An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The History of Space

Jun 25, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, you have just been asked to serve on the IAA History Committee. What exactly is the IAA History Committee, where is it located and what exactly do they try to do?

In 1960, the eminent physicist Theodore von Karman suggested the need for an international organization to focus on astronautical activities. At the time, only two nations—the United States and the Soviet Union—had a space program, von Karman believed that other countries would soon follow suit. In addition, he felt that many nations would desire a scientific or business-related presence in outer space, even if they themselves lacked the capability to develop their own launch systems.

For these reasons, von Karman believed that the use of outer space would become increasingly an international affair, and would benefit from an organization open to any nation. Other prominent people recognized the validity of his notion, and joined with him in creating the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA).

To signify the international nature of the organization, the founders decided to put its headquarters in Paris, France. After the IAA came into being, its board of directors decided that the organization should help preserve the history of astronautics.

As a result, the IAA created a History Committee to fulfill that mission. Members of this committee serve 2-year terms; mine will start officially on September 1, 2016.

  1. Let’s talk about the field of Space History. You and I grew up in an age of Alan Shepherd, John Glenn, and the very early endeavors into space. When we first ventured into orbiting the earth, did you see that as a true realm of history or a new realm of history?

I vividly remember learning in 1959 that the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) planned to send humans into outer space. Life magazine ran a feature on the seven men that NASA had selected, and introduced us to the term “astronaut.” These men instantly became heroes to the American public.

Interestingly, however, we know today that NASA had created the manned spaceflight program as a temporary measure. Because the Soviet Union had already placed both a satellite and dogs in outer space, in 1959 many Americans felt that our nation had fallen behind our Cold War rivals in terms of science and technology.

But because the Russians had not yet put a human being into outer space, NASA reasoned that if the United States could accomplish that feat it would restore public confidence. Thus, no one in 1959 believed that there would be much history ever written about astronauts. It was only after the United States committed to landing a person on the Moon that people realized that this aspect of space history would become so popular.


  1. What is singular about space history that differentiates it from say, the history of war, or colonization?

Since the beginning of the Space Age in 1957, individuals have wanted to chronicle its history because it represents both humanity’s future and its possible extinction. Space has fascinated humanity throughout its existence, and for many years individuals have dreamed of traveling in space.

Although humans have not ventured beyond the Moon, the technology exists to send space travelers to Mars and beyond. Perhaps this represents the future for humanity, or at the very least it offers a chance for humans to establish colonies in outer space. But the Space Age also involves theoretical work to develop weapons systems that could be deployed in outer space. Because it represents such a drastic duality, space history has drawn many individuals to study it.

  1. I know of your work in Alamogordo, but for our readers, can you describe what you do in Alamogordo in terms of space history?

New Mexico has a long association with space history, dating back to the pioneering work of Robert H. Goddard in the field of liquid fueled rocketry. This connection continued into the 1950s, when the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque did the medical and psychological tests that allowed NASA to winnow down the pool of potential astronauts to seven. In addition, the most famous chimpanzee sent by NASA into outer space (nicknamed Ham) was trained in Alamogordo.

Finally, two of the twelve astronauts who set foot on the Moon hailed from New Mexico. To commemorate its connection to space history, the state of New Mexico constructed a museum dedicated to that subject in Alamogordo in 1976.

Because it is a state-run facility, by law the New Mexico Museum of Space History has to have a commission to oversee its operation. In 2010, I was nominated by Governor Bill Richardson to become a commissioner. The New Mexico Senate confirmed me, and I have served on that committee ever since.

  1. What kinds of things will you be doing over the coming year in terms of Space History?

I will continue to serve on the New Mexico Museum of Space History Commission until the end of this calendar year, at which time Governor Susanna Martinez can either reappoint me or decide to give the position to someone else.

The commission meets on a quarterly basis, so I will have at least two more meetings before my term expires. My first official function for the IAA came in March of 2017. The IAA has an annual conference, and the History Committee traditionally had a meeting on that event’s second day.

  1. Is there a classic text yet in this area? Or are there other historians also exploring this realm?

As we saw earlier, Theodore von Karman correctly surmised that a large number of nations would someday be involved in space related activities. History has proven him correct. And since von Karman founded the IAA, a human component has been added to the history of the Space Age. For these reasons, the task of writing a comprehensive history of the Space Age has proved beyond the reach of historians.

Individuals, most notably Walter McDougall and Asif Siddiqui, have done a very good job of writing histories of the contributions of individual countries, but only anthologies could tell a complete story of the Space Age in all its manifestations.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

When NASA commissioned a history of the Gemini manned spaceflight program, the historians chosen for the task titled their work This New Ocean. That metaphor captures the allure of space history for many. As no one could have predicted the results of the voyages of European explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, we likewise have no idea what the ultimate results of our journey into space will be.

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