History of AAS

The Founding of AAS in 1954

The initial catalyst for a U.S. Society committed to the advancement of astronautics was clearly provided by the creation of the Staten Island Interplanetary Society (SIIS) on April 2, 1952. The first organization of its kind in the United States, this local group was sponsored by the Staten Island Museum and aspired to emulate the British Interplanetary Society. The Staten Island Interplanetary Society was the idea of Hans J. Behm, assistant science curator at the Staten Island Museum. Behm had been interested in astronomy and meteorology since he was a child, but when he was elected a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) in 1952, he “became addicted to space flight.” Behm’s involvement with the BIS and other space activities instilled in him a desire to promote American knowledge, interests and participation in the coming age of space flight. He decided to hold a meeting at the Museum to try to organize a U.S. “interplanetary society.” The purpose of this new society would be to study the future possibilities of interplanetary travel. With the assistance of the Museum’s science curator, Robert Mathewson, a meeting was scheduled and publicized for April 2, 1952. An ad for the meeting placed in the Staten Island Advance on March 31, 1952, read: “Problems of rocket propulsion, navigation and physiology in planet-hopping will be discussed.” Eleven members were present at this organization’s charter meeting. The public reaction to the announcement of the formation of such an interplanetary society was pleasantly surprising to Behm, who received many letters and even donations. One representative of the SIIS spoke about the group on the radio and the Associated Press issued an article on the society’s creation.

One of the eleven charter members of the SIIS was James H. Rosenquist of RCA World Communications Corporation, who was also a member of the BIS. Rosenquist had an interest in rockets and space travel and he and Joseph Golden, also of RCA, often talked about space flight, radio communications and communication satellites. These men felt that existing societies were not creating as an enthusiastic feeling about space as the BIS and other societies were in their respective countries. They envisioned a new, unique society in the United States that would conduct activities for both professional engineers and scientists and “educated laymen.” The society would be solely devoted to the promotion of space flight and would generate public support for a U.S. space program. Although the American Rocket Society (ARS) and the British Interplanetary Society both had admirable programs, Rosenquist believed that a new national organization was needed: one whose purpose would be to aid in designing a national space program that would consequently advance knowledge in many disciplines.

Rosenquist supported Behm’s idea about serving public interests, as “newspapers were full of ‘flying saucers’, science fiction and space ships, and there was a need to give the public more in the way of science knowledge and less in the way of science fiction.” When interest and attendance of the Staten Island Interplanetary Society began to fall off after three more meetings in April, May and June of 1952, Behm and Rosenquist became even more determined to organize and implement a national society focused on interplanetary travel and astronautics; the SIIS did not have the visibility necessary to sustain itself. They believed that a truly national interplanetary society was needed and decided to move their activities to New York City in hope of gaining more members.

The SIIS members had lofty goals for a U.S. interplanetary society. They knew that advancements in technology and basic knowledge and the generation of many new ideas were needed in order to have human or robotic orbital flights and planetary exploration space flights. Many problems in various fields and disciplines would need to be identified and solved. They believed that solving the problems associated with space flight and exploration would lead to advanced in knowledge of virtually every scientific field, from astronomy and biology to physics and geology. The subsequent application of this new knowledge to space fields and non-space-related fields would undoubtedly benefit humankind, as these were not only problems of engineering and science. Rather, they were also problems of bringing together people from industry, government and academia, and people of many nations. Rosenquist and Behm saw this society as an opportunity to educate the public, thus membership would be open to anyone interested in serious space flight, but renowned professionals were also needed in the organization so that it could speak with a strong voice for a national space program. These basic goals and visions conceived before the founding of the AAS still characterize the Society.

It was not until late in the summer of 1953 that they made any serious attempts to bring their dreams to fruition, however. Behm got the much-needed consent and moral support of starting an astronautical society from Joseph Chamberlain, director of the Hayden Planetarium, and Frank Forrester, assistant director. A series of meetings between Behm and Rosenquist then took place in which they proposed plans and courses of actions. Together, they drafted an invitation letter sent November 5, 1953, calling “the first meeting of an American counterpart to the British Interplanetary Society” at the American Museum of Natural History on November 20, 1953. This invitation was sent to 150 select people across the country–fellows and members of BIS in the New York City area and some members of the ARS who were among the recognized leaders in the interplanetary field. Although the letter caught some by surprise (Arthur Clarke and James Harford of the BIS and ARS wrote, wondering why they were starting a new society), the positive response was overwhelming. They received letters of interest and enthusiasm from across the nation. Thirty-five people attended the founding meeting. A subsequent meeting was held on December 11, 1953, that resulted in the formation of committees to plan the organization and to draw up a constitution and bylaws to present to a second general meeting scheduled for January 22, 1954. Behm named himself acting chairman and Rosenquist the assistant chairman. The purpose of the new organization was to educate the public and persuade the U.S. Government to commence a space program. The preamble of the constitution of this new organization stated in part that its purpose was “to publicly disseminate and support as many of the creditable proposals for the conquest of space as possible.” Or, as described in a letter to Fred Ordway from Rowena Thacher, one of the principal objectives of the yet-to-be-named AAS would be “to provide clear and reliable information to the public on a subject that has been too often distorted and romanticized.”

Thus, on January 22, 1954, the American Astronautical Society was founded by 37 individuals intent on championing serious proposals for space flight. The individuals at this first meeting represented a variety of backgrounds, from the aerospace industry to scientific institutions. Although the meeting took place in the New York State Civil Defense Commission, there were representatives present from at least six states (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Rhode Island). The proposed constitution, based on constitutions of several existing scientific societies, was adopted, officers were nominated and elected, and the motion to incorporate was passed. Hans Behm was elected president of the new organization and served in this role through 1954. A membership committee was tasked with recruiting new members.

The new AAS Board of Directors held its first meeting on February 3, 1954. It was at this meeting that aviation and space writer Martin Caidin presented detailed plans for a journal, Astronautics (later called Journal of Astronautics), of which he became the first editor. The American Astronautical Society received its certificate of incorporation from New York State on February 17, 1954.

1974 to 1994

The mid to late 1970s were years of struggle within the Society. General public complacency about the space program resulted in low membership, which consequently had an effect on its business operations. Thus, the AAS focused on getting new blood into the organization, enhancing the image of the AAS in Washington, D.C., eliminating poverty in its operations and strengthening its business office. AAS members continued to support the space program and were unrelenting in their pursuit of promoting space flight and astronautics. The Society continued to hold its two major meetings, the Goddard Memorial Symposium and the Annual Meeting as well as several regional meetings on such subjects as Skylab, satellite communications, Space Shuttle and Spacelab utilization, commercial operations in space and future needs and aspirations for space. The 1976 Annual Meeting was held in Washington, D.C., in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial and featured a presentation by Isaac Asimov. Also, the AAS began sponsoring a biannual astrodynamics conference in conjunction with the AIAA. A new Society publication, the AAS History Series, started up in 1977 and included important memoirs and historical reflections on space flight and related disciplines. In an attempt to gain more members, the society continued to broaden its fields of interest to incorporate non-technical specialists, including the fields of space law, history and public policy. In 1979, in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Society, a symposium on AAS history was held in which former presidents and other members recounted their memories of the past years. The meeting resulted in a publication edited by Eugene Emme, entitled “Twenty-Five Years of the American Astronautical Society, 1954-1979.”

In 1980, the Society’s focus shifted to the industrialization of space. Meetings were held on “Commercial Operations in Space 1980-2000” and “Expanding the Beneficial Uses of Space.” The Annual Meeting was held in Boston, where the Eagle award was first presented to Dr. Robert Seamans, dean of engineering at MIT, for his contributions in space development of the Patriot missile. AAS President Edward Stearns made a statement of Presidential Goals, which primarily focused on emphasizing and developing public interest in industrialization of space, as well as strengthening the foundation of the Society.

The years 1980-1981 were once again active times for space enthusiasts and the Society started on its path to recovery and further expansion. The first flight of the Space Shuttle, under the command of John Young and Robert Crippen, was a catalyst in the Society’s and the nations’ support for space. Additionally, during this period, there were many proposals and studies for long-range space projects, including space colonies and a space power station using a matrix of solar panels in space. Stearns represented the AAS as the pictures from the Voyager passage of Jupiter and Saturn came in. The public’s enthusiasm toward space and the opportunities it offered was making a reappearance in a strong way. Many new space interest groups developed during this period, including the High Frontier Society, the World Security Council, the L5 society and a Planetary Society formed at JPL. The AAS continued its interaction and cooperative efforts with these, and other, scientific and space interest organizations. In October 1981, the Annual Meeting was held in San Diego, and included sessions on international and industrial applications of space.

The AAS made a significant change in 1982, with the addition of the Classified Military Space Symposium to its two other major meetings, the Annual Meeting and the Goddard Memorial Symposium. AAS President Dr. Edwin E. (Ted) Speaker initiated the military space symposium as a way to reach a new and valuable audience. Previously throughout AAS history, Society interactions were primarily with the government, civil and commercial sectors, yet there was a huge body of people in the military field who were space-oriented but not included in the agenda of any particular organization. Thus, the Military Space Symposium was established to provide Society services to people involved with military space programs. There was significant debate about the notion of establishing such a forum within the Society; many members of the Board and the Executive Committee were concerned about the exclusivity that such a program would entail, as attendees would be required to have a security clearance. The idea of having a new and important audience won out, however, and the first classified symposium was held in June 1982 with the title “Military Space Systems and Operations–1982 and Beyond.” The Society received very enthusiastic support from the Pentagon and the Armed Services as it brought into focus the space programs of various elements of the Department of Defense. With the appropriate security measures guaranteed, the AAS was able to garner the support of the top people in the military space program at policy levels. A whole new population was exposed to Society services. This symposium provided a forum where the applications of space technology to various military problems could be seen in a broader scope than they were previously. Attendance at the Symposium was impressive, and included several Congressional representatives. This new vehicle, along with the general increased public interest in space due to the Space Shuttle, resulted in a steady growth in membership and budget of the Society during this period.

The early to mid-1980s was a time of revitalized outreach for the organization, through both its military space activities and through international activities. Governmental and public support of the space program continued and membership was once again reaching a stable level. During this period, the AAS was beginning to realize the importance of international participation in its mission of promoting space flight and thus wanted to continue its expansion into the international arena. Dr. Peter Bainum was the Society’s director of international programs, and with the help of others, he had been working diligently to cultivate ties with the international space community, such as the European Space Agency and its member countries, and the Japanese and the Chinese. Establishing connections that were stronger than just person-to-person was a matter that took a lot of time; the AAS had to work for several years to make little progress. Significant headway was made in the summer of 1984 when an AAS delegation toured the post-cultural revolution China. A delegation of four AAS members and engineers and scientists (Edwin Speaker, former AAS President; Gayle May, AAS President-elect; Charles Sheffield, former AAS President, and Bainum, director of international programs) was hosted by the Chinese Society of Astronautics (CSA), which in turn was supported by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST). The objective of the three-week trip to China was to observe the Chinese space program and its activities. The group was informed of all the Chinese short and long-range plans, as well as the extent of their progress on many technical programs. Surprisingly, at this period of world history, the group was even allowed to view many of the experimental Chinese space programs.

This was the first major international thrust that AAS had made. Since this successful trip, the Society has had excellent relationships with the Chinese, as well as with Japanese space societies, and these countries’ organizations have co-sponsored many of the Pacific-Basin Symposiums with the AAS. AAS President Gayle May negotiated a memorandum of understanding between the CSA and the AAS at that time with the help of Bainum, Sheffield and Speaker, and this agreement was later ratified by the AAS Board and the CSA Trustees. With that agreement as its foundation for their relationship, the CSA and the AAS proceeded to plan a cooperative meeting in 1985. Upon learning of the proposed meeting, the Japanese Rocket Society (JRS) asked to be included as well. This joint technical meeting between the CSA and the AAS, with cooperation from the JRS, was held in Honolulu in 1985. This initial meeting resulted in the establishment of the International Space Conference of Pacific-Rim Societies (ISCOPS), a tri-nation initiative. Since 1985, the ISCOPS meetings have been held biannually in Beijing, Los Angeles, and Kyoto.

In the late 1980s, AAS programs continued to be characterized by the excellence of its symposia and technical meetings, continued quality publications and growth in membership. International space cooperation, competition and collaboration continued to be a focus of the Society as it expanded its international program. Due to the exhaustive efforts of Bainum and others, the Society established significant contacts with the Europeans and the Soviets. Additionally, the Central and South American areas were opened to cooperation, particularly Guatemala, Costa Rica, Brazil and Argentina. The Guatemala AAS Section (officially inaugurated in 1991) is one tangible result of those efforts. The AAS continued its expansion in other ways as well. The AAS Student Science Program was started as part of the Society’s educational outreach. The program attempts to inspire students, elementary through high school, to participate in engineering and science activities, particularly those related to space science and exploration. This program remains a vital part of the Society’s initiatives and is now sponsored by the Washington, D.C. Section.

The first woman president of the AAS, Marcia S. Smith, held office in 1985-1986. AAS activities during this period can be characterized as ones aimed at preparing the Society for the future and many changes were made to the Society Constitution and Bylaws. The most dramatic change undertaken was allowing AAS to present technical options on space subjects in political settings, such as in testimony before Congressional committees. Although this action did not in any way change the nature of AAS (it remains a non-profit, non-political, technical society), it permitted the Society to more directly influence the events that mold the U.S. and global space programs. AAS could now represent its members as other societies did. Procedures for drawing up such policy statements, with a consensus of the AAS officers and Board members, were developed and new Public Policy Committee was chartered.

Many other changes occurred with the Society during these years to meet the challenges of the future. The Board of Directors decided to upgrade the position of Director of International Programs to Vice President-International, reflecting the new-found importance placed on international efforts. Additionally, the Board decided that this position, along with Vice President-Publications, should have no term limit as both are positions which require extensive consequential time periods in order to be truly effective. The Society placed additional emphasis on reaching new members and serving existing ones better. The newsletter was redesigned into a bimonthly magazine named, SPACE TIMES: Magazine of the American Astronautical Society. In addition to Society news items and general interest articles about space, the new magazine featured articles pondering the future of the space program.

David Honhart, head of the Navy’s space program, was the only military officer ever elected to the position of President of the AAS. Although he felt that there were people with better space experience than him, he did have the administrative capacity that the Society needed at this time, and he served as President from 1986-1988. The Society needed strong business and organizational leadership, due to financial difficulties. Although the Society was garnering a significant amount of revenues from its three major meetings, the Society was leasing its office space, equipment and support. He recommended some significant changes to the Board in order to get the financial situation under control, and the Board supported these recommendations whole-heartedly. The Society decided that it would hire its own staff, with Carolyn Brown as Executive Director, and an administrative assistant; it would eventually buy its own office space; and it would buy its own office equipment (unbelievable, before this time, the Society only owned one typewriter and a bookcase). The Society would also acquire desktop publishing capabilities and other measures to further cut costs and still produce quality products. Honhart’s legacy is that turned the AAS around financially.

The Society was once again maintaining a stable membership of about 1400-1500 and was strongly supported by aerospace corporations. 1987 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Goddard Memorial Symposium and a celebratory meeting was held with the theme being “National Space Transportation Issues.” The Symposium held a very successful special program aimed at students, with over 200 people participating. Although space was supported throughout the nation, this was a point in time when budgets were seriously declining, and deficits were rising exponentially. It was a tough time for the nation. Space activities were under considerable scrutiny and they were an easy target. Due to the tremendous pressures on the federal budget, many science and technology programs were canceled. The mood of the time provided further motivation to AAS Board of Directors member Jim Beggs, former NASA Administrator, and other to advocate that the United States dedicate a fixed percentage of the annual budget to space. AAS members maintained their support of the U.S. space program and their dedication to astronautics during these trying times. “Technology and the Civil Future in Space” was the topic of the twenty-sixth Goddard Memorial Symposium.

The late 1980s were a turning point in the finances of the Society. In 1988, the AAS bought and moved into its own office condominium; this is the same facility the Business Office is located in now. AAS President E. Larry Heacock (1988-1990) oversaw the Society’s successful meetings on such topics as “Leaving the Cradle: Human Exploration of Space in the 21st Century.” The financial position of the organization was brought back on track due to the business measures that were implemented. Increased meeting attendance and public support due to the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and the space station debates also helped to strengthen the AAS.

When John Sand took over the AAS presidency in 1990 (and served until 1992), he took over a healthy organization, due to the hard work of Honhart and Heacock. Starting once again with a solid foundation, the Society could increase its focus on expanding services to its members and the general public. Great strides were made in the AAS education initiatives during this time. Existing education initiatives were modified and a position of Vice President for Education was established in order to bring greater attention to these important programs. Policies were enacted to allow excess revenues of the Society to be applied to educational programs. The Society began participation and support of the “USA Today Visions of Exploration” program by sponsoring elementary school activities in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., relating to space exploration topics.  Other education activities started during this period include judging science fairs around the area and presenting AAS awards to students who conduct worthy projects in space-related disciplines. Increased national attention to space activities led the AAS to take strong advocacy positions. Society representatives prepared position papers to Congress, under the invitation of Congressman George Brown, Chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee, on the Space Station and on Biological Sciences. Thus, the Society gained more visibility on key issues. This visibility has kept its momentum in recent years due to its more policy-oriented national meetings and symposia.

As the unprecedented post-cold war decade of the nineties was unfolding, the AAS once again began facing new challenges. National priorities had been shifted, space budget had begun to decline, and the aerospace industry had begun its massive restructuring and retrenchment. Subject to economic pressures and fearing diminishing prospects for the future, the AAS corporate and individual members began to curtail their participation in AAS activities. To stem the potentially serious effect of this trend on the vitality of the Society, AAS President Dr. Ashok R. Deshmukh put several new initiatives into motion during 1992-1994. He appointed a committee to review and reestablish the Mission, Vision, Core Values, Goals, and Strategy for the Society. He impaneled a new AAS Standing Meetings Committee to guide the programs of all AAS conferences, with an objective of making them more relevant to the new realities and more useful to members. He established a new Corporate Leadership Council to provide the AAS corporate-member executives opportunities to exchange their views with the top national and corporate leaders. To mark the 40th anniversary, the Society instituted a new AAS Life-time Achievement Award and launched a campaign to expand the individual and corporate membership among universities and smaller space-related companies. Finally, to further enhance the education program, the Society initiated a scholarship program. With the introduction of the International Space Station in 1998 came an international platform for space experimentation and discovery, and the utilization of the ISS became a reoccuring topic at AAS conferences.

Present Times

The beginning of the 21st century brought increased visibility to AAS as it introduced three new annual events.  A Student CanSat Competition kicked off in Texas in 2005 and the Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium was inaugurated in Huntsville in 2008.  In 2012 the first annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference was held in Denver, organized by AAS with the support of NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.  AAS continued to host the widely respected Space Flight Mechanics and Astrodynamics Specialist Meetings with AIAA, and its Rocky Mountain Section Guidance and Control Conference remained popular.  From 2000 to the present, AAS’ individual membership, while not growing significantly, remained stable.

The AAS celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2014 with approximately 1400 individual members and 48 corporate and institutional members and sponsors, located in the United States and around the world.  As was true in the early days of the Society, the membership of the AAS is composed of people of many different disciplines and background.  Although many of the Society’s members are engineers and scientists, an increasing number of administrators, military space specialists, lawyers, educators, historians, journalists, artists, students, and others interested in space flight have joined

Through its regular conferences and symposia, tailored workshops and seminars, public outreach programs, scholarships, educational activities and respected publications, the AAS has proven itself to be a leader in promoting space travel and exploration, and continues to be one of the most well-respected astronautical organizations in the world.  Unquestionably, there will always be a group of people planning for humankind’s future in space, and the AAS will be in the lead – advancing all space.