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Guidelines for Writing a History Paper

Picking A Topic
Picking a Topic

Give this some thought and ask yourself:  Is this paper going to be part of a planned session, or are you going to submit a paper and let the Track Chair decide where it is going to fit in.  Do some preliminary research to find out what information is available and how accessible it may be; will there be travel involved, are the repositories going to require research or usage fees?  How much resource can you commit to the project, and will it be worth it; are there easier or better ways of performing the research?  Don’t expect to do all the research in the local library.  This is not a book report, and you need to get some original source material.


In addition to the usual History of Aeronautics, and the History of Astronautics sessions in the SciTech History Tracks, the Track Chair may plan special topics, sessions, and joint sessions.  One of these special sessions might be an interesting starting point for your planned paper. 

Some of the planned special sessions are outlined below:

  • 2021 at Nashville – Track Chair: Dr. Richard Hallion

  • 2022 at San Diego – Track Chair: Kevin Burns

    • History of VSTOL  (Joint between VSTOL and History Committees)

    • History of Ground Testing  (Joint between Ground Test and History Committees)

    • History of Intelligent Systems  (Joint between Intelligent Systems and History Committees)

    • History of the Media and Space Technology

  • 2023 at Washington DC – Track Chair: Dr. Julian Tishkoff

  • 2024 at Orlando – Track Chair: Undetermined

  • 2025 at Orlando – Track Chair: Undetermined

Building An Outline
Building an Outline

Like any other paper, develop a hypothesis and write an outline of what you expect the paper will look like with topics and sub-topics.  Follow the usual ten step program for writing a research paper (just Google it).

You may ask, why develop a proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation (hypothesis) when it is history and we know the outcome?  Because, once you do your research and examine original source material, you may find that things are not as they appear, or that the path to the outcome was not as expected or known.


Your outline will change as you complete phases of your research, but it gives you a milestone starting point.  As you write your paper, each section of the outline will be a measure of completion.  Keep in mind that as you research and develop your story, chances are that your outline will grow also.  That is why it is so important to give yourself a buffer in the timeline of completion.

Building a Repository of Knowledge

The internet is an excellent source to start with.  Much government data is digitally posted on the internet, including NASA and FAA reports and studies, and other documents.  Never use sources whose origins are unknown or questionable; Wikipedia is a neat encyclopedia of information, but anyone can post anything, and it is not an academically reliable source.

Has anyone written on this topic before?  A good place to start is by checking the AIAA Aerospace Research Central (ARC) website [].  Many universities, libraries, and archives list their indexes online.  A search of these online indexes will often tell you the location (box/folder) of the information, and sometimes the size of the holdings.  However, in most cases it will require travel to the location and researcher fees and possible usage fees.

Are there any first-hand accounts still alive?  If there are witnesses or participants still available for interview, it might be a way of getting to the information without tremendous expense or travel.  Get a very quiet place where you can call them with good phone signal, turn on the voice recorder on your computer, and give them a call.  Explain who you are, what you are doing, and ask their permission to record the call because you cannot type that fast.  Make sure that you record them giving permission at the beginning of the recording.  After the interview is over, transcribe the interview, and use that as some of your source material.

In additional to national assets, such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives, local resources to the events or individuals involved might hold important information; this includes local museums, historical societies, newspaper accounts, and libraries (both municipal and college).

Repository of Knowledge
Conducting Interviews

A good resource of original source material is the people who were involved.  Interviews of first-hand accounts are easy to conduct, and could help avoid costly travel expenses.  Whether in person or via phone calls, it is a good idea to get a permanent record of the interview.  It is difficult to write fast enough to accurately transcribe the conversation, and you don’t want to rely upon your memory for what transpired in the conversation.


Current computer systems usually have an excellent voice recorder built-in to them, as does many cell phones.  If interviewing in person, the cell phone recorder might work well.  If interviewing over the phone, setting the phone by the computer with the phone on speaker, will usually give you a good record of the conversation.

Privacy rights

Call recording laws in some U.S. states require only one party to be aware of the recording, while other states require both parties to be aware.  Several states require that all parties consent when one party wants to record a telephone conversation.  To be on the safe side, after you start the recording, ask permission of the person being interviewed if you can record the call so that you can focus on the interview and not be taking notes.  If they agree, have the agreement recorded on the recording so that you have a permanent record of their approval.  If they do not agree, stop the recording, and try and conduct the interview as best as you can.


Once you have the interview recorded, it is suggested that you make a written transcript of the conversation.  This may be time-consuming as you play bits of the conversation, write it down, and then play the next small bit.  When finished, listen to the conversation while reading the transcript, and make any necessary corrections.  As you hear phrases in context, you may find errors in the transcript that can change the meaning of the narrative.  If you are going to quote a source, you want to do so correctly and in context of the subject matter.  These transcripts will become an important resource as you write the paper.

Conducting Interviews
Organizing your Research

Once you have built a large repository of information, it may be gigabytes of data.  Go through and organize it in accordance with your outline.  You will probably be revising your outline throughout the process of the research, because you will be learning more about your subject matter.  Take notes on where the information is located in your outline.  You might only be referring to a single paragraph in the middle of a 450-page report in a pdf-document.

A big part of organization is maintaining control of where the data came from.  Look at almost any good history paper, and it is full of references.  Just as any good experiment that proves a theory has to be repeatable, readers need to know where you obtained your information, and be able to follow the references for verification.  Do not try to keep a separate accounting of your references.  Once you lose control of where your information came from, you will have to start all over again.  Learn how to use “Endnotes” under the “References” tab in your document editor, and each time you put data into your paper, insert the endnote telling where it came from.  When you edit your paper, cutting and pasting sections, make sure that the endnote references go with the text, and the document editor will automatically renumber them for you.

Organizing Your Research
Writing the Paper
Additional Resources
Writing the Paper

We each have our own method or process for writing assignments, but again I’ll refer to the standard ten step program (Google, “ten steps to writing a paper,” and pick one).  All papers should have an abstract at the beginning, an introduction, the body of the paper, and a conclusion.  Reference the prepared template, and use that for formatting the paper.

It is extremely important that you keep track of the references to your source material.  It is suggested that you use the “Insert Endnote” feature under “References” if you are writing the paper in Microsoft Word.  This feature is not used in the template, but it will help to keep your references in order and tied to the sections of the paper.

Insert Endnote
Additional Resources 

Remember to leave yourself enough time to carefully go through and do a final proofreading.  Once the paper is submitted, it is preserved forever, as it is, and with whatever mistakes that may be in it when it was submitted.

Submitting the Abstract

Many like to have the paper fairly completed by the time that the abstracts are due (usually around eight to nine months prior to the conference).  However, in the last couple of years reviewers have been over-tasked so much that they do not want full papers submitted.  Keep in mind that all AIAA papers are peer-reviewed, and selected for presentation from the abstracts; so the abstract has to demonstrate that the author is going to present a relevant, coherent, and professional paper.  The AIAA abstract submission guidelines state that there is a minimum of 1,000 words requirement; and the guidelines can be found in the documents linked below.


It is not necessary, but you may find it easier in the long run to start your outline and abstract right in the AIAA Meeting Paper Template.

Submitting the Abstract

For most of those in industry, we signed papers in the employment processing period when we first started with the company, which gave them control rights on everything that we wrote or published while in their employ.  This is especially true if we were to write anything that had their name on it (such as an employer designate), or was about their operations, products, processes, or that of their customers.  Usually companies have lengthy internal review processes, and separate reviews for editorial, technical, legal, and International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

For students using open source materials (non-controlled or not government sensitive material), this is not a problem.  However, for all others, it is advised to review the company policies and procedures at the beginning of the paper process (when you first approach your supervisor for sending you to the conference) so that you know how much time you need to schedule for the reviews.

If the paper is on the history of a government or customer project or program, that may involve additional reviews and authorizations that will need to be allowed for in the schedule.  Government reviews through a Public Affairs Office (PAO) can take a long time.  Make sure that you contact them early in the process, and know how much time to allow for their procedure.  Some papers may have a note at the bottom with two authorization numbers noting that the paper has been “Cleared for Public Release;” one from the employer, and another from the customer.

The review and releasability requirements usually apply to any materials or information that goes outside the company; including the abstract, paper, presentation slides, and oral presentation transcript.  Keep in mind that if you have releasability requirement restrictions, anything else that you might say beyond what has been approved, might be seen as an unauthorized release of information.

Preparing the Slides
Preparing the Presentation Slides

Present the story of the paper on your slides in a logical order.  You don’t need to present every detail; rather the presentation is to give the salient facts and to pique the interest of the audience into reading the actual paper.

For the presentation slides, the templates below may be used, or you can use your own format and identification.

Keep the slides interesting, but don’t over pack them with graphics or put all the text that you are going to present on the slides.  When you present your slides, tell the story and don’t just read the text on the slides.

The slide presentation is a release of information; therefore, if you are presenting on behalf of an employer or organization that requires review beforehand, the slides also have to go through the same reviews as the paper.​

Preparing the Narrative
Preparing the Narrative

For first-time presenters, getting up in front of an august body of scientists and engineers to present a paper is usually a bit unnerving; even if you think you are fully prepared for it.  Thus, it is a good idea to have your complete narrative written out.  You should look at the audience from time-to-time as you present your information, and you can always adlib when you feel comfortable doing so; but you do not want to just “wing” the whole presentation no matter how well you know the material.


In terms of ITAR and Releasability, verbal transfer of information is the same as written information.  Therefore, if you are presenting on behalf of an employer or organization who requires reviews before the Public Release of any information; the entire narrative needs to be written-out and reviewed by their processes, and then read just as it has been approved without adlibbing any additional information.​


If you are using PowerPoint or similar presentation software, writing the narrative in the “Notes” pages is a good way to track your narrative to the particular slides.


All papers and presentations have to be original, meaning that they cannot have been presented at any other conference before.  However, it does not preclude presenting it at local events.  Thus, once you have your paper, presentation, and narrative completed (and if necessary, approved for public release); then it is a good idea to practice giving the presentation to an audience.  Various forums are your local section meeting, student branch meetings, or community organizations (Lion, Kiwanis, American Legion, Moose Lodge, etc.).  You might even contact a local high school history teacher or JROTC instructor to see if they would like a presentation.

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