Erik M. Conway

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology

2017 Athelstan Spilhaus Award Winner

Erik M. Conway received the Athelstan Spilhaus Award at the 2017 AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 13 December 2017 in New Orleans, La. The award honors an individual “for the enhancement of the public engagement with Earth and space sciences.”


Few people have done as much to advance the history, understanding, and communication of Earth and space science and technology as Erik Conway.

Erik received his B.S. in engineering and Ph.D. in the history of science and technology, with early work on the history of aviation and aerospace technology. His first two books, High-Speed Dreams and Blind Landings, were academic contributions of the first order and established him as a historian of technology of first rank. They also earned him his appointment as the historian of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, where he has worked since 2004.

Erik’s work at JPL has been focused on documenting, understanding, and explaining the key role that NASA has played in the Earth and space sciences. This has led to numerous academic articles and presentations on the subject and also to Erik taking on the challenge of effective public communication, particularly with respect to NASA’s contributions to the scientific basis for understanding climate change. Erik was one of the lead scientists who rewrote and reformulated the NASA website on climate change, ­climate​.­ The exceptionally clear page on evidence—https://​­climate​.­nasa​.­gov/​­evidence/—is one of the most useful resources for anyone looking for answers to skeptical questions about climate change or seeking to understand more fully the scientific basis for our current understanding.

People are naturally attracted to space as well as to the feats of scientific and engineering accomplishment that make space exploration possible. But its history has been filled with challenges—both technical and social—and there have been many costly failures on the way to success. Erik manages to convey the complex realities of what it takes to do space science and exploration while still maintaining a sense of joy, wonder, and accomplishment. So much work on the history of space science and exploration is undermined by hype or wishful thinking. One result of this is that the public does not understand what it really takes—either scientifically or financially—to launch a successful mission. Erik’s work, in my view, is crucial in helping to create and sustain real understanding—the sort of understanding that is essential if public and governmental support for space science is to be sustained.

—Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.


I’m honored and humbled to receive the 2017 Athelstan Spilhaus Award from AGU. I’ve been fascinated by the geosciences and their histories since high school, and it has been wonderful to spend a career telling their stories. As a historian, I was traditionally trained at the University of Minnesota, though my advisers, Arthur Norberg and Sally Kohlstedt, did encourage me to eschew the passive voice early on. My colleagues in communications at JPL, especially Blaine Baggett, Michael Greene, and Randal Jackson, have helped me see the value in new kinds of media for my own work, and I thank them for that. I also have to thank Karen Yuen, and Michael and Randy again, for inviting me to help build the NASA climate change website, which has been a powerful platform for bringing that science to the public.

I owe my career as a NASA historian to Roger Launius, former chief historian of NASA, who hired me to write a history of supersonic transportation and got me started on examining the intersection between technological change and the Earth sciences. That work and my ensuing book projects brought me into contact with more geoscientists than the word limit would permit naming—I am well into the hundreds of hours of recorded interviews. Some of the more influential were Ben Santer, William L. Smith, Claire Parkinson, Crofton “Barney” Farmer, Moustafa Chahine, Michael Gunson, Daniel McCleese, Peter Barret, Annmarie Eldering, Leslie Tamppari, and Richard Zurek. My longtime lunch group at JPL, Tim Schofield, Eric Fetzer, Armin Kleinboehl, and David Kass, has also helped me understand many points of science, though not necessarily of an earthly nature.

It was Naomi Oreskes’s idea for what became Merchants of Doubt that provided the opportunity for my “second career,” as a historian and explainer of climate science and denial. I can’t thank her enough for opening that fascinating window on the world. Working with Robby Kenner on the documentary version was an equally valuable experience. Jim Fleming’s early effort to wrest the history of climate science from the hands of scientists was influential in shaping my thinking. Lynn Russell provided the opportunity to teach climate policy after many years out of the classroom, which has allowed me to reengage with climate and energy histories. Last, I thank my geophysicist wife, Andrea Donnellan, for putting up with the crazy life of a humanist.

—Erik M. Conway, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena