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At the Round Table with History Expert, Dr. Roger Launius

June 16, 2023

Our guest, Dr. Roger Launius, sat down with us recently to discuss his experience as  an expert witness. “I err on the side of extreme preparedness and exhaustive research along those lines.” He is a firm believer that it is impossible to overprepare for a case or a report and that being confident in your preparation is key during cross.

Additionally, we addressed time management, maintaining expertise, and organizing your work “. . . my first step is almost always to build some sort of a timeline, a chronology of what happened when it happened, and how it happened,” remarked Launius.

Episode Transcript:  

Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Host: Noah Bolmer, Round Table Group

Guest: Dr. Roger Launius, Principal of Launius Historical Services, NASA Historian, and Author

Noah Bolmer: Welcome to Discussions at the Round Table. I am Noah Ballmer, your host, and today I am excited to speak with Dr. Roger Launius. Dr. Lanius is an accomplished historian and principal at Lanius Historical Services. He has authored several books on aerospace history and NASA programs for which he has won the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics History Manuscript Prize. Additionally, he has published award-winning books on historical figures ranging from Joseph Smith to Charlie Finley. Doctor Lanius holds a Ph.D. in history from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He is a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Aeronautical Society and many others. Doctor Lanius, it is an absolute privilege to have you on the show.

Dr. Roger Launius: Thank you. It is good to be here.

Noah Bolmer: Let’s jump into it. You have made a career in history, and in particular, the history of NASA and aerospace, for which you have a new book coming out. Have you always been drawn to the space program? How did you get started?

Dr. Roger Launius: I was a fan when I was a 10-year-old watching rockets go up. What could be more fun? That is my background. It went away for a while. I did not focus on that when I was doing my educational activities, but I came back to it. I took a job working for the United States Air Force after I finished my Ph.D., and the Air Force was a place where I learned that the history of flying was a very cool thing to write about in addition to watching it from afar. Ultimately, I moved to NASA as the chief historian and spent 12 years in that function. Then for the last 15 years of my career, I was the Associate Director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution. So, during that 35-year career, I focused on aerospace and that is what I am doing today in my retirement phase and what we are talking about in this podcast.

Noah Bolmer: That is a significant amount of experience. How did you parlay that into becoming an expert witness? Did you actively seek this, or did you fall into it?

Dr. Roger Launius: I did not actively seek this particular type of activity. While I worked for the federal government, I had been involved in a couple of different court cases and on behalf of the United States government in those settings, preparing background materials, historical documentation, and things of that nature. In a couple of cases, I ended up testifying at those particular trials, but it was not a major feature of what I was doing. Since I retired, I have been involved in a couple of cases as an expert witness. I am still a novice when it comes to this, although I do have a strong background in aerospace. So, if there is a need for that kind of information in a particular case, I am a person they can call upon and they have done so on a few occasions.

Noah Bolmer: When you talk about background material, what does that involve?

Dr. Roger Launius: It is mostly research in the preparation of briefs that are helpful to the lawyers who are arguing the case. I have a strong knowledge of federal government documents, where they are located, and how to get to them. I will say this is not classified material like those in the news. That is not what we are talking about here. My expertise is to present that kind of documentation to whatever subject is being litigated.

Noah Bolmer: When you first interface with an attorney, they tell you, “Hey, we have got this kind of a case and we need this type of information.” When you talk about researching to prepare them for the case, what sort of research are you doing that is outside? Are you simply taking the expertise that you already have and putting it on paper, or do you have to actively research the specifics of what they need?

Dr. Roger Launius: It is a little of both. There may be generic things needed that will help them make their case, and it may be as simple as a timeline of activities at a particular location that is part of NASA, part of the Department of Defense (DoD), or one of the contractor locations. I can build that for them. I can help them put that material together to give them a sense of what is taking place there. If it is a case that deals with say poisoning or something like that there is always history. Everything has a history, and I can help uncover that history. That is my particular expertise. I know where the documentation can be found.

Noah Bolmer: When an attorney is specifically preparing you for a case, especially ones that went to trial and you have appeared, what works for you and what does not work for you?

Dr. Roger Launius: The initial part of this is putting together the materials necessary to make whatever testimony I would need to make, and I err on the side of extreme preparedness and exhaustive research along those lines. That is probably to the good. There may be folks who have a different approach, but I always feel it is better to be over-prepared than underprepared. My first step is almost always to build a timeline, a chronology of what happened when it happened, and how it happened. That is just the bare bones of history. There are larger questions associated with why and so forth on those lines, but I am only involved in the historical pieces of this, I cannot make arguments about things other than the historical background of a case.

Noah Bolmer: Sure. When you are in court and you are facing cross-examination, have you felt well prepared? Is it just a matter of knowing your material and answering honestly, or are there other kinds of strategies you have had to employ when you are being grilled by the other side?

Dr. Roger Launius: I wish I had a good strategy. Preparation is the fundamental piece of this. If you do not know the answer to a question, you simply say that. If I did not prepare and have the background to argue something, I do not say it that is for darn sure. The lawyers arguing the case will go through the prep work with you. They will tell you where you may be light or heavy in your analysis, and what you should or should not say with the intent of fully covering everything. Not offering more than you should.

Noah Bolmer: While I understand that there are things that you can and cannot talk about in your line of work, do you have any interesting cases that you can tell us about? Any cases that you have served as an expert in that you can give us an overview of how it went?

Dr. Roger Launius: Oh, sure. There was a case not long ago where the company was engaged in a lawsuit that was about toxic chemicals that were available and had presumably caused damage. Now, I cannot speak to the toxicity of any substance. I cannot talk about what was there or not there in that context. What I can do is talk about how and what I did which, was prepare briefs that explained how the contractor process worked for the federal government in this particular project. I can say what was acceptable and what was not acceptable. The safeguards that were in place to ensure that exposure to these toxic chemicals was not a problem? I went through the paperwork associated with that, which goes a long way toward answering the question and what I can give them. The next question that I cannot answer is did they violate those rules? I cannot tell you the answer to that because I do not know. Only witnesses to that part of it could say something about it. My part was to establish the policies and procedures that were in place and what was taking place in the context of the overall project.

Noah Bolmer: That brings up an interesting point. The boundaries: I do not know and that is not part of why I am here. Experts need to understand what exactly it is that you are there to do and not try to exceed it too much because opposing counsel will try and get you to talk about things for which you are not an expert.

Dr. Roger Launius: Right. You have to be cautious in those settings and not overstep and outrun your documentation and data.

Noah Bolmer: How do you become an expert in your field? History is history. It is already written, but there is a lot of it, and it is always unfolding. I know that might sound obvious, but when you are brought on to talk about the history of something as broad as NASA or the Department of Justice, or asbestos, or whatever it is that you are working on at the time, how do you maintain that expertise?

Dr. Roger Launius: I have spent a lifetime bringing myself up to speed on all aspects of space flight history. There are many things I do not know. For instance, the details of the procedures that were in place with the toxic chemicals. How they tried to protect against those is not something I previously studied, but you can go back into the record and find the materials used, and the procedures and policies put into place. I can research the written record associated with that and talk about that in context. I cannot say more beyond that. Other people with more knowledge have to speak on those types of issues.

Noah Bolmer: Is there anything you feel that you have not been adequately prepared for? Anything you would like attorneys to know? Is there anything that you feel could be done better as a newer person who is not sure what you are getting yourself into every time?

Dr. Roger Launius: I am sure the few times that I have done this, I tended in my initial reports to err on the side of inclusion and put more stuff in than the attorneys were necessarily seeking. I have been pulled back a couple of times on that. We want to establish this in terms of the story, but we do not want you to go down rabbit holes and open things that now become a part of the written record. The process will be litigated if it does not serve a purpose from their perspective. I would like to know that upfront. Unfortunately, most attorneys do not know the answer to that either until they see what the papers say when they find out what is being offered to them. There is an alternative process in terms of the preparation of these documents, at least it is for me. They are all working papers, so they are confidential.

Noah Bolmer: Before we wrap up, I would like to ask you about any time management skills that you may have. How do you manage everything? Do you use calendaring, or do you just try and keep it going? What is your strategy for time management?

Dr. Roger Launius: Yeah, I wish I had a good answer for that. That is everyone’s problem, isn’t it?

Noah Bolmer: Right

Dr. Roger Launius: I have seen it with students, attorneys, myself, and others. There is never enough time in the day to do the things that you probably should be doing. My approach is to work on these things when I first get up. I am an early riser, so that is usually what I do. By noon or so, I have wiped out most of the things I need to do. I do go back unless there is a hard deadline that I need to meet. Then I go off and do other things for the afternoon. That is my approach. Other people should do whatever they are comfortable with.

Noah Bolmer: Thank you, Dr. Lanius, for joining me today.

Dr. Roger Launius: Thank you. Take care.

Noah Bolmer: This is Noah Bolmer, and I will see you next time for another Discussion at the Round Table.

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After a quarter century helping litigators find the right expert witnesses, Round Table Group’s network contains some of the world’s greatest experts. On the Discussions at the Round Table podcast, we talk to some of them about what’s new in their field of study and their experience as expert witnesses.

At the Round Table with History Expert, Dr. Roger Launius

Dr. Roger Launius, Principal of Launius Historical Services

Our guest, Dr. Roger Launius is the Principal of Launius Historical Services. He has worked as a historian and author for over 35 years, including as Associate Director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian Institute and as Chief Historian for NASA. He is a Fellow of numerous Aerospace and Aeronautics organizations including the AIAA and RAS and holds a Ph.D. in History from Louisiana State University.