NASA Celebrates 50 Years!
The Space Race
After the Soviet space program's launch of the world's first human-made satellite (Sputnik 1) on 4 October 1957, the attention of the United States turned toward its own fledgling space efforts. The U.S. Congress, alarmed by the perceived threat to U.S. security and technological leadership (known as the "Sputnik crisis"), urged immediate and swift action; President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his advisors counseled more deliberate measures. Several months of debate produced an agreement that a new federal agency was needed to conduct all non-military activity in space.
Explorer 1, officially Satellite 1958 Alpha, was the first Earth artificial satellite of the United States, having been launched at 10:48pm EST on 31 January 1958.
On 29 July 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). When it began operations on 1 October 1958, NASA consisted mainly of the four laboratories and some 80 employees of the government's 46-year-old research agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). A significant contributor to NASA's entry into the Space race was the technology from the German rocket program, led by Wernher von Braun, who became a naturalized citizen of the United States after World War II. He is today regarded as the father of the United States space program. Elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (of which von Braun's team was a part) and the Naval Research Laboratory were incorporated into NASA.
NASA's earliest programs involved research into human spaceflight and were conducted under the pressure of the competition between the U.S. and the USSR (the Space Race) that existed during the Cold War. Project Mercury, initiated in 1958, started NASA down the path of human space exploration with missions designed to discover simply if man could survive in space.
On May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard—one of the seven Project Mercury astronauts selected as pilot for this mission—became the first American in space when he piloted Freedom 7 on a 15-minute suborbital flight. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on 20 February 1962 during the 5 and a quarter-hour flight of Friendship 7.
Once the Mercury project proved that human spaceflight was possible, Project Gemini was launched to conduct experiments and work out issues relating to a moon mission. The first Gemini flight with astronauts on board, Gemini 3, was flown by Gus Grissom and John Young on 23 March 1965. Nine other missions followed, showing that long-duration human space flight was possible, proving that rendezvous and docking with another vehicle in space was possible, and gathering medical data on the effects of weightlessness on human beings.
The Apollo program was designed to land humans on the Moon and bring them safely back to Earth. Apollo 1 ended tragically when all the astronauts inside died due to fire in command module during an experimental simulation. Because of this incident, there were a few unmanned tests before men boarded the spacecraft. Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 tested various components while orbiting the Moon, and returned photography. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11, landed the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Apollo 13 did not land on the Moon due to a malfunction, but did return photographs. The six missions that landed on the Moon returned a wealth of scientific data and almost 400 kilograms of lunar samples. Experiments included soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismic, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields, and solar wind experiments.
Skylab was the first space station the United States launched into orbit. The 75 tonne station was in Earth orbit from 1973 to 1979, and was visited by crews three times, in 1973 and 1974. Skylab was originally intended to study gravitational anomalies in other solar systems, but the assignment was curtailed due to lack of funding and interest. It included a laboratory for studying the effects of microgravity, and a solar observatory. A Space Shuttle was planned to dock with and elevate Skylab to a higher safe altitude, but Skylab reentered the atmosphere and was destroyed in 1979, before the first shuttle could be launched, landing over parts of Western Australia and the Indian Ocean, with some fragments being recovered.
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (or ASTP) was the first joint flight of the U.S. and Soviet space programs. The mission took place in July 1975. For the United States of America, it was the last Apollo flight, as well as the last manned space launch until the flight of the first Space Shuttle in April 1981.
The Space Shuttle became the major focus of NASA in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Planned to be a frequently launchable and mostly reusable vehicle, four space shuttles were built by 1985. The first to launch, Columbia, did so on April 12, 1981.
The shuttle was not all good news for NASA — flights were much more expensive than initially projected, and the public again lost interest as missions appeared to become mundane until the 1986 Challenger disaster again highlighted the risks of space flight. Work began on Space Station Freedom as a focus for the manned space program, but within NASA there was argument that these projects came at the expense of more inspiring unmanned missions such as the Voyager probes.
Nonetheless, the shuttle launched milestone projects like the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The HST is a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), and its success has paved the way for greater collaboration between the agencies. The HST was created with a relatively small budget of $2 billion but has continued operation since 1990, delighting both scientists and the public. Some of its images, such as the groundbreaking Hubble Deep Field, have become famous.
In 1995 Russian-American interaction resumed with the Shuttle-Mir missions. Once more an American vehicle docked with a Russian craft, this time a full-fledged space station. This cooperation continues to today, with Russia and America the two biggest partners in the largest space station ever built – the International Space Station (ISS). The strength of their cooperation on this project was even more evident when NASA began relying on Russian launch vehicles to service the ISS during the two year grounding of the shuttle fleet following the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Costing over one hundred billion dollars, it has been difficult at times for NASA to justify the ISS. The population at large has historically been hard to impress with details of scientific experiments in space, preferring news of grand projects to exotic locations. Even now, the ISS cannot accommodate as many scientists as planned.
During much of the 1990s, NASA was faced with shrinking annual budgets due to Congressional belt-tightening in Washington, D.C. In response, NASA's ninth administrator, Daniel Goldin, pioneered the "faster, better, cheaper" approach that enabled NASA to cut costs while still delivering a wide variety of aerospace programs (Discovery Program). That method was criticized and re-evaluated following the twin losses of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999. Yet, NASA's shuttle program had made 116 successful launches as of December 2006.
The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, which killed the crew of six Americans and one Israeli, caused a 29-month hiatus in space shuttle flights and triggered a serious re-examination of NASA's priorities. The U.S. government, various scientists, and the public all reconsidered the future of the space program.
NASA's ongoing investigations include in-depth surveys of Mars and Saturn and studies of the Earth and the Sun. Other NASA spacecraft are presently en route to Mercury and Pluto. With missions to Jupiter in planning stages, NASA's itinerary covers over half the solar system.
Managed by the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, the Phoenix mission was launched on August 4, 2007. It will search for possible underground water courses in the northern Martian pole. This lander revives much of its experiments and instrumentation from the failed 1999 Mars Polar Lander, hence its name. An improved and larger rover, Mars Science Laboratory, is under construction and slated to launch in 2009. On the horizon of NASA's plans are two possibilities under consideration for the Mars Scout 2013 mission.
The New Horizons mission to Pluto was launched in 2006 and will fly by Pluto in 2015. The probe received a gravity assist from Jupiter in February 2007, examining some of Jupiter's inner moons and testing on-board instruments during the fly-by.
Vision for space exploration
On January 14, 2004, ten days after the landing of the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, US President George W. Bush announced a new plan for NASA's future, dubbed the Vision for Space Exploration. According to this plan, mankind will return to the Moon by 2018, and set up outposts as a testbed and potential resource for future missions. The Space Shuttle will be retired in 2010 and Orion will replace it by 2014, capable of both docking with the ISS and leaving the Earth's orbit. The future of the ISS is somewhat uncertain — construction will be completed, but beyond that is less clear. Although the plan initially met with skepticism from Congress, in late 2004 Congress agreed to provide start-up funds for the first year's worth of the new space vision.
Hoping to spur innovation from the private sector, NASA established a series of Centennial Challenges, technology prizes for non-government teams, in 2004. The Challenges include tasks that will be useful for implementing the Vision for Space Exploration, such as building more efficient astronaut gloves.
On December 4, 2006, NASA announced it was planning to build a permanent moon base. NASA Associate Administrator Scott Horowitz said the goal was to start building the moonbase by 2020, and by 2024, have a fully functional base, that would allow for crew rotations like the International Space Station. Additionally, NASA plans to collaborate and partner with other nations for this project.
Man on Mars
On September 28, 2007, NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin stated that NASA aims to put a man on Mars by 2037, and in 2057, "We should be celebrating 20 years of man on Mars."
When you look at how much NASA has brought us in the past 50 years, one cannot even begin to imagine what the next 50 will bring! Exciting stuff!!!
For more information, check out the following interesting links:
- Space Shuttle
- Shuttle-Derived Launch Vehicle
- International Space Station
- Colonization of the Moon
- Colonization of Mars