On October 1, 1958, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) began its activity. Officially created on July 29, 1958 following the National Aeronautic and Space Act signed by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it replaced NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), which was created to develop military projects. NASA was created as a civilian agency to carry out development in the aeronautical and, above all, space sector with peaceful goals.
NASA absorbed NACA’s structures and projects and some research projects from the US Air Force. The priority during its first years of activity was to develop a space program that would fill the gap that the US had accumulated compared to the USSR, which had started launching artificial satellites into orbit in 1957.
NASA’s projects included a manned space program from the beginning so among the ones started immediately after the start of its activity there was the Mercury project, which led Alan Shepard to perform a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961.
When US President John F. Kennedy declared that the Americans would take astronauts to the Moon by the end of the 1960s, NASA began the Gemini project to develop the technologies needed to accomplish that goal. However, those technologies were used in the Apollo program, which had its climax in the Apollo 11 mission that on July 20, 1969 brought Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to their Moon landing. In 1972 the Apollo 17 mission was completed, the last on the Moon.
During the 1960s, NASA also kept on developing a space probe program for the exploration of other planets. The Mariner probes were the first to reach Mars and Venus, followed by the Vikings with their landers and the Pioneers, which also reached Jupiter. The Voyager 1 and 2 were the most ambitious missions, so much so that today they’re still sending information from the boundaries of interstellar space.
Despite the Cold War, the US and USSR agreed for the first meeting in space and on July 17, 1975 the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program (ASTP) led to the docking between an American Apollo and the Soviet Soyuz 19 spacecraft.
Another project started in the 1960s concerned the construction of a space station. In 1973 the Skylab was launched which, despite some damage suffered during the launch, was occupied by three crews for 171 days.
In the 1970s, NASA developed the Space Shuttle program for reusable spaceships. On April 12, 1981 the Space Shuttle Columbia inaugurated the launches, on July 21, 2011 the Space Shuttle Atlantis ended the last mission of the program.
Other NASA projects concerned the possibility of sending a telescope into orbit. Hubble was the first big success, even if that was after a complicated start, in 1990 in collaboration with ESA but others followed in subsequent years up to today’s exoplanet hunters such as Kepler, which is finishing its mission, and TESS, which just started it. The James Webb space telescope accumulated delays over delays and perhaps will be launched in 2021 to offer new progress in astronomy.
The experience with space probes also allowed the development of a number of landers and rovers, particularly to explore Mars. The Mars Pathfinder in 1996 was followed by the Mars Rover Spirit and Opportunity in 2003 and the Mars Rover Curiosity in 2012.
Subsequent NASA developments concerning space stations were carried out within the international collaboration that led to the construction of the International Space Station. It’s a project the agency continues to collaborate with.
Other collaborations concerned missions of space probes such as Cassini, accompanied by ESA’s lander Huygens, which has explored for years the system of the planet Saturn with its many moons.
After the end of the Moon’s missions the first budget cuts for NASA begun but various missions are under way or are scheduled. The exploration of Mars continues thanks to the rovers and a number of space probes in orbit including the recent MAVEN waiting for the arrival of the InSight lander. The Juno space probe is in Jupiter’s orbit. The New Horizons space probe will soon reach the object – or the objects, because there might be more than one – nicknamed Ultima Thule on January 1, 2019. The Osiris-Rex space probe is on its way to asteroid Bennu to take samples and bring them back to Earth.
NASA continues to be active also in the field of manned missions. Despite controversy over costs and delays, the system called SLS (Space Launch System) is still under development to bring astronauts beyond the low Earth orbit. At the same time, the agency is funding private companies such as SpaceX and Boeing to develop spacecraft for astronaut transport.
These and other missions, which include a number of past and present satellites, marked 60 years of NASA activity together with all the contributions in the field of aeronautics. Today the agency is often criticized for the management of some projects that accumulate delays and go well beyond the initial budget and often critics have a point. However, in the course of its history, NASA brought great progress in science and technology with developments that in many cases have also found applications in everyday life.
NASA’s activities depend on the approval of the US Congress, with all the consequent problems. Despite that, it achieved great results, sometimes going through the tragic loss of lives. The commitment of many people led to those results and there’s all the potential to keep on making great progress for all of humanity.