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.

1950s

Project Mercury astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr. enters his Mercury Friendship 7 capsule before launch on February 20, 1962. Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, and the third American to fly in space. (NASA)

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.

1960s

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.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the American flag during the Apollo 11 mission. Astronaut Neil Armstrong took this picture after becoming the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. (NASA)

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.

An interior view of the Apollo 13 Lunar Module shows the jerry-rigged arrangement the astronauts built to use the Command Module lithium hydroxide canisters to purge carbon dioxide from the Lunar Module. The “mailbox” was designed and tested on the ground before it was suggested to the problem-plagued Apollo 13 crewmen. (NASA)

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 successful launch of the first space shuttle ushered in a new concept in utilization of space. The launch on April 12, 1981 carried astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen into an Earth orbital mission, ending with unpowered landing at Edwards Air Force Base. (NASA)

1970s

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.

Also in 1972, the watershed F-8 digital-fly-by-wire (DFBW) program laid the groundwork for electronic DFBW flight in various later aircraft such as the F/A-18, the Boeing 777, and the Space Shuttle. More sophisticated DFBW systems were used on the X-29 and X-31 aircraft, which would have been uncontrollable otherwise.

After Apollo, NASA used Saturn rockets to launch a relatively small orbital space workshop called Skylab. There were three human Skylab missions, with the crews staying aboard for 28, 59, and then 84 days. The first crew manually fixed a broken meteoroid shield and demonstrated that humans could successfully work in space. The Skylab program also served as a successful experiment in long-duration human spaceflight.

In 1975, NASA cooperated with the Soviet Union to achieve the first international human spaceflight, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). This project successfully tested joint rendezvous and docking procedures for spacecraft from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. After being launched separately from their respective countries, the Apollo and Soyuz crews met in space and conducted various experiments for two days.

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; the spacecraft arrived on Mars in 1976 but did not find any indications of past or present biological activity there.

In the 1970s, NASA's Landsat program literally changed the way we look at Earth. The first three Landsat satellites — launched in 1972, 1975, and 1978 — transmitted back to Earth complex data streams that could be converted into colored pictures. Landsat data has been used in a variety of practical commercial applications such as crop management and fault line detection. The data can track weather such as droughts and fires. NASA has also been involved in a variety of other Earth science efforts such as the Earth Observation System of spacecraft and data processing that have yielded important scientific results in such areas as tropical deforestation, global warming, and climate change.

In 1983, Space Shuttle Mission Specialist Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space. Ride, shown here floating in the Challenger flight deck, later described the launch as “exhilarating, terrifying, and overwhelming all at the same time.” (NASA)
In 1998, the first American-built module was delivered to begin construction of the International Space Station. Here, astronauts Jerry Ross and James Newman work together on the final of the mission's three spacewalks to connect the Unity module to the Russian Zarya module. These two pieces of the space station had never been in the same hemisphere, but were mated together perfectly. (NASA)

1980s

After a gap of six years, NASA returned to human spaceflight in 1981 with the Space Transportation System (STS), referred to as the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle's first mission, STS-1, launched on April 12, 1981, demonstrating that it could take off vertically and glide to an unpowered, airplane-like landing. Space Shuttle Columbia's mission was the first to employ both liquid- and solid-propellant rocket engines for the launch of a spacecraft carrying humans.

On STS-6, during April 1983, the first shuttle EVA was conducted 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, an early milestone of the program. On September 29, 1988, the shuttle successfully returned to flight following the Challenger disaster. NASA then flew a total of 87 successful missions.

On January 25, 1984, President Reagan made an Apollo-like announcement to build a space station within a decade. By 1986, the design depicted a complex, large, and multipurpose facility.

1990s

On April 24, 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. During a servicing mission in December 1993, a team of astronauts performed a dramatic series of spacewalks to install a corrective optics package and other hardware on Hubble. The hardware functioned like a contact lens, and the elegant solution worked perfectly to restore Hubble's capabilities. The servicing mission enabled Hubble to make a number of important astronomical discoveries.

In 1991, after much debate over the space station's purpose and budget, NASA released plans for a restructured facility called Space Station Freedom. Another redesign took place after the Clinton Administration took office in 1993, and the facility became known as Space Station Alpha. Then Russia, which had many years of experience in long-duration human spaceflight, 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). To prepare for building the ISS starting in late 1998, NASA participated in a series of shuttle missions to Mir, the Russian space station. Seven American astronauts lived aboard Mir for extended stays. Assembly of the ISS — the most complex space project ever — began on November 20, 1998, with the launch of the Zarya control module from Kazakhstan. The module provided the initial power and propulsion to the station until the Service Module arrived.

Twin rovers — Spirit and Opportunity — landed on opposite sides of Mars in January 2004. Both rovers exceeded their planned 90-day mission lifetimes by many years. (NASA)

The inexpensive Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars on July 4, 1997. A small, 23-pound robotic rover named Sojourner departed the main lander and began to record weather patterns, atmospheric opacity, and the chemical composition of rocks. The Pathfinder mission returned more than 1.2 gigabits (1.2 billion bits) of data and more than 10,000 pictures of the Martian landscape.

2000s

Permanent habitation of the ISS began with the launch of the Expedition One crew on October 31, 2000. In May 2012, the SpaceX Dragon capsule became the first commercially developed and built spacecraft to launch to the International Space Station. Both SpaceX and Orbital ATK have continued to successfully resupply the space station with cargo launched from the United States.

The 2000s have been the decade of Mars. In January 2004, two robotic geologists named Spirit and Opportunity landed on opposite sides of Mars. The Mars Exploration Rover mission was designed to be a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. Primary among the mission's scientific goals was to search for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars. Both rovers exceeded their planned 90-day mission lifetimes by many years. Spirit lasted 20 times longer than its original design until its final communication to Earth in 2010. Opportunity continues to operate more than a decade after launch.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) launched on August 12, 2005. NASA designed the spacecraft to scrutinize the physical features of Mars, including its atmosphere and its subterranean layering.

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is grappled by the Canadarm2 robotic arm at the International Space Station in 2012. Dragon became the first commercially developed space vehicle to be launched to the station to join Russian, European, and Japanese resupply craft that service the complex while restoring a U.S. capability to deliver cargo to the orbital laboratory.

Part of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, Curiosity is the largest and most capable rover ever sent to Mars. About the size of a small SUV, the six-wheeled rover launched November 26, 2011 and landed on Mars on August 5, 2012. MSL arrived at Mars through technological innovations that tested a completely new landing method. The spacecraft descended on a parachute, then during the final seconds before landing, the landing system fired rockets to allow it to hover while a tether lowered Curiosity to the surface. The rover landed on its wheels, the tether was cut, and the landing system flew off to crash-land a safe distance away.

Curiosity set out to answer the question: Did Mars ever have the right environmental conditions to support small lifeforms called microbes? Early in its mission, Curiosity's scientific tools found chemical and mineral evidence of past habitable environments on Mars. After more than 2,000 Martian sols (days), it continues to explore the rock record from a time when Mars could have been home to microbial life.

Following a 7-year, 2-billion-mile journey, Cassini-Huygens became the first spacecraft to go into orbit around Saturn in July 2004. Cassini orbited Saturn, studying the ringed planet and its moons in detail. The Huygens probe landed on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, in January 2005.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe will be the first-ever mission to “touch” the Sun. The spacecraft, about the size of a small car, will travel directly into the Sun's atmosphere about 4 million miles from the surface. The probe launched on August 12, 2018, and over the next two months, will fly towards Venus. Its first flyby will place the probe in position in early November to fly as close as 15 million miles from the Sun within the solar corona — closer than anything made by humanity has ever gone before. Throughout its seven-year mission, Parker Solar Probe will make six more Venus flybys and 24 total passes by the Sun, journeying steadily closer to the Sun until it makes its closest approach at 3.8 million miles. At this point, the probe will be moving at roughly 430,000 miles per hour, setting the record for the fastest-moving object made by humanity.

To learn about all of NASA's milestones, visit here .


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This article first appeared in the October, 2018 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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