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    Momentum Member Spotlight – March 2016

    AIAA Congratulates Tom Crouch

    By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications

     

    TomCrouch Worn out from its constant gallivanting around the nation, this month the Spotlight pointed its beam very close to home, falling on Washington, D.C., and illuminating Tom Crouch, Senior Curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

    Crouch will receive the 2016 AIAA Distinguished Service Award this June at the AIAA Aerospace Spotlight Awards Gala. The award celebrates his “inspirational leadership and ceaseless efforts in promoting the public understanding of the history of AIAA and the compelling aerospace achievements of its members.”

    Crouch has a long record of service to AIAA. A former vice chair of the Institute’s History Technical Committee, he has done much to preserve both the history of AIAA and the history of aerospace. He is the author of Rocketeers and Gentlemen Engineers: A History of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics…and What Came Before. Published in 2006, the work covers the history of the Institute, its predecessor organizations, and the role that AIAA has played in the aerospace community. Additionally, Crouch also advised the AIAA Historic Aerospace Sites Committee and in 2011 helped designate the 1861 site of T. S. Lowe’s balloon demonstration flight as a historic aerospace site. Crouch is currently helping lead the selection committees for the Gardner-Lasser Aerospace History Literature Award, the History Manuscript Award, and the Children’s Literature Award. Crouch is an AIAA Distinguished Lecturer and presents several lectures on aerospace history each year.

    Before he wrote the history of AIAA, Crouch authored The Bishop’s Boys, considered by most historians to be the definitive work on the Wright Brothers.

    Crouch’s previous honors include the 2005 AIAA Gardner-Lasser Aerospace History Literature Award, and the 1977 AIAA History Manuscript Award. Among Crouch’s numerous other awards are the 2012 Paul S. Kerr History Prize; the 2003 William F. Shea Award for Distinguished Contributions to Aviation; The Smithsonian Distinguished Research Award for 2002; Aviation Trail Foundations’ 2001 Trailblazer of the Year Award and the 1989 Christopher Prize for distinguished contributions to literature affirming the highest values of the human spirit.

    When I asked Crouch what attracted him to preserving the history of flight and aerospace and if there were any influential people who steered him in that direction, he replied, “Growing up at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the son of a father involved in engineering testing for the United States Air Force, it was hard not to be fascinated by flight. In my case, it was an interest in the history of aerospace engineering. Who figured out how to fly in the first place? How did we move from Kitty Hawk to the moon? I spent a lot of summer days riding my bike to the Air Force Museum.” He continued, “I thought that Royal Frey, who ran the research division of the museum had a pretty neat job. Over half a century later, I still think that working at an aerospace museum is a pretty satisfying way to make a living.”

    Crouch’s best career memory stems from his involvement with the Centennial of Flight Commission. He noted: “President George W. Bush appointed me Chair of the Advisory Board to the Centennial of Flight Commission. It was a chance to work with some aerospace leaders to plan the commemoration of the invention of the airplane. For a historian who had spent a career researching and writing about the Wright brothers, it was a great experience.”

    Because the National Air and Space Museum is the nation’s most visited museum, it is obvious that flight and its history resonates with the public. That realization led me to ask Crouch why preserving our nation’s aerospace history is so critical. He replied, “When people of the distant future look back on the 20th century, I am pretty sure they will remember it as a time when human beings traveled from the sands of Kitty Hawk to the moon in just over 66 years. It is a story of stunning achievement that is surely worth understanding in detail, preserving, and sharing.”

    When asked what he would tell high school students who were thinking about pursuing a history degree to work in the field of historical preservation, Crouch offered this advice: “Follow your passion. Discover something that absolutely fascinates you, and pursue it.” He pointed back to his childhood as an example of how the past was prologue for his future, along with his budding entrepreneurial spirit: “I was ten years old when I opened my first museum – a display of my fossil collection on our back porch. A nickel admitted a neighborhood kid to see my trilobites, brachiopods, and crinoids, and listen to my talk on the ancient creatures of Ohio’s Miami Valley.” He concluded, “I’m still at it today, planning exhibits on the past that I hope will inspire others to share my passion for the events and the people who laid the foundation for the future.”

    Since so much of history goes undocumented, I asked Crouch what he felt the aerospace community could do to be better stewards of our collective history. He believes that individuals should take steps to preserve and donate papers and other materials, noting: “Our modern aerospace enterprise creates tons of records, so much material that a historian can be overwhelmed. Often, the most useful records of a project or program are the personal papers of the professionals involved. So on behalf of my future colleagues, I would ask engineers and scientists to consider preserving and donating their papers to an archive of their choice.”

    Because so many students aren’t fascinated by history class, I asked Crouch how teachers could engage them. Crouch feels that teachers need to move beyond having students memorize dates and facts, stating that “There is a big difference between asking students to memorize names and dates and involving them in the historical process. Encouraging kids to interview older members of their family about events, large and small, that had an impact on their lives can help build an appreciation for the past and an understanding of the role of past events in shaping the present and the future.”

    Recognizing the role Crouch plays in preserving AIAA’s history, as well as the history of the aerospace community, we closed the interview by discussing AIAA’s stewardship of aerospace history. Crouch commented: “The founders of the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences patterned their organization on the Royal Aeronautical Society, envisioning an Institute that would function as a professional society and an organization that would preserve the history and culture of flight. The IAS building in New York brimmed from basement to penthouse with collections of aeronautical memorabilia. The Institute even had a membership category for historians, and produced a publication on the history of flight.” However, times changed and: “Over time, the IAS sharpened its focus on the more traditional concerns of a professional technical society.” I asked Crouch what happened to the IAS’ collection of artifacts and he responded, “The historical treasures that the early IAS gathered found their way to the National Air and Space Museum and the Library of Congress. The shift away from historical collection is natural and understandable, but AIAA would be well served by appreciating the historical interests of its sections and individual members.” When asked why that mattered, Crouch concluded, “The study of the past plays an important role in shaping the technology of the future.”

    AIAA congratulates Tom Crouch for his selection as the March 2016 Spotlight subject, and for winning this year’s AIAA Distinguished Service Award. We thank him for his valuable work in preserving and interpreting our community’s past and wish him the best on his future endeavors.