Steven J. Dick: The Life and Times of a Public Historian

Historians in the News

[Steven J. Dick has spent his professional career as a public historian, most recently as Chief Historian for NASA, a place where the study of history has real-world consequences in policy development and planning.]

For almost 30 years now, I have worked as a public historian, first at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, and for the last five years as NASA Chief Historian. Quite aside from the omnipresent political environment in Washington (my office at the Naval Observatory was 100 yards from the official residence of the Vice President, and NASA Headquarters is three blocks from the U.S. Capitol), the job has been alternately challenging and routine, rewarding and frustrating, almost never boring and at times overwhelming.

In the tight history of science job market of the 1970s, I was hired as an astronomer at the Naval Observatory on the basis of my B.S. in astrophysics. During the time of Halley’s comet, I spent three years on a mountaintop in New Zealand making astronomical observations under beautiful dark sky conditions – a highlight of my career. My primary job was scientific, but all the while my history of science training (History and Philosophy of Science, Indiana Ph.D., 1972) was percolating in the background. I began work on the history of the Naval Observatory, one of the oldest scientific institutions in the U.S. government, publishing articles as I went along. I seized the moment on my return to Washington in 1987, when I was appointed the official historian for the Naval Observatory. For a few idyllic years I was able to do history full time, until other duties were thrust upon me. In the end, writing a full-scale history in the midst of these other duties took some 15 years. But working with astronomers gave me a ground-truth appreciation of their ways of thinking, and being present at the institution I was researching gave me invaluable historical insights, not to mention proximity to documents and oral history subjects. The result of this research, Sky and Ocean Joined: The U. S. Naval Observatory, 1830-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2003), I believe shows the value of being close to one’s subject while maintaining the historian’s foundational principles of objectivity and independence. ...

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