For six decades, NASA has led the peaceful exploration of space, making discoveries about our planet, our solar system, and our universe. At home, NASA research has made great advances in aviation, helped to develop a commercial space industry, enrich our economy, create jobs, and strengthen national security. Here is just some of what NASA has achieved in its first 60 years.
In the 1950s, the Air Force, NASA, Navy, and North American Aviation embarked upon a new frontier — exploring the possibilities of a piloted, rocket-powered, air-launched aircraft capable of speeds about five times that of sound. During that time, engineers at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) began thinking about sending humans into space. NACA developed a plan that called for a blunt-body spacecraft that would re-enter with a heat shield, a worldwide tracking network, and dual controls that would gradually give the pilot of the craft greater control.
Then, on October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. This provided the impetus for increased spending for aerospace endeavors, technical and scientific educational programs, and the chartering of new federal agencies to manage air and space research and development. The United States and the Soviets were engaged in a Cold War, and during this period, space exploration emerged as a major area of contest.
As a result, Congress and President Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA opened for business on October 1, 1958, with T. Keith Glennan, president of Case Institute of Technology in Ohio, as its first Administrator. The initial goal of NASA would be “to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes.”
NASA absorbed NACA into itself, including three major research laboratories — Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory — as well as 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 Caltech for the Army, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, AL, where Wernher von Braun's team of engineers was engaged in the development of large rockets.
The first NASA launch from Cape Canaveral, FL, was Pioneer I, which launched on October 11, 1958. In May 1959, Pioneer 4 was launched to the Moon, successfully making the first U.S. lunar flyby.
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.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of sending astronauts to the Moon before the end of the decade. To facilitate this goal, NASA expanded the existing manned spaceflight program in December 1961 to include the development of a two-man spacecraft. The program was officially designated Gemini on January 3, 1962. The Gemini program was a necessary intermediate step between Project Mercury and the Apollo program, and had four objectives: 1) to subject astronauts to long-duration flights — a requirement for projected later trips to the Moon or deeper space; 2) to develop effective methods of rendezvous and docking with other orbiting vehicles, and to maneuver the docked vehicles in space; 3) to perfect methods of re-entry and landing the spacecraft at a pre-selected landing point; and 4) to gain additional information concerning the effects of weightlessness on crewmembers and to record the physiological reactions of crewmembers during long-duration flights.
Gemini's 10 flights 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. This was a critical task that would have to be mastered before landing on the Moon.
On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to circle the Earth, making three orbits in his Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft. With six flights, Project Mercury achieved its goal of putting piloted spacecraft into Earth orbit and retrieving the astronauts safely.
“That's one small step for [a] 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. Armstrong dramatically piloted the lunar module to the lunar surface with less than 30 seconds worth of fuel remaining. After taking soil samples, photographs, and doing other tasks on the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin rendezvoused with their colleague, Michael Collins, in lunar orbit for a safe voyage back to Earth.
In the 1960s, NASA 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's highly successful X-15 program involved a rocket-powered airplane that flew above the atmosphere and then glided back to Earth unpowered. With an exterior skin of a nickel-chrome alloy that could withstand extreme heat and a structure specially designed for the harsh unknown environment encountered at hypersonic speeds, the vehicle was able to carry out scientific research and survive. This research helped prove that a pilot could master the skills required for flight into space — even the ability to function in a weightless environment. The program also resulted in the first full-pressure suit to protect pilots in space.
One of the most unusual research efforts was the “lifting body” — a vehicle with no wings that flew because of the aerodynamic lift generated by the body. Beginning in the early 1960s, NASA partnered with the Air Force and other organizations and developed and flew a series of prototypes or models of future spacecraft that could land like an airplane after enduring the searing heat of reentry from space. The lifting body configurations pushed the limits of both design engineers’ and test pilots’ capabilities. This work led to the Space Shuttle.
Also in the 1960s, NASA did pioneering work in communications satellites. Echo, Telstar, Relay, and Syncom satellites were built by NASA or by the private sector based on significant NASA advances.
The Apollo 13 mission of April 1970 attracted the public's attention when astronauts and ground crews had to improvise to end the mission safely after an oxygen tank burst midway through the journey to the Moon. Although this mission never landed on the Moon, it reinforced the notion that NASA had a remarkable ability to adapt to the unforeseen technical difficulties inherent in human spaceflight.
With the Apollo 17 mission of December 1972, NASA completed a successful engineering and scientific program. Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt, a geologist, was the first scientist to be selected as an astronaut. NASA learned a good deal about the origins of the Moon, as well as how to support humans in outer space. In total, 12 astronauts walked on the Moon during six Apollo lunar landing missions.