NASA's First 50 Years: An Overview of the Space Agency on its 50th Anniversary

NASA's First 50 Years: An Overview of the Space Agency on its 50th Anniversary
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A Chilly Beginning

NASA was a child of the Cold War, a post-World War II era that saw two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – perpetually poised for conflict and reined in only by the fear of mutually assured destruction. So when the U.S.S.R. announced on Oct. 4, 1957 that it had launched the world’s first artificial satellite into orbit around Earth, the U.S. responded with shock … and speedy action. As U.S. Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce put it, Sputnik’s beeps from space were “an intercontinental outer-space raspberry to a decade of American pretensions that the American way of life was a gilt-edged guarantee of our national superiority.”

That “raspberry” prompted officials in Washington to call for massive amounts of funding for space research and education, as well as for new agencies to oversee both defense research and development (now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA) and space research (NASA).

When NASA actually began operations on Oct. 1, 1958, it absorbed what had previously been the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which had been in charge of aeronautics research since World War 1. NASA began with NACA’s existing employees and laboratories – including the Ames Research Center, Lewis Research Center and Langley Aeronautical Laboratory – and launched whole-hog into the mission of building up the U.S. as a space research and exploration leader. With the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s successful launch of the first U.S. artificial satellite on Feb. 1, 1958, NASA’s next goal was to send a human into space. The mission’s name: Project Mercury.

However, the Soviet Union once again beat the U.S. to the punch, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth for 108 minutes aboard Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. U.S. astronauts followed close behind, though: Alan Shepard completed a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, and John Glenn orbited the planet on February 20, 1962.

Above: NASA’s official logo for its 50th anniversary. Image credit:

To the Moon …

NASA 50 Buzz Aldrin

The successes of Project Mercury paved the way for NASA’s next mission, Project Gemini, a second-generation program for human space travel. Envisioned as the next step needed to help the U.S. put a man on the moon before the end of the decade (President Kennedy’s pledge in 1961), Gemini focused on keeping astronauts in space for longer periods, improving re-entry strategies and achieving successful spacewalks outside the spacecrafts. With those objectives achieved (the last Gemini flight occurred in November 1966), NASA next put its focus on a manned mission to the moon, the Apollo program.

Apollo was a massive undertaking, and even some of those at NASA were skeptical of the project’s chances of success. But years of concentrated effort, $25 billion and a super-assemblage of brainpower (up to 400,000 employees and 20,000 academic and industrial partners) delivered on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings ever to set foot on the surface of the moon.

Above: Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. flag on the moon. Image credit:

And Beyond

NASA Challenger Crew

Since then, NASA has turned its attention to other areas of space research and exploration. It launched the U.S.’s first space station, Skylab, into orbit in 1973 (the station was destroyed in 1979 when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up, scattering fragments over the Indian Ocean and western Australia.). It made friends with its former nemesis through the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz project, a joint space flight with the U.S.S.R., and continued to work with the Soviet Union – then Russia, after the nation’s breakup – and other nations on the International Space Station. NASA also developed its first-ever reusable spacecraft, with the first Space Shuttle launch in 1981.

Along the way, NASA’s also spent lots of effort on non-manned exploration of our solar system and beyond, with projects like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Exploration Rovers, Cassini-Huygens (which is studying Saturn) and MESSENGER, which is on its way to explore Mercury.

Now, at 50, the agency continues to make grand plans for the future. On its to-do list: a second-generation reusable spacecraft to replace the Space Shuttle, due for retirement in 2010; a manned return to the moon by 2020; and continued unmanned exploration of all parts of our solar system.

As its Website says, “Though nearly 50 years old, NASA is only beginning the most exciting part of its existence.”

NASA Saturn from Cassini

Above right: The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. Image credit:

Left: A spectacular view of Saturn from the Cassini-Huygens mission. Image credit:

This post is part of the series: NASA’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

NASA’s been around for 50 years as of October 2008 and this year they are celebrating the golden anniversary. This series presents a brief history of NASA and some of the events planned for the celebration

  1. NASA’s First 50 Years: An Overview
  2. How NASA’s Celebrating Its “Big 5-O”