Astronomy - NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration


From 1946, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) had been experimenting with rocket planes such as the supersonic Bell X-1.

Bell X 1


While this new federal agency would conduct all non-military space activity, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created in February 1958 to develop space technology for military application.

On July 29, 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing NASA.

When it began operations on October 1, 1958, NASA absorbed NACA intact; its 8,000 employees, an annual budget of US$100 million, three major research laboratories (Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory) and two small test facilities.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is an independent agency of the executive branch of the United States federal government responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes.

NASA's birth was directly related to the pressures of national defence.

After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in the Cold War, a broad contest over the ideologies and allegiances of the nonaligned nations.

A significant contributor to NASA's entry into the Space Race with the Soviet Union was the technology from the German rocket program led by Wernhervon Braun, who was now working for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), developing the Redstone Ballistic Missile.

Redstone Ballistic Missile

During this period, space exploration emerged as a major area of contest and became known as the space race.

During the late 1940s, the Department of Defence pursued research and rocketry and upper atmospheric sciences as a means of assuring American leadership in technology.

A major step forward came when President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a plan to orbit a scientific satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) for the period, July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958, a cooperative effort to gather scientific data about the Earth.

The Soviet Union quickly followed suit, announcing plans to orbit its own satellite.

The Naval Research Laboratory's Project Vanguard was chosen on 9 September 1955 to support the IGY effort, largely because it did not interfere with high-priority ballistic missile development programs.

It used the non-military Viking rocket as its basis while an Army proposal to use the Redstone ballistic missile as the launch vehicle waited in the wings.

Viking Rocket

Project Vanguard enjoyed exceptional publicity throughout the second half of 1955, and all of 1956, but the technological demands upon the program were too great and the funding levels too small to ensure success.

A full-scale crisis resulted on October 4, 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite as its International Geophysical Year entry.

This had a "Pearl Harbour" effect on American public opinion, creating an illusion of a technological gap and provided the impetus for increased spending for aerospace endeavours

The United States launched its first Earth satellite on January 31, 1958, when Explorer 1 documented the existence of radiation zones encircling the Earth.

Shaped by the Earth's magnetic field, what came to be called the Van Allen Radiation Belt, these zones partially dictate the electrical charges in the atmosphere and the solar radiation that reaches Earth.

NASA began to conduct space missions within months of its creation, and during its first twenty years NASA conducted several major programs:

NASA's first high-profile program involving human spaceflight was Project Mercury, an effort to learn if humans could survive the rigors of spaceflight.

On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American to fly into space, when he rode his Mercury capsule on a 15-minute suborbital mission.

Alan Shepard


Mercury Capsule 

John H. Glenn Jr. became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962.

With six flights, Project Mercury achieved its goal of putting piloted spacecraft into Earth orbit and retrieving the astronauts safely.

John Glenn

Project Gemini built on Mercury's achievements and extended NASA's human spaceflight program to spacecraft built for two astronauts.

Gemini's 10 flights also provided NASA scientists and engineers with more data on weightlessness, perfected re-entry and splashdown procedures, and demonstrated rendezvous and docking in space.

One of the highlights of the program occurred during Gemini 4, on June 3, 1965, when Edward H. White, Jr., became the first U.S. astronaut to conduct a spacewalk.

Gemini Capsule

Edward White

The singular achievement of NASA during its early years involved the human exploration of the Moon, Project Apollo.

Apollo became a NASA priority on May 25th 1961, when President John F. Kennedy announced "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."

In response to the Kennedy decision, NASA was consumed with carrying out Project Apollo and spent the next 11 years doing so.

This effort required significant expenditures, costing $25.4 billion over the life of the program, to make it a reality.

Apollo Capsule

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Neil A. Armstrong uttered these famous words on July 20, 1969, when the Apollo 11 mission fulfilled Kennedy's challenge by successfully landing Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr. on the Moon.

Five more successful lunar landing missions followed.

In total, 12 astronauts walked on the Moon during 6 Apollo lunar landing missions.

After a gap of six years, NASA returned to human spaceflight in 1981, with the advent of the Space Shuttle.

The Shuttle's first mission, STS-1, took off on April 12, 1981, demonstrating that it could take off vertically and glide to an unpowered airplane-like landing.

Space Shuttle Discovery

On STS-6, during April 4-9, 1983, F. Story Musgrave and Donald H. Peterson conducted the first Shuttle Extravehicular Activity EVA, to test new spacesuits and work in the Shuttle's cargo bay.

Sally K. Ride became the first American woman to fly in space when STS-7 lifted off on June 18, 1983, another early milestone of the Shuttle program.

On January 28th 1986 a leak in the joints of one of two Solid Rocket Boosters attached to the Challenger orbiter caused the main liquid fuel tank to explode 73 seconds after launch, killing all 7 crew members.

Tragedy struck again on February 1, 2003, however. As the Columbia orbiter was returning to Earth on the STS-107 mission, it disintegrated about 15 minutes before it was to have landed.

NASA return to flight again in summer 2005 with the STS-114 mission.

There were three Shuttle orbiters left in NASA's fleet: Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour.

The core mission of any future space exploration will be humanity's departure from Earth orbit and journeying to the Moon or Mars, this time for extended and perhaps permanent stays.

An initial effort in this area was NASA's Skylab program in 1973. After Apollo, NASA used its huge Saturn rockets to launch a relatively small orbital space workshop.

The Skylab program served as a successful experiment in long-duration human spaceflight.


In 1984, Congress authorized NASA to build a major new space station as a base for further exploration of space.

Then Russia, which had many years of experience in long-duration human spaceflight, such as with its Salyut and Mir space stations, joined with the U.S. and other international partners in 1993 to build a joint facility that became known formally as the International Space Station (ISS).

International Space Station

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush visited NASA Headquarters and announced a new Vision for Space Exploration.

This Vision entails sending humans back to the Moon and on to Mars by eventually retiring the Shuttle and developing a new, multipurpose Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Robotic scientific exploration and technology development is also folded into this encompassing Vision.

In addition to major human spaceflight programs, there have been significant scientific probes that have explored the Moon, the planets, and other areas of our solar system.

In particular, the 1970s heralded the advent of a new generation of scientific spacecraft. Two similar spacecraft, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, launched on March 2, 1972 and April 5, 1973, respectively, travelled to Jupiter and Saturn to study the composition of interplanetary space.

Voyagers 1 and 2, launched on September 5, 1977 and August 20, 1977, respectively, conducted a "Grand Tour" of our solar system.

In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit around the Earth. Unfortunately, NASA scientists soon discovered that a microscopic spherical aberration in the polishing of the Hubble's mirror significantly limited the instrument's observing power.



Hubble Space Telescope

During a previously scheduled servicing mission in December 1993, a team of astronauts performed a dramatic series of spacewalks to install a corrective optics package and other hardware.

NASA suffered another major disappointment when the Mars Observer spacecraft disappeared on August 21, 1993, just three days before it was to go into orbit around the red planet.

In response, NASA began developing a series of "better, faster, cheaper" spacecraft to go to Mars.

Mars Global Surveyor was the first of these spacecraft; it was launched on November 7, 1996, and has been in a Martian orbit mapping Mars since 1998.

Mars Pathfinder spacecraft landed on Mars on July 4, 1997 and explored the surface of the planet with its miniature rover, Sojourner.

Over the years, NASA has continued to look for life beyond our planet.

In 1975, NASA launched the two Viking spacecraft to look for basic signs of life on Mars.

In 1996 a probe from the Galileo spacecraft that was examining Jupiter and its moon, Europa, revealed that Europa may contain ice or even liquid water,

NASA also has used radio astronomy to scan the heavens for potential signals from extra-terrestrial intelligent life.

1990s, organized an "Origins" program to search for life using powerful new telescopes and biological techniques. More recently scientists have found more and more evidence that water used to be present on Mars.

Building on its roots in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA has continued to conduct many types of cutting-edge aeronautics research on aerodynamics, wind shear, and other important topics using wind tunnels, flight testing, and computer simulations.

NASA did pioneering work in space applications such as communications satellites in the 1960s. The Echo, Telstar, Relay, and Syncom satellites were built by NASA or by the private sector based on significant NASA advances.

Since its inception in 1958, NASA has accomplished many great scientific and technological feats. NASA technology has been adapted for many non-aerospace uses by the private sector.

NASA remains a leading force in scientific research and in stimulating public interest in aerospace exploration, as well as science and technology in general.