Who would have thought that one small satellite could change human history so drastically? Or rather, two small satellites… The NASA story officially begins Oct. 1, 1958 but in reality, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had begun to take shape many years before. In the late 1940s, the U.S. Department of Defense sought to ensure that America would be a world leader in technology and made a bold decision to delve into research, rocketry and atmospheric sciences. President Dwight D. Eisenhower advanced this cause when he approved a plan to orbit a scientific satellite as the United States’ contribution to the International Geophysical Year (July 1, 1957 to Dec. 31, 1958). This collaboration among 67 countries was formed to study 11 Earth sciences and gather scientific data about Earth. But excitement over America’s contribution quickly faded as the Soviet Union soon announced its own plans to orbit a satellite. True to their intentions, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, beating the United States at its own initiative and creating what would become the “Space Race” between the two great nations.
The United States successfully launched its first Earth satellite on Jan. 31, 1958, with Explorer 1, but the Soviet victory had already created a patriotic stir among Americans, who pushed for increased spending for aerospace programs and technology. On Feb. 6, 1958, the United States Congress formed the Committee on Space and Astronautics to frame legislation for a national space program. A few months later, on July 29, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law. NASA began operating two months later.
Luckily, the agency did not need to start from scratch – it encapsulated the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which had been in existence since 1915, and inherited 8,000 employees, an annual budget of $100 million and three major research laboratories – Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory – as well as two smaller test facilities. Other organizations were quickly folded in, including the space science group of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, the Army’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed by the California Institute of Technology, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, where Wernher von Braun's team of engineers were already working on the development of large rockets.
In the coming years, NASA went on to undertake human space flight initiatives with Project Mercury, a single astronaut program to ascertain if a human could survive in space; Project Gemini, a dual astronaut endeavor to practice space operations, including rendezvous and docking of spacecraft and extravehicular activity; and Project Apollo to land on and explore the moon. In July 1969, America became the first and only nation to set foot on the moon, achieving a goal once thought to be mere science fiction.
From 1981 to 2011, NASA’s Space Shuttle Program enabled a wealth of scientific achievements, most notably, the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) and the launch and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as countless advances in biology and biotechnology; Earth and space science; human research; physical science; and technology development, including numerous consumer product spinoffs that were made possible by NASA technology.
Today, NASA continues to support the ISS through its Commercial Crew Program and is focused on deep space exploration with the development of the Space Launch System, or SLS, which will one day carry astronauts to deep space, including Mars, asteroids and beyond. NASA currently maintains 10 field centers and seven test and research facilities across the country, as well as headquarters in Washington, D.C. The agency employs more than 18,000 people as well as thousands of government contractors.
Find more information about the history of NASA.