Lawson Wright’s (11) documentary on space diplomacy qualifies him for the New York State History Day National competitions

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Joshua Shuster, Staff Writer

Lawson Wright’s (11) documentary “Debating Diplomacy in Space: The Handshake That Reinvigorated the Cold War” won first place in the “Senior Individual Documentary” section of both the New York City History Day (NYCHD) and New York State History Day (NYSHD) competitions. The NYCHD tournaments took place virtually in March with results announced on March 25, and States competition took place in the second half of April with results announced on May 2. This was Wright’s fifth time participating in NYCHD/NYSHD competitions, and his third time qualifying for Nationals, Wright said.

Upon hearing the news, Wright felt honored to be representing New York State in Nationals, he said. “It felt great that the effort I put into the project was recognized,” he said. Wright’s family members were also very proud of him, he said.

Upper Division (UD) History teacher Melissa Morales, who advised Wright on his project, was thrilled that Wright took first place, she said. “His wins — and his advancement to the national competition — are well deserved.” 

Wright’s project explored the impact of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) on diplomacy between the US and the USSR, he said. The ASTP was the first international space mission, carried out by the US and the USSR. The ASTP and its effects on easing foreign relations, in Wright’s view, seemed to be overlooked by historians, Wright said.

The project included a 10-minute documentary, which centered around the effects of public perception of ASTP on foreign diplomacy, Wright said. “The intense debates surrounding [ASTP] ultimately caused the program to not only fail in its mission of promoting closer collaborative efforts between the US and the Soviet Union, but actually hindered future diplomatic endeavors between the two countries,” he said. Amid increasing tensions between the US and Russia, this topic felt particularly relevant.

Wright chose to do this project because he loves learning history and always looks for new topics to explore, he said. Wright was especially interested in looking into why the ASTP, which looked like an outward success and a sign of peace between the US and the USSR, was not followed up by any joint space missions in the late 70s, and 80s, he said. His topic also fit with this year’s National History Day theme, being debate and diplomacy, he said. 

Wright began working on the project last summer by researching secondary sources and consulting numerous books and articles, he said. “Once school started, I used every holiday, long weekend, and school break to read, develop my thesis, write the script, process paper, [and] annotate the bibliography,” Wright said. He spent President’s Day weekend editing the documentary. 

Once Wright had done his research, he drafted a script and recorded a voiceover for the documentary, he said. “Throughout the research process, I looked for images and videos that would support my narrative and further drive home the points I was arguing.”

Wright enjoyed making the documentary because it helped convey the ASTP’s story in a detailed and comprehensive manner, he said. “I am a huge fan of historical documentaries, and the opportunity to present historical research in this manner is something that has repeatedly drawn me to the National History Day competition,” he said. The documentary in specific, for Wright, seemed to be the perfect way to tell the story of the ASTP and US-USSR relations, Wright said. “No other form of historical storytelling would have captured the powerful symbolism that moment represented during the Cold War.”

Wright first learned about the National History Day (NHD) competitions when he was in middle school from the Museum of the City of New York and he has competed every year since 2018, he said.

For Wright, the hardest part of the project was analyzing over 100 sources, 85 of which were primary sources, he said. Some of the sources were difficult to obtain due to COVID restrictions like undigitized primary sources at the National Archives, Wright said. “Fortunately, I was able to work with archivists at the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Presidential Libraries to review numerous primary documents from their collections,” he said. 

Archive websites had emails of archivists that Wright consulted for the project, he said. The school’s databases were also helpful, but historical newspapers and magazine articles were his most important sources, he said.

Film teacher Jordan Rathus also helped Wright, providing feedback on his documentary, Wright said. Morales also reviewed Wright’s bibliography and documentary and provided feedback that helped him make his project better, he said.

Morales has worked with Wright on his projects for three years, she said. “[Wright] has always done exceptional work as a student of history and as a documentary producer,” she said. Wright contributed new, original scholarship to the historiography of the Cold War, Morales said. 

Upon hearing the news of Wright’s win, Rathus was not surprised, she said. “[Wright] is an incredibly talented filmmaker with extremely high standards and a sustained interest in the material,” she said. Wright harnessed the power of the moving image to tell a story over time in a way that was both exciting and informative, she said. “Maintaining that balance is vital to the documentary genre and [Wright] certainly continues to refine his ability to achieve that balance.”

Wright’s main takeaway from the project was that there are always new aspects of history to explore, especially if one looks for voices that have not been closely analyzed, Wright said. 

“Also, I wish more HM students would compete in National History Day because it is such a rewarding experience,” he said. Wright’s best advice for aspiring historians at the school is to research a topic that they are truly interested in, he said. “Often in school, you learn from a set curriculum but if you’re doing individual research outside of the classroom, you’re really able to explore whatever you like.”