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NASA Special Publications
Introduction and General Series
by Donald Boggs

When the United States Congress created NASA, part of its charge was to disseminate to the public the product of its research and exploration. NASA began almost immediately to do so and its publications have continued to this day. Although there are a variety of NASA publications, the ones of most interest to collectors are the Special Publications (SPs), Educational Publications (EPs), Conference Publications (CPs), Reference Publications (RPs) and Technical Memoranda (TMs).

By the spring of 1966, the number of SPs was large enough to warrant the printing of a small (35 page) booklet listing each of them with a short summary of its content. By 1983, it took a 127 page Special Publication (#470) simply to list the titles. This essay is meant to provide some modest information on the NASA Special Publications to those who seek to collect them.

The NASA SPs fall into the following areas:

General Publications   SP-<1000
Handbooks & Data Compilations   SP-3000 series
Histories & Chronologies   SP-4000 series
Reference Works   SP-40XX series
Management Histories   SP-41XX series
Project Histories   SP-42XX series
Center Histories   SP-43XX series
General Histories   SP-44XX series
CD-ROMs   SP-46XX series
NASA Special Reports   SP-49XX series
Technology Utilization   SP-5000 series
Management Evaluation & Analysis Standards   SP-6000 series
Bibliographies   SP-7000 series
Space Vehicle Design Criteria   SP-8000 series


The first six SPs published do not carry an SP number and were printed before the series was given a name in mid 1962. The very first of these was a 123-page book entitled "NASA-Industry Program Plans Conference" published in September of 1960. This was soon followed with other conference reports. Of these early reports, the most desirable and scarce for collectors are "Proceedings of a Conference on Results of the First U.S. Manned Suborbital Space Flight" (July 1961) and "Results of the Second U.S. Manned Suborbital Space Flight, July 21, 1961" (September 1961). The prior of course was a report on Alan Shepard's flights, emphasizing the medical aspects, while the latter reported the flight of Gus Grissom. This report set the pace for later "Results of..." volumes featuring individual chapters on a variety of topics, including medical aspects, the pilot's report, and a transcript of flight communications.

It was not until January 1964 that the "Results of the Project Mercury Ballistic and Orbital Chimpanzee Flights" (SP-39) was published. This rare document provided an account of the suborbital flight of "Ham" and the orbital flight of "Enos". Rarely seen outside of libraries that are government depositories, this is one of the most sought after SPs.

Other SPs are not nearly as interesting to most collectors. "Advanced Bearing Technology" (SP-38), "Effect of Ionizing Radiation on a Series of Saturated Polyesters" (SP-58, November 1964), "IEEE-NASA Symposium on the Definition and Measurement of Short-Term Frequency Stability" (SP-80, November 1965) are examples, despite their important contribution to expanding knowledge in their respective fields.

Often, the early NASA SPs yield some wonderful text and photos for the avid fan of NASA's early manned space flight program. The multiple National Conferences on the Peaceful Uses of Space are one example. Photos of early Apollo design projections, and specific aspects of Project Gemini or Mercury generally not found elsewhere are common.

By 1983, there were almost 500 publications in the general series (SP-<1000), published under the auspices of the Scientific and Technical Branch. On the occasion of its 25th anniversary, NASA published SP-470 "Records of Achievement; NASA Special Publications" listing all of the SPs to date. Of further interest was the sales record of the various SPs. Perhaps predictably, the "coffee table" Earth imagery books were the biggest sellers.

SP No.: Title   Copies
SP-168: "Exploring Space with a Camera"   124,000
SP-250: "This Island Earth"   71,000+
SP-350: "Apollo Expeditions to the Moon"   46,000+

Other best sellers included "Mission to Earth: Landsat views the World" (SP-360), the Skylab series (SP-399-402), "The Martian Landscape" (SP-425), "Voyage to Jupiter" (SP-439), and "Voyages to Saturn" (SP-451). These press runs are in stark contrast to the under 5,000 or even 1,500 runs for volumes in the NASA History Series (SP-4000 series).

Of even more contrast are the current prices of many of these volumes compared to the original Government Printing Office (GPO) price tag. It's not unusual to find one of these stamped with a GPO price of 75 cents and a current price of $50 or more. The "Results of the Project Mercury Ballistic and Orbital Chimpanzee Flights" (SP-39) was originally priced at 45 cents. In 1998 it sold at auction for over $300. "X-15 Research Results, With a Selected Bibliography" (SP-60) sold originally for 55 cents. Today, if it can be found, it typically goes for $400or more.

Long gone are the days when one could walk into a used bookstore and find one of these volumes for $3 or so. Today, it's more likely for one to find "Exploring Space with a Camera" grossly overpriced at $30 or more. General used book dealers see the high advertised price of one of the Apollo Preliminary Science Reports (SP-214, 235, 272, 289, 315, 330) or one of the even rarer reports mentioned earlier and assume that anything published by NASA in the 1960s should carry a high price tag.

The newest of the NASA SPs are available from the NASA Information Center in Washington, D.C. (see their website for a long out of date listing) or through the Government Printing Office (GPO). All of these publications are available from the NASA Center for Aerospace Information (website), in the original edition, if available, or on microforms or Photostat. Prices are significant higher than the original price and in some cases even higher than the current market value.

Future resource guides on NASA Special Publications may include the NASA History Series, the New Series in NASA History, NASA Educational Publications, Reference Publications and Conference Publications.


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Donald Boggs is the owner of Boggs SpaceBooks, an Internet based used bookstore carrying new and used books on the history of space exploration. He has a Ph.D. from Kent State University in the area of Communication. He has also produced and directed over 400 television programs many for broadcast around the world and has traveled to almost 50 countries. He has been enamored with the space program since, as a child of 8, he nervously watched Alan Shepard launch (not blast-off) into space.