images of american spaceflight: doing research in public

Image: Charlie Duke, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise

Since I made a big show a while back about using Tumblr as a research tool, I figured I would be most remiss if I didn’t attempt that myself. And even after proclaiming the usefulness of my favorite platform for research, it still took me a while to come up with a way to use it for my own work. 3|13 Project – Images of American Spaceflight

The thirteen years from 1959-1972 are something of a “Golden Age” in that they encompass the first three crewed programs in American spaceflight. This period is my primary research interest, and more specifically the visual character of this ‘golden age’ and its legacy in our cultural memory of spaceflight. The project I’m developing on Tumblr is fairly straightforward. I’m attempting to collect as many photographs of spaceflight and related activities from the period as possible, and to organize them according to tags that are relevant to research questions I hope to work on.

The main difference between this project and, say, just collecting images in a file on my desktop, is that I don’t plan to source all of the images myself. The blog is submission-based, and I will be reaching out to the NASA fandom on Tumblr for help sourcing images. Lest I be immediately accused of outsourcing my work, let me offer a few reasons for this.

  1. Fans are the unsung librarians of the internet. The NASA fandom blogs that I follow regularly post images that I have never seen anywhere before. One of the great things about fans is the depth and breadth of knowledge they possess, and who knows better where to get good spaceflight images than the admins of spaceflight photo blogs? Why can’t we use social networks as finding aids?
  2. I have my own ideas about what the ‘golden age’ of spaceflight looks like, and since part of my project consists of testing the validity of my own cultural memory, having other people submit images offers perspective I could never achieve alone. Other people might include images that I would pass over, which not only helps me pick up the slack, it is noteworthy, in terms of the larger project, in and of itself.
  3. The blog is a public space that can be used by anyone, for any purpose. Fans can use it as a hub to source images for their own blogs, other researchers can use it, armchair astronauts can use it. By working openly in this way, not only can I lean on the expertise of the NASA fandom, but I can contribute to other people’s projects by hosting, curating and updating the blog. Most importantly, the blog lives actively in the stream, mixing into the dashboards of followers and rubbing shoulders with all kinds of different media. It can be a tool and an expressive space, a site for content management and content generation.

    I can already forsee a few problems with this project, but I think Digital Humanities has to embrace the “cross that bridge when we come to it” mentality, so I’ve gone ahead and launched the blog and reached out to the fandoms. If nothing else, if it fails spectacularly, it will generate content for another blog post.