methods are now being significantly disrupted as the industry diversifies, and entrepreneurs and private companies begin hitting historically significant milestones. Unlike with government space programs, details of entrepreneurial space achievements do not automatically become part of the public record. Museums and historians working to chronicle this movement can no longer rely on public domain sources like NASA and the National Archives for the majority of relevant source material. We must now negotiate individual licenses to access and use corporate IP from multiple companies, each with unique personalities, agendas, and levels of tolerance for public disclosure.

The small, agile, entrepreneurial nature of many firms emerging in this NewSpace era also leaves few objects available for preservation or display. Many companies test all their hardware to destruction. From an historic standpoint, this makes comprehensive recordkeeping of this testing all the more important.

Encouraging forward-thinking businesspeople to think historically can also be challenging. Survival for many NewSpace companies may depend on their ability to pivot to meet new business opportunities. While it may be tempting to discard early plans and technologies as the business evolves, they still represent an invaluable part of a company’s historic narrative, and serious consideration should be given to retaining some part of those pre-pivot records.

In light of the scarcity of physical objects and this dynamic business environment, The Museum of Flight has leaned heavily on digital images, video, and text content. However, collecting the physical artifacts of this movement is of paramount importance. Those artifacts communicate the reality of what is happening. NewSpace is more than simply thought exercises and concept drawings; companies are really building new technology and reaching space!

An over-reliance on digital technology also presents a broader challenge to preserving the historic record, not just of the space industry, but for 21st century society in general. We often think that the digital age we live in is characterized by information abundance, but anyone who has ever lost family photos to a crashed hard drive, or attempted to pull a 25-year-old file off a 3.5-inch floppy, has experienced a bit of the modern historian’s dread. The advent of cloud-based solutions helps to mitigate the risk of data loss, but it can also complicate matters. How does someone archive a Slack thread? What happens when spacecraft updates are delivered by text message? The tools of an efficient, agile workplace, while wonderfully accessible, will likely prove ephemeral in the long run, and require focused attention if the information they contain is to remain accessible over the long term.

So what is to be done? We historians are not expecting space companies to do away with modern business tools and return to onion skin paper memos and hand-drafted blueprints. We are, however, asking companies to be conscious of the implications these new technologies have for corporate archiving. If you are concerned about your company’s legacy, you may need to take a more active hand in preserving your records.

We are also not saying you need to share your records or retired hardware immediately. In fact, many museums and archives have significant backlogs. Don’t worry about handing off material until you are ready. Taking steps to collect and preserve records within the company is enough. Historians also recognize that preservation requires time and resources, which many companies may not have. Not everyone can afford a full-time staff historian, nor is it reasonable to expect that of a company just trying to keep the doors open. Curators and archivists, like those in attendance at To Boldly Preserve, are happy to assist or even just advise on best practices for organizing your data, objects, and other information. If and when your company is ready, museums and archives can help ensure that your story is preserved for future generations.

The historical preservation community would also love to understand your concerns, and how to best help you. The conversations that began at To Boldly Preserve were intended as the start of a larger effort to engage with all stakeholders involved in making the next 50 years of space history a reality. Together, we can help ensure that 50 or 100 years from now, there is a clear record of this pivotal moment in our journey into the solar system. If you are interested in learning more, the papers presented at To Boldly Preserve can be accessed from the schedule page at toboldlypreserve.space. To connect on this topic please reach out to [email protected] or [email protected].


As the adjunct curator for space history at the Museum of Flight, Geoff Nunn leads the museum’s efforts to tell the story of the first 50 years of human spaceflight and beyond. He represents the museum as part of NASA’s Museum Alliance, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the Washington State Space Coalition, and the U.S.-Japan Space Forum.