The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) emerged in some measure because of the pressures of national defense during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, a broad contest over the ideologies and allegiances of the nonaligned nations of the world. Space exploration emerged as a major area of this contest. From the latter 1940s, the Department of Defense 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), a cooperative effort to gather scientific data about Earth, for the period from 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958. The Soviet Union quickly followed suit, announcing plans to orbit its own satellite.
A full-scale political crisis broke out on 4 October 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, as its IGY entry. This had a “Pearl Harbor” effect on American public opinion, creating an illusion of a technological gap.
As a direct result of this crisis, NASA began operations on 1 October 1958, absorbing into it the earlier National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics intact: its 8,000 employees, an annual budget of $100 million, three major research laboratories—Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory—and two smaller test facilities. It quickly incorporated other organizations into the new agency, notably the space science group of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed by the California Institute of Technology for the Army, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, where Wernher von Braun’s team of engineers was engaged in the development of large rockets. Eventually, NASA created other Centers; today, it has ten located around the country.
NASA began to conduct space missions within months of its creation, and in its forty-five years, it has made historic achievements in many areas of aeronautics and space research. The most well-known of its efforts are the human spaceflight initiatives. These began with Projects Mercury and Gemini in the 1960s, hit a major highlight with the lunar landings of Project Apollo, continued on in the 1970s with Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and then carried on to the Space Shuttle Program in the 1980s and 1990s. Space science programs have included missions to our Moon and all the planets in our solar system except Pluto. In Earth science, remote-sensing satellites such as Landsat and meteorological spacecraft have helped scientists understand the complex interactions between ecological systems on Earth. NASA’s aeronautics research has helped to enhance air transport safety, reliability, efficiency, and speed through such programs as the X-15, lifting bodies, and general aviation.
Since its inception in 1958, NASA has accomplished many great scientific and technological feats. NASA technology has been adapted for many nonaerospace uses by the private sector. At its forty-fifth anniversary, NASA remains a leading force in scientific research and in stimulating public interest in aerospace exploration, as well as science and technology in general. Perhaps more importantly, our exploration of space has taught us to view Earth, ourselves, and the universe in a new way. While the tremendous technical and scientific accomplishments of NASA demonstrate vividly that humans can achieve previously inconceivable feats, we also are humbled by the realization that Earth is just a tiny “blue marble” in the cosmos.
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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Updated February 8, 2005