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"From the X-Files: Some Source and Historiographical Problems of the X-33 History Project, or 'History Made While You Wait'"

Andrew J. Butrica

This paper considers some of the problems of documentation and historiography encountered by scholars working on history as it unfolds in the present, literally as the historian is researching and writing about it. It draws on experiences encountered in writing the history of NASA's X-33 project, the "next generation" shuttle vehicle, whose development began in 1993, only a few years ago, and continues at this very moment. The historian in this instance is operating in a nonacademic setting under conditions more akin to those of an anthropologist living among the peoples under study (the historian's equivalent of sociologist Bruno Latour's look at laboratory life).

"History Made While You Wait" raises questions of disciplinary boundaries: is it history? or should we leave the field to journalists? This paper also will address the historiographical question of determining today what is historically significant about the present. Behind this question lies certain Whiggish assumptions about the nature of history and historical writing. After all, whenever historians visit the past, it is with questions relevant to, and framed by, the present.

The X-33 project also reflects the general lack of documentation encountered in doing history of the very recent past. This lack originates in the prevailing use of electronic media both to communicate (e.g., faxes and e-mail) and to create documents (via Internet, e-mail, and hypertext). Indeed, in an effort to reduce the amount of paperwork (partly as a conservation effort), the three contractors submitting technical study reports on the X-33 were asked to submit their reports not on paper, but on CD-ROM. This result of this admirable (from an environmental perspective) requirement, however, is an archivist's nightmare. This and other archival issues are an integral part of the historian's work, which includes collecting and organizing the X-33 archives. These largely will form the documentary foundation for the history, and eventually will be integrated into the NASA History Office collections.

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