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Jenks Named Aerospace Fellow

Published: October 1, 2013

History’s Andrew Jenks was named an Aerospace Fellow by the American Historical Association (AHA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in July when he received a $20,000 grant to fund a year of research into the topic “Stepping Back from the Brink.”

The cultural historian who joined the university in 2006 will research the role of the space program in creating a global and transnational consciousness. He will be doing research in such venues as the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Stanford’s Hoover Institute, the Library of Congress, NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the National Archives in College Park, Md. Jenks will present his research to NASA in spring 2014. He also hopes to raise funding to support research in Russia.

The grant will release Jenks for research during the fall semester. “It’s nice to get that,” he said. “Every year, the American Historical Association works with NASA to name an Aerospace Fellow,” he said. “What they want to do is promote research on the history of space exploration and, in particular, they want to promote the people who study the resources such as national archives and the voluminous materials of the NASA archive at NASA headquarters.”

Jenks already has begun his research at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda and at NASA headquarters.

“The Nixon Library is a vastly underused resource for scholars,” he said. “There are extensive files that relate to Nixon’s view of space exploration as a way to build a foundation for a new relationship with Russia. What I discovered in the Nixon documents was how space exploration became the key to détente. Neither side could agree on much but both agreed space was something that could bring them together.”

The American Historical Association is a nonprofit membership organization founded in 1884 and incorporated by Congress in 1889 for the promotion of historical studies. The AHA provides leadership for the profession, protects academic freedom, develops professional standards, aids in the pursuit and publication of scholarship and supplies various services to sustain and enhance the work of its members.

The significance of the title “Stepping Back from the Brink” is the role of space exploration in both encouraging and preventing the threat of nuclear annihilation.

“When the Russians put cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space, they were showing he could just as easily be an atomic bomb,” he said. “People understood the military implications of rocket technology and they were frightened. The space age both enabled the creation of a world where we are threatened at any moment with nuclear annihilation yet at the same time it is seen as the vehicle through which we can step back from the brink and come together and transcend these ideological, political and economic differences. Another facet is stepping back from the brink of ecological disaster. Images from space can promote an ecological consciousness. Early space pioneers saw the fragility of the environment and the thin layers that divide the hostile environment of outer space from the life that Earth sustains. This is called ‘the overview effect’ and it represented an epiphany for them. They found a sense of universal connectedness, perhaps best expressed by the iconic image of the Earth from space taken by Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968—Earthrise. It has become a banner ever since for ecological awareness and global citizenship.”

Space exploration, noted Jenks, was initially a product of nation states competing with each other in order to develop new weapons of mass destruction.

“There is an irony that the same technology that tested ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) also gave rise to a new idea about transcending the differences that make nuclear weapons necessary,” he said. “It is similar to jet technology, which grew from the military imperatives of World War II. But that same technology became a way to connect people across boundaries and bring them together.”

Jenks is the author of Russia in a Box: Art and Identity in An Age of Revolution in 2005 and Perils of Progress: Environmental Disasters in the 20th Century in 2010. His latest book is The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling: The Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin. He worked in the 1990s as a journalist and editor in Washington, D.C., where he covered NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, secret military high-tech programs and the emerging Internet. He studied the Russian language at the Pushkin Russian Language Institute in Moscow in the late 1980s where he also worked as a translator in the Moscow CNN office. He also worked for six months on Soviet fishing boats in the Bering Sea. He received his B.A. from Bucknell University, his M.A. from the University of Michigan and his Ph.D. in Russian history from Stanford in 2002.

–Richard Manly