ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY: NASA CREATED
On This Day, 1958: Vowing that the United States would lead the space age, President Dwight Eisenhower signed an act creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, more commonly known as NASA. NASA was formed nine months after the Soviet Union beat the U.S. into space by launching the first satellite, Sputnik. Sputnik scared many Americans into thinking that the U.S. was falling behind foreign rivals; it spurred huge government investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Although the Soviets — in 1961 — beat the United States would, in 1969, become the first nation to safely land a man on the moon.
“An Act to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.” With this simple preamble, the Congress and the President of the United States created the national Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on October 1, 1958. NASA’s birth was directly related to the pressures of national defense. 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. 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 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) 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. 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 IGY entry. This had a “Pearl Harbor” effect on American public opinion, creating an illusion of a technological gap and 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.
More immediately, 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. The U.S. also began a series of scientific missions to the Moon and planets in the latter 1950s and early 1960s.
A direct result of the Sputnik crisis, NASA began operations on October 1, 1958, absorbing into itself 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 were engaged in the development of large rockets. Eventually NASA created other Centers and today it has ten located around the country.
NASA began to conduct space missions within months of its creation, and during its first twenty years NASA conducted several major programs:
Human space flight initiatives-Mercury’s single astronaut program (flights during 1961-1963) to ascertain if a human could survive in space; Project Gemini (flights during 1965-1966) with two astronauts to practice space operations, especially rendezvous and docking of spacecraft and extravehicular activity (EVA); and Project Apollo (flights during 1968-1972) to explore the Moon.
Robotic missions to the Moon Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter), Venus (Pioneer Venus), Mars (Mariner 4, Viking 1 and 2), and the outer planets (Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2).
Aeronautics research to enhance air transport safety, reliability, efficiency, and speed (X-15 hypersonic flight, lifting body flight research, avionics and electronics studies, propulsion technologies, structures research, aerodynamics investigations).
Remote-sensing Earth satellites for information gathering (Landsat satellites for environmental monitoring).
Applications satellites for communications (Echo 1, TIROS, and Telstra) and weather monitoring.
An orbital workshop for astronauts, Skylab.
A reusable spacecraft for traveling to and from Earth orbit, the Space Shuttle.