Working on her doctorate at Washington State University, Jennifer Ross-Nazzal ’04 was drawn to public history–a field that combines academic history with non-traditional methods of collecting and presenting historical information. The program has been in effect at WSU since 1979 and has produced historians who now work for public archives, historical sites, and museums around the country.
Ross-Nazzal’s studies at WSU led to a focus on women’s history and an internship at a museum. “Though that was a good experience, I wanted to do another internship,” she says. Craving a very different experience, she found an offer at Johnson Space Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Houston and, “though I knew nothing about NASA, I applied.”
She was put to work assisting with the center’s oral history project and liked the work so much she went back to the space center the next summer. Her internship turned into a job, and in 2004 she became chief historian for the JSC and just one of a handful of NASA historians around the country.
As a NASA history expert, Ross-Nazzal fields a variety of public requests, particularly last year during NASA’s 50th anniversary. The Discovery Channel called for some help with the When We Left the Earth series, and this summer a researcher from Martha Stewart wanted to know if it was true that the first astronauts on the moon had Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings. It took a little research to find the answer. “Yes, they had turkey, but not all the fixings,” says Ross-Nazzal. “They had turkey and cranberry sauce.”
Ross-Nazzal hears regularly from scholars and writers who are checking facts and looking for stories. She also handles the occasional information request from individuals who want to know “whether we really made it to the moon or not,” she says.
Still one of her favorite parts of the job is to continue developing the oral history collection, interviewing the astronauts and NASA workers. Back in 1979, the same year the University started its public history program, WSU alum John Fabian ’62 became an astronaut. As Ross-Nazzal started working with NASA she became aware of the stellar alumnus. Still a student, she visited Fabian’s plaque in downtown Pullman’s Walk of Fame. “I was hoping that one day I’d be able to interview him.”
Her wish came true in February 2006 when Fabian visited the Johnson Space Center. He sat down with Ross-Nazzal in the building where he and his fellow astronauts had been quarantined prior to missions. He talked about his interests in engineering and aviation that developed at WSU and of his memories of watching the launch of earth’s first orbiting satellite in 1957.
As Fabian was in the first class of astronauts that included women, with his interview Ross-Nazzal was able to build on the story of women at NASA. “There’s not a lot out there in terms of NASA and women’s history,” she says. Fabian’s perspective was invaluable. “Everyone has a different take on women in that class and what men thought of these women coming in. I was able to use his interviews to build on my interviews with others.”