Air and Space this Week History

Air and Space this Week had an unusual beginning. Some time about 16 years ago, after I had rotated into the Chair position of NASM’s Education Division, my boss approached me with an offer. A friend of his on the faculty of a nearby university had a go-getter student looking for a meaningful outside project. The boss asked if I could provide a topic and the appropriate mentoring. The only correct response, and one I wanted to make anyway, was, “I just so happen to have such a project in mind, and I’d love to have this person work on it.” Then I went away to wrack my brain for a suitable subject.

I was new enough to my position that I was still learning about the Museum’s collection, and in particular, the kinds of engaging approaches with it that could be used in both informal and formal education situations. I couldn’t help but notice that most of our artifacts had a specific date or dates associated with them. When I met the student offered me, it was apparent that they were long on computer and database skills and not so long on aviation and Space exploration history. Here was a good match in the making. I asked the student to go on a self-guided learning tour of the museum, and as he went, to write down any key dates associated with the artifacts that caught his eye, and build his findings out into a database we could use for helping Docents augment their tours. I’d end up with a useful tool, and he’d get a lot of exposure to a topic that interested him. He came back with data on 400-500 artifacts.

The database proved to be a good resource, but also one a lot of fun to peruse. I found that especially to be true when key dates in modern culture were included; some interesting calendar co-incidents appeared, and they, too, proved useful when working with the public.

As Education Chair, I generated a weekly report and had a weekly meeting with the boss and the other Chairs in his group. I used the database to include a “by the way” or “didja know” tag to my weekly report. The boss thought it was a hoot, and I got a good-natured ribbing from the head of Visitor Services about the sometimes-quirky nature of the tags, so of course I doubled the tag stuff in subsequent reports.

I kept expanding the database, including more aviation and Space exploration milestones for which NASM had artifact. I also added more events of the times and birthdays of famous people, in order to help (Docents help) people calibrate just when aviation/Space red-letter dates happened in their own lifetime. The database was proving more and more useful when planning Museum educational events and programs, and also in avoiding anniversary dates of events that would detract from our programming. It was then that I started sending out a weekly “heads-up” to NASM Education staff and volunteers about upcoming programming opportunities and calendar connections, one that would eventually grow into the “Air and Space this Week” e-letter and website.

Air and Space this Week came into its own when I took a two-year detail assignment at NASA HQ in 2011-13 (FY 2012-2013). I was scheduled to support the launch of the GRAIL mission to the Moon my second week at HQ. I met with my new boss my second day on the job to discuss how we would support the mission. It was difficult to express the mission and its operation to the public, and we were struggling a bit. I was still distributing Air and Space this Week to NASM folks, and I had sent out the installment that would cover the GRAIL launch period the day before, so the events of that particular date were fresh on my mind. I happened to mention to my new boss that the date scheduled for the GRAIL launch was the 45th anniversary of the premiere of the original Star Trek series.

She gave me the oddest look. My heart sank. I thought I had crossed a social line at HQ, and labeled myself indelibly as a “Trekkie.” The new boss turned, tapped out an email, and made a short phone call. I studiously and successfully avoided eavesdropping, but I was getting more and more worried.

It turns out that I shouldn’t have been more concerned. What I didn’t know was that Kennedy Space Center had a Star Trek display up in its Visitor Center, complete with a number of costumes and props, and a quite-accurate replica of the Enterprise bridge. It was scheduled to be pulled out the day before the launch; the boss’ e-mail stopped its planned move to keep it in place through the launch period. The phone call was to secure a personal appearance at the launch by NASA’s longtime friend, actress Nichelle Nichols, who played the original Lt. Uhura.

Up to that point, only four media access requests had come in for the GRAIL launch, all from weekly newspapers up and down the Space Coast. That number leapt to 24 when word got out that Uhura would be attending the launch, including broadcast teams from affiliate stations of all three major networks.

Mother Nature helped out our outreach efforts, too. Launch day dawned clear and bright. It was a week day, and a number of locals took the day off, pulled the kids out of school, and came down to see the launch. However, high-altitude winds were to strong to allow the launch, and it was postponed to the next day. It was too late to get back to work or school, so many decided to spend the day at the Visitor Center, and they were presently surprised to see both the Star Trek display and Ms. Nichols. She had come with a big stack of 8x10 glossies to sign, but was quickly overwhelmed. We set her up in Kirk’s Chair, and ran two color copiers continuously to keep up with demand. She was incredibly gracious, and signed autographs, posed for pictures, and told stories for hours.

My new boss always conducted a “post mortem” meeting after each significant outreach event. She asked me how I knew about the launch date/Star Trek connection, and I told her about Air and Space this Week. She had me show her the database after the meeting, and immediately gave me a new tasking priority. I was to take the database, de-emphasize some of the aviation items and amp up the NASA events, along with increasing the social touchstones, with the goal of having NASA’s outreach folks turn it into an app. It’s called SPACE365, it’s available for free from the usual sources, and it’s been an education program planning tool ever since.

On my return to NASA, I continued to expand the database and promote its use in the Museum, in particular for programs such as the Hubble Space Telescope 25th Anniversary Family Day and the “The Space Age at 60” Space Day 2017 program. NASM funded my attending major science conferences, in large part to promote the database and weekly e-letter.

Today, I routinely use the database in the preparation of Air and Space this Week installments, and in giving A+StW recipients and website visitors a “heads up” about upcoming Aviation/Space education programming opportunities. The e-letter part of A+StW covers current events in aviation/astronomy/ Space exploration and the website focuses more on being an information resource for the topics covered in the e-letter.

I hope you find it interesting and useful, too!