The National Aeronautics and Space Administration

X-15 aircraft

The rocket-powered X-15 aircraft set a number of altitude and speed records. Its flights during the 1960s also provided engineers and scientists with much useful data for the Space Shuttle program.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon

Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. descends from the Apollo 11 Lunar Module to become the second human to walk on the Moon. Neil A. Armstrong, who took this photograph, was the commander of the mission and the first to walk on the lunar surface

Shuttle orbiters

This rare view of two Space Shuttle orbiters simultaneously on launch pads at the Kennedy Space center was taken on September 5, 1990. The Orbiter Columbia is shown in the foreground on pad 39A, where it was being prepared for a launch (STS-35) the next morning. This launch ended up being delayed until December 1990.

Mars Pathfinder

The Sojourner rover and undeployed ramps aboard the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft are shown shortly after landing on the Martian surface on July 4, 1997. Partially deflated airbags are also clearly visible.

Hurricane Floyd from weather satellite

This image of Hurricane Floyd was taken on September 15, 1999 from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES). GOES images have become so popular that many people think of hurricanes in terms of these popularized images.

From the Centennial of Flight Commission web site

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as the U.S. government agency most responsible for advancing flight-related technology. Established on October 1, 1958, with the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 29, 1958, NASA added the development of space technology to the NACA’s aeronautics mission.

Established as a direct result of the Sputnik crisis, NASA absorbed the NACA intact: its 8,000 employees, an annual budget of $100 million, three major research laboratories—Langley and Ames aeronautical laboratories and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory—and two smaller test facilities. It quickly incorporated other organizations and eventually created other centers. In 2001, it has ten research and spaceflight centers located around the United States.

As well as continuing with its aeronautics research, NASA also has initiated a wide variety of space missions. These included human spaceflight missions, missions to the Moon and planets, remote-sensing and applications satellites, and science missions.

NASA’s first high-profile human spaceflight program 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. John H. Glenn, Jr. became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962. With six flights, Project Mercury achieved its goal of putting piloted spacecraft into Earth orbit and retrieving the astronauts safely.

Project Gemini built on Mercury’s achievements. Its 10 flights in 1965 and 1966 provided NASA scientists and engineers with more data on weightlessness, perfected reentry and splashdown procedures, and demonstrated rendezvous and docking in space. On June 3, 1965, a Gemini astronaut, Edward H. White, Jr., became the first American to go on a spacewalk.

The most significant NASA achievement during its early years involved the human exploration of the Moon. Project Apollo became a NASA priority on May 25 1961, when President John F. Kennedy announced, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Kennedy used Apollo as a high-profile effort for the United States to demonstrate its scientific and technological superiority over the Soviet Union, its cold war adversary.

The 11-year-long program was unprecedented. The effort cost $25.4 billion over the life of the program. Only the building of the Panama Canal rivaled the size of the Apollo program as the largest nonmilitary technological endeavor ever undertaken by the United States; only the Manhattan Project was comparable in a wartime setting. Although there were major challenges and some failures—notably a January 1967 fire in an Apollo capsule on the ground that took the lives of astronauts Roger B. Chaffee, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Edward H. White Jr.—the program moved forward.

In October 1968, the first successful Apollo mission, Apollo 7, orbited Earth and tested the redesigned Apollo command module. Apollo 8 was the first satellite to orbit the Moon. But it was Neil Armstrong’s step onto the Moon’s surface on July 20, 1969, that fulfilled President Kennedy’s challenge. Armstrong’s words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” are imprinted on the memories of most Americans who were alive at the time. After taking soil samples, photographs, planting the American flag, and leaving behind a plaque marking their visit, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin rendezvoused with their colleague Michael Collins in lunar orbit for a safe return to Earth.

The Apollo 13 mission of April 1970 reinforced the notion that NASA had a remarkable ability to adapt to the unforeseen technical difficulties inherent in human spaceflight 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. The Apollo human Moon landings ended with Apollo 17 in December 1972.

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 United States and the Soviet Union. After being launched separately from their respective countries, the Apollo and Soyuz crews met in space and conducted various experiments for two days.

Six years passed before NASA returned to human spaceflight with the Space Shuttle program. The Space Shuttle’s first mission, STS-1, took off on April 12, 1981, demonstrating that it could take off vertically and glide to an unpowered airplane-like landing. On STS-6, during April 4-9, 1983, F. Story Musgrave and Donald H. Peterson conducted the first Shuttle spacewalk to test new spacesuits and work in the Shuttle’s cargo bay. Sally K. Ride became the first U.S. woman to fly in space when STS-7 lifted off on June 18, 1983.

On January 28, 1986, a leak in the joints of one of two solid rocket boosters attached to the Challenger orbiter caused the main liquid fuel tank to explode 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members. The Shuttle program was grounded for more than two years while NASA and its contractors redesigned the solid rocket boosters and implemented management reforms to increase safety. On September 29, 1988, the Shuttle successfully returned to flight. Since that day through mid-2001, NASA has safely launched 79 Shuttle missions.

NASA has continued to strive toward establishing a permanent human presence in space. Its initial effort in this area was NASA’s Skylab program in 1973 and 1974. Three astronaut crews, who stayed for 28, 59, and then 84 days at a time, visited the Skylab workshop. The mission showed the value of having humans work for long periods in orbit on a variety of scientific studies and also served as a successful experiment in long-duration human spaceflight.

In 1984, Congress authorized NASA to build a major new space station as a base for further space exploration. Several redesigns took place during the next nine years. Then Russia, which had many years of experience in long-duration human spaceflight, joined the United States and other international partners in 1993 to build a facility that became known as the International Space Station (ISS). Beginning with STS-88 in December 1998, the Space Shuttle has been used to transport Space Station modules and components to its orbiting construction site.

Building on its roots in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA has 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. Its aeronautics research has focused on enhancing air transport safety, reliability, efficiency, and speed. Among its most significant initiatives have been the hypersonic flights with the X-15 research airplane, lifting body flight research, digital-fly-by-wire flight, avionics and electronics studies, propulsion technologies, structures research, and aerodynamics investigations. Many of these programs have provided data for development of the Space Shuttle and have had application to military aircraft, as well as to civilian transports.

In the 1960s, NASA also pioneered satellite communications. The Echo, Telstar, Relay, and Syncom satellites were built by NASA or by the private sector based in part on NASA research.

NASA’s satellites also look down toward Earth from space. Its remote-sensing satellites, such as the Landsat environmental monitoring satellites, changed the way we look at the Earth. The first three Landsat satellites, launched in 1972, 1975, and 1978, transmitted back to Earth complex data that could be converted into color pictures. Landsat data has been used in a variety of practical commercial applications such as crop management and fault line detection, and to track many kinds of weather such as droughts, forest fires, and ice floes. NASA’s polar-orbiting and geosynchronous meteorological satellites, flown and operated cooperatively with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have provided huge amounts of atmospheric data and have became necessary tools for weather forecasting since the early 1980s. 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.

As well as major human spaceflight and applications programs, NASA’s scientific probes have explored the Moon and all the planets of the solar system except Pluto. In the 1970s, two spacecraft, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, traveled to Jupiter and Saturn to study the composition of interplanetary space. Voyagers 1 and 2, launched on September 5, 1977 and August 20, 1977, respectively, conducted a “Grand Tour” of our solar system. In 1976, Viking 1 and Viking 2 landed on Mars, followed 20 years later by the Mars Pathfinder.

In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit around the Earth. An aberration in the polishing of the Hubble’s mirror significantly limited the instrument’s initial observing power. But on its first servicing mission in December 1993, a team of astronauts performed a dramatic series of spacewalks to install a corrective optics package and other equipment. Since then, Hubble has made a number of exceptional astronomical discoveries about the origins and development of the universe.

In response to the disappearance of the Mars observer spacecraft in August 1993 and budget constraints, NASA began developing a series of “better, faster, cheaper” spacecraft to go to Mars. Mars Global Surveyor was the first of these spacecraft; it was launched on November 7, 1996, and has been in a Martian orbit mapping Mars since 1998. Using some innovative technologies, the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft landed on Mars on July 4, 1997, and explored the surface of the planet with its miniature rover, Sojourner.

Over the years, NASA has continued to look for life beyond our planet. Although no direct evidence has been found, the effort continues. In the late 1990s, NASA organized an “Origins” program to search for life using powerful new telescopes and biological techniques. After more than 40 years, NASA remains a leading force in research, science, and technology.

–Adapted from “A Brief History of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.” NASA History Fact Sheet, August 31, 1999.

For further reading:

Roger E. Bilstein, Orders of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915-1990. NASA SP-4406. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1989. Also at

Glennan, T. Keith. The Birth of NASA. NASA SP-4105. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993.

John M. Logsdon, et al., Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program (NASA SP-4407). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. Volume 1: Organizing for Exploration (1995). Volume 2: External Relationships (1996). Volume 3: Using Space (1998).

Pamela E. Mack, editor, From Engineering Science to Big Science: The NACA and NASA Collier Trophy Research Project Winners. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, NASA SP-4219, 1998.

Naugle, John E. First Among Equals – The Selection of NASA Space Science Experiments. NASA SP-4215. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1991.

Portree, David S.F. NASA’s Origins and the Dawn of the Space Age. NASA Monograph #10. Washington, D.C. 1998.

Rumerman, Judy. U.S. Human Spaceflight; A Record of Achievement, 1961-1998. NASA Monograph in Aerospace History No. 9, July 1998. Text available at