The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was established in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower in order to establish a more civilian approach to space exploration and research. Using its initial head start of transferred early Air Force projects and German technology (delivered by Wernher von Braun), NASA began work nearly immediately. Early work primarily consisted of tests using the X-15 rocket plane as preparation for the first real space flight.


NASA is established, July 29, 1958


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Project Mercury was NASA’s first attempt to put humans into orbit. In May 1961, the project succeeded when Freedom 7 took Alan Shepherd into orbit – just one month after the Soviet Union did the same thing with Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1. The Soviets beat NASA to the punch again while NASA was working on Project Gemini, which intended to advance Mercury capabilities to longer-duration spaceflight. Gemini was canceled relatively quickly when the Russians completed two longer spaceflights with extra-vehicular activity before NASA completed even one.


NASA’s big break came with success in Project Apollo, which brought Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon in 1969. While Collins orbited above, Armstrong and Aldrin were able to spend about two hours on the surface of the moon and collect close to fifty pounds of lunar material for study. Apollo continued to be a success, landing men on the moon in five more missions before closing down in 1972. It remains the only program to send humans beyond low earth orbit and to land them on another celestial body.

What’s next?

From 1972 to 2011, NASA focused on the space shuttle program, which encompassed missions ranging from the launch and repair of the Hubble to servicing and manning the International Space Station. During this time, though, NASA saw both its budget and its prestige drop dramatically from the Apollo years. From a high of 3.3% in 1966, NASA’s share of the budget has dropped to less than half a percent. It has been focusing on developing contacts with private space companies to take up some of that slack. In 2006, NASA arranged for SpaceX to take over routine payloads to the ISS, and is helping to develop a commercial vessel capable of bringing crew to the ISS.

Relying on commercial contracts to fulfill routine duties will hopefully free up NASA to push into new territory in the future. Its recently announced Asteroid Redirect Mission is intended to use robotic spacecraft to haul an asteroid into a stable moon orbit, from which point we can study it with our current technology. This ambitious mission could pave the way for asteroid mining and other scientific and commercial advances in the years to come.


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