A Brief History of NASA: 60 Years of Exploring the Unknown

NASA was first established in 1958 and over the last 60 years has literally expanded humanity's horizons.

A Brief History of NASA: 60 Years of Exploring the Unknown
The History of NASA Adapted from NASA

Today, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, hit the grand old age of 60. The last six decades have seen an incredible journey of discovery of human potential and bravery which has literally expanded man's horizons.

To mark this momentous occasion we thought it would be a nice idea to take a whistle-stop tour through the organization's highly prolific history. Hold on its going to be a wild ride through some of the most important events of the 20th Century.

The article will make some selected stops through the major developments of the organization. It is not intended to be a comprehensive guide of all their amazing achievements over the last six decades.

Happy Anniversary NASA! 

NASA history timeline infographic 60 years birthday

The Beginning: From Cold War to Hot Exhaust

To understand the history of NASA it's important to put its foundation into context. After the conclusion of the Second World War, the frosty alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union soon turned very cold indeed. The Cold War had begun.

The next five decades would fuel a technological race between the superpowers to develop mankind's understanding of advanced technologies like Nuclear Power, Rocketry, Flight and, of course, Space Exploration.

National pride and serious concerns over national defense would pit these two giants against each other to "out-first" the other as soon as possible. 

NASA History Sputnik
The launch of Sputnik 1 partially inspired the creation of NASA. Source: Gregory R Todd/Wikimedia Commons

The real turning point, at least for NASA's history, was the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union on October the 4th 1957. This would deeply disturb the U.S. and would have a "Pearl Harbor" effect on its citizens - they were falling behind!

The direct consequence of the this was the formal foundation of NASA on October 1st, 1958. This was formed from the merger of the existing National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics (NACA) with its 8,000 employees and $100 million budget, Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory-and two smaller test facilities.

"It [NASA] quickly incorporated other organizations into the new agency, notably the space science group of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed by the California Institute of Technology for the Army, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, where Wernher von Braun's team of engineers were engaged in the development of large rockets. Eventually, NASA created other Centers and today it has ten located around the country." - NASA.

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NASA's Aeronautics Research has been groundbreaking

NASA quickly built on its forerunner, NACA's, work on aeronautics. It continued to advance America's and humanity's developments of cutting-edge aerodynamics and propulsion technologies.

One of their more famous work in this field was the still impressive X-15 program. This involved the development of a rocket-powered airplane that was able to fly above the Earth's atmosphere before gliding back to Terra Firma.

NASA history X-15
X-15A-2 at the National Museum of the US Air Force. Source: nationalmuseum

This project helped gather vital information about supersonic aeronautics that would later help in the development of the Space Shuttle Program. 

NASA also collaborated with the U.S. Air Force during the 1960s with the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar program which was designed to fly into orbit. This was to be a precursor of the National Aerospace Plane which involved the development of advanced hypersonic technologies.

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NASA also made significant advancements in research into flight maneuverability in high speed and low-speed aircraft. Richard Whitcomb, a NASA scientist, developed the "supercritical wing" that was designed to attenuate the impact of shock waves on transonic aircraft. 

In 1972, the development of the F-8 digital-fly-by-wire program (DFBW) laid the foundations for future electronic DFBW system used in the F/A-18, Boeing 777, X-29 and X-31, and the Space Shuttle.

Between 1963 and 1975 NASA also conducted key research into the "lifting bodies" or aircraft without wings. This would also be integrated into the final designs of the Space Shuttle program during the 1980s. 

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In 2004, the X-43A airplane used innovative scramjet technology to fly at ten times the speed of sound, setting a world's record for air-breathing aircraft.

NASA's first spaceflights made history

NASA would quickly make significant contributions to history. Its first high-profile mission involved the Mercury and Gemini projects.

The former was developed to understand the viability of sending humans into space and survive. After several years intensive research and development Alan B. Shepard Junior became the first American to ever fly in space.

On the 5th of May 1961, he rode his Mercury capsule around the Earth in a 15-minute suborbital mission. He was quickly followed by John H. Glenn Junior who became the first U.S. Astronaut to actually orbit the Earth on the 20th of February 1962.

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Project Mercury would run for a total of six flights and ultimately achieved its ambitious goal of putting a human-piloted craft into Earth's orbit and have the occupants return to Terra Firma in one piece. This is an incredible achievement in hindsight.

Project Gemini, another ambitious project, built on the experience and knowledge NASA scientists and engineers gleaned from project Mercury. Its main advancement was to increase the crew capacity to two astronauts. 

Gemini would run for 10 flights in total and would gather vital information on weightlessness as well as perfected Earth atmosphere reentry, Earthside splashdown procedures and laid the foundations for in-space docking procedures. 

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It was during this program that the first U.S. Astronaut to perform a spacewalk, Edward H. White Junior, did so on the 3rd of June 1965. He was 'pipped to the post' by Soviet Astronaut Alexey Leonov only a few months earlier in March 1965.

The Apollo Project was an enormous, but dangerous undertaking

For all NASA's already impressive resume its most famous achievement was the Apollo program, primarily its success in landing humans on Earth's most intimate celestial body - The Moon.  

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieve the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth." - J.F.K., May 1961

The project famously received an enormous boost, or you could say mandate when President John F. Kennedy made his now immortal speech on the 25th May 1961. 

Of course, this declaration was not made out of pure scientific curiosity. It was a direct response to apparent Soviet Space superiority at the time. America would not be outdone and would prove its dominance in scientific and technological prowess over its cold war adversary.

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This would spark an 11-year obsession with the Apollo program and consume a whopping $25.4 billion ($214.6 billion today) over its lifetime. Other projects like the Panama Canal have ever come close to this kind of spending for a single nonmilitary national technological effort. 

The program was not without its catastrophic failures, however. Famously there was the Apollo 1 capsule fire in the 27th of January, 1967 that killed all astronauts on board during a launch rehearsal test. Despite this, the project's momentum was not halted but they would make sure the capsule was extensively redesigned for future missions.

The next major milestone was the Apollo 7 mission in October of 1968 that successfully orbited the Earth and tested the new command module design. This was swiftly followed by the first orbit of the Moon on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission. 

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JFK's promise to the world was finally fulfilled on the 20th of July 1969 with the highly successful Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Junior became the first and second men to ever walk on the surface of the Moon. 

This event would be carved into history with the now famous quote:-

"That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." - Neil Armstrong, July 1969

Five more successful moon landings would follow with Apollo 13 (April 1970) entering history more for its failure than success. The ground crew and astronauts quick thinking enabled them to improvise a solution to a critical oxygen tank burst mid-way to the Moon and return the crew safely.

The program would run for a total of 17 missions with the last, Apollo 17, being the first to land a scientist, Geologist Harrison H. Schmitt, on the surface of the Moon in December of 1972. This mission has been vital to our understanding of the origin of the Moon.

Of the 17 missions, 6 would land a total of 12 astronauts onto the Moon's surface. But there was one further achievement for the Apollo program to complete. 

In 1975, a joint NASA-Soviet mission would see the first international human spaceflight - the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). After the spacecraft was launched from their respective countries they successfully rendezvoused and docked in space. 

The crews met and conducted various experiments over a period of two days. 

NASA History Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP)
The Apollo–Soyuz display in the National Air and Space Museum. Source: Toytoy/Wikimedia Commons

NASA wasn't just about human spaceflight

In addition to NASA's enormous contributions to manned spaceflight, they also developed many significant scientific probes throughout the years. These probes have explored the Moon, other planets and areas of our home solar system.

The 1970s was a massively important period for the development of these kinds of spacecraft.

Pioneer 10 and 11, which launched on the 2nd of March 1972 and April 5th, 1973 respectively, both traveled to Jupiter and Saturn. Their mission was to explore the composition of interplanetary space and the two planets.

In 1975, NASA launched the two Viking spacecraft to look for basic signs of life on the planet Mars. They arrived at Mars in 1976 and were, at that time, unable to detect any signs of life. 

Other important probes include the highly successful Voyager 1 and 2 craft. These were launched on the 5th September 1977 and August 20th, 1977. 

Their mission to conduct a "Grand Tour" of our solar system, one that still continues today, at least for now

NASA has also developed telescopes and satellites

1990 saw the launch of the hugely important Hubble Space Telescope into Earth's orbit. As momentous an occasion as this was NASA scientists would soon realize that there was a problem with their new toy.

Inspiration

NASA 50 year spacewalk history revealed in photos

It was discovered that a microscopic spherical aberration in its polished mirror was causing significant limitations to its potential power. This was corrected during a scheduled servicing mission in December of 1993 when a team of astronauts performed a series of spacewalks to corrects Hubble's optics. 

With the telescope fixed it would go on to take some of the most dramatic images of faraway worlds and galaxies the likes of which mankind could never have hoped to see before. This, in part, greatly restored the public's confidence in the NASA program as a whole.

The scientific probe program wasn't without its failures, however. On the 21st August 1993 the Mars Observer, that had been planned to orbit and observe Mars, disappeared without a trace. 

They would also need to scrap quite a few more, mainly for budgeting restraints at various points in its history.

This failure would inspire NASA to build "better, faster and cheaper" spacecraft to visit and study Mars in the future. Their first offering was the Mars Global Explorer that launched on November 7th, 1996. 

This is still in orbit and has been mapping Mars since its arrival at the red planet in 1998. The Mars Pathfinder mission successfully landed on the surface of Mars in July of 1997 and explored a limited area of the planet's surface using its rover, Sojourner. 

This mission received widespread public attention and was watched by many via the internet at the time. It was quickly followed by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in January 2004. 

Mars exploration is still a high priority for the organization over the next few years,

1991 saw the launch of the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory which joined Hubble as part of NASA's ''Great Observatories" series of telescopes.

1996 saw the launch of the Galileo spacecraft that was developed to examine Jupiter and its moon Europa. The probe revealed tentative information that the moon might contain ice or even liquid water - a key element for the potential presence of life. 

NASA has also been involved in developing radio telescopy to scan the heavens for potential intelligent life. NASA also "continues to investigate whether any Martian meteorites contain microbiological organisms and in the late 1990s, organized an "Origins" program to search for life using powerful new telescopes and biological techniques." - NASA

NASA's work on cutting-edge telescopes continues to this day with its planned James Webb Space Telescope which is planned to replace the now aging venerable Hubble Telescope. Deployment is scheduled for launch in May 2020 from French Guiana.

NASA has also made significant developments in space applications such as communications and other satellites. The Echo, Telstar, Relay, and Syncom satellites were built by NASA or by the private sector based on significant NASA advances.

NASA's Landsat was developed in the 1970s with the first three launched in 1972, 1975 and 1978. They have also involved in the development of a variety of Earth Sciences investigations as like the Earth Observatory System of spacecraft and many more.

NASA is still heavily invested in developing new satellite technologies including their new TESS system.

A period of massive success and tragedy: The Space Shuttle Program

Another major leap in technology developed by NASA was the highly successful Space Shuttle Program. Only six years after the completion of the Apollo program NASA would refocus on human spaceflight.

The program was launched shortly after President Nixon announced NASA's plan to develop a reusable space shuttle or space transportation system (STS)

In 1981, they unveiled their ambitious new flagship project, The Space Shuttle. It's first mission STS-1 launched on the 12th of April 1981. 

In total five Shuttles were built, Atlantis, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and the test shuttle Enterprise. All made successful missions to space except Enterprise.

Its difficult for us to understand just how momentous this was at the time with the Space Shuttle so ubiquitous in our minds today. With it, NASA showed they could send a craft into space strapped to a large controlled explosion and return the craft in an unpowered airplane-like landing.

NASA history Space Shuttle
Source: NASA

STS-6 (4-9th April 1983) successfully completed the first Shuttle EVA and demonstrated their new spacesuits in the Shuttle's cargo bay. The next missions STS-7 sent the first American Woman into space on the 18th June 1983. 

Between 1983 and 1986, the Space Shuttle program would launch another 18 missions performing various duties from launching satellites to testing robotics in space. The program was almost making the activity of sending humans into space routine - that wouldn't last.

On the 28th January 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenge, STS-51-L, broke apart 73 seconds into its takeoff killing all 7 crew onboard. This shocked the world and stalled the project for two years whilst investigations and design changes were undertaken. 

NASA History Space Shuttle Enterprise
Space Shuttle Enterprise. Source: Daniel Mennerich/Flickr

The remaining Space Shuttles were returned to active service on the 29th September 1988 with STS-26R and the Shuttle Discovery. This would be the first of another 87 successful missions again delivering payloads into space, conducting experiments and deploying the Hubble Telescope in April of 1990 on STS-31.

This winning streak was, tragically, doomed to end when on the 1st February 2003 the Shuttle Columbia disintegrated 15 minutes before landing after the successful completion of STS-107. After a thorough investigation and refit of remaining Shuttles, the program began again on the 26th July 2005 with STS-114.

The program would run for another few years with the final Space Shuttle mission Atlantis on the 8th July 2011, STS-135. In total, the Space Shuttle program would complete five test missions and 135 full missions.

It would send 300 astronauts into space throughout its time and cost around $209 billion over its lifetime. 

NASA hasn't given up on its concept of reusable space vehicles and is currently developing its much-anticipated Dream Chaser project that could be operational before 2024.

Skylab and the International Space Station

NASA has also worked hard on a more permanent human presence in space. Once achieved it will play a vital role in the future of man's deeper exploration of the Universe around us.

NASA initially drove forward in this area with its Skylab program in 1973. After the winding down of the Apollo program, they initially repurposed their enormous Saturn rockets to launch a small orbital space workshop. 

All in all, there were three Skylab missions with crews staying onboard the workshop for 28, 59, and 84 days respectively. Its success led the U.S. Congress that authorizes the development of a major new space station as a base for future space exploration in the future.

President Ronald Reagan was a driving force behind this venture.

"I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade." - President Ronald Reagan, January 1984

An initial design was in place by 1986 with revisions made in 1991 after the station's purpose and budget. After the Clinton Administration took office in 1993 the facility changed its name from Space Station Freedom to Space Station Alpha. 

The same year Russia, which has extensive experience developing long-duration human spaceflight with Salyut and Mir space stations, and other international partners joined the U.S. to develop a joint facility to become known as the International Space Station (ISS). 

This would become one of the most complex engineering projects in history. It would also require the collaboration of five different space agencies around the world to work on the $100 billion project.

Preparation began in 1998 with Space Shuttle missions delivering astronauts to Mir with habitation of ISS beginning in October and November of 2000.

Today, it costs around $3 to $4 billion a year to maintain but is the largest manmade structure ever constructed in space.

NASA and Russia are planning to collaborate again but this time on a space station to orbit the Moon

History of the NASA Logo

Here's how the NASA logo has changed over time. It has been created with thanks to NASA.

Year Logo Description
1959
History of NASA Official Seal
Source: NASA

In 1959 President Eisenhower officially approved NASA's seal. As NASA like to describe it "if the meatball is the everyday face of NASA, the NASA seal is the dressed-up version."

This seal is used for formal purposes like award presentations and ceremonies. This seal includes iconography depicting planets, stars, vector elements, and orbits.

1959-1975
NASA history Meatball logo
Source: NASA

The so-called"Meatball" logo of NASA was the first they adopted. It was designed by NASA employee James Modarelli in 1959 during its second year of operation. 

Its design incorporates many aspects of the organization's research.

The round shape represents a planet with the stars space and the red v-shape vector meant to symbolize aeronautics.

1975-1992
NASA History 1970's logo
Source: NASA

The "Meatball" remained in service for 16 years before NASA decided it needed a new look. 

 

1992-
NASA history Meatball logo
Source: NASA

The "Meatball" made its return in 1992 when the "worm" was officially retired. 

It has been their official logo ever since.

Other
NASA History 60th Anniversary logo
Source: NASA

NASA also has a large collection of symbols and insignias for various projects. Each Space Shuttle crew, for instance, had their own unique emblems.

NASA also create symbols for major events and special occasions. 

This is their official 60th Anniversary logo and was designed by NASA graphic artist Matthew Skeins,

NASA history timeline

The following is an abbreviated timeline of some of the major events during, and just before, NASA official formation. It has been created with the aid of NASA's own and other information included in this article. 

Program Year Description
Pre-NASA 1940 NACA is formed and is instrumental in aircraft design throughout the war. 
Pre-NASA 1947 Cold War Begins. This will be a major driving force for U.S. technological research
Pre-NASA 1957 The Soviets launch and deploy Sputnik 1
Aeronautical Research 1958 NASA Founded and merges NACA and various other organizations
Aeronautical Research 1959 The X-15 ran for around 10 years and was a roaring success reaching Mach 6.7 later in the program.
Aeronautical Research 1959 NASA collaborate with Boeing and The Air Force on The Boeing X-20  ''Dyno-saur'' program. It would later be canceled in 1963 due to the inflating cost of the project.
Aeronautical Research 1959 The Supercritical Wing is developed by Richard Whitcomb
NASA 1959 NASA Seal officially approved by President Eisenhower
Mercury 1961 Alan B. Shephard Junior becomes the first American in space
Apollo 1961 President J.F.K makes his famous Moon speech
Mercury 1962 John H. Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the Earth
Space Program 1963 First successful Centaur Rocket launch
Aeronautical Research 1963 NASA conducts research on 'lifting bodies' or aircraft without wings. This runs until 1975.
Gemini 1965 Edward H. White Junior becomes the first American to perform a spacewalk
Apollo 1967 Apollo 1 capsule is engulfed in flames during launch rehearsal killing all onboard
Apollo 1968 Apollo 7 successfully orbits the Earth
Apollo 1968 Apollo 8 successfully reaches and orbits the Moon
Apollo 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon during Apollo 11 mission
Apollo 1970 The disastrous, but non-tragic, Apollo 13 mission is cut short with all crew returned safely
Landsat 1972 Landsat program begins with deployment continuing into 1978
Apollo 1972 Geologist Harrison H. Schmitt becomes the first scientist to walk on the Moon during Apollo 17
Aeronautical Research 1972 NASA helped develop the F-8 digital-fly-by-wire tech.
Viking 1972 The Viking spacecraft are launched
Space Shuttle 1972 President Nixon announces that NASA will develop a reusable space shuttle/STS
Skylab 1973 Skylab is deployed in space
Apollo 1975 The first international human spaceflight is achieved with the  Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP)
Viking 1976 Viking probes reach Mars
Voyager 1977 Voyager 1 and 2 begin their 'Grand Tour' of the Solar System
Space Shuttle 1981 NASA unveil their Space Shuttle/STS and build five of them
Space Shuttle 1983 The first Space Shuttle EVA is completed - STS-6
Space Shuttle 1983 The first female American astronaut is sent into space on mission STS-7
ISS 1984 President Ronald Reagan makes his ISS speech
Space Shuttle 1983-1986 18 Space Shuttle missions are completed without issues
ISS 1986 First draft plans of ISS unveiled
Space Shuttle 1986 The Space Shuttle Challenger breaks apart 73 seconds after launch. All 7 crew are killed during STS-51-L. The Space Shuttle Program is grounded pending a safety review.
Space Shuttle 1988 Space Shuttle Program is restarted with STS-26R
Great Observatories 1990 The Hubble Telescope is deployed into Earth orbit
Origins 1990's NASA begins its 'Origins' program to search for life
ISS 1991 ISS plans revised
Great Observatories 1991 Compton Gamma Ray Observatory is deployed
ISS 1993 International agreement is made to work on ISS
Great Observatories 1993 The Hubble Telescope is repaired following the discovery of technical issues shortly after its launch
Mars Exploration 1993 Contact is lost forever with the Mars Observer probe
Mars Exploration 1996 Mars Global Explorer is launched
Mars Exploration 1996 Galileo spacecraft is launched
Mars Exploration 1997 The Mars Pathfinder successfully lands on Mars' surface
Cassini 1997 Cassini spacecraft is launched
ISS 1998 ISS construction begins. Space Shuttles begin delivering parts into space
Mars Exploration 1998 Mars Global Explorer reaches Mars
ISS 2000 ISS construction is completed. It is the biggest man-made structure in space
Space Shuttle 2003 Shuttle Columbia breaks up during re-entry 15 minutes before its scheduled landing. Remaining Space Shuttles are grounded and refitted. 
Aeronautical Research 2004 NASA develop the X-43A Scramjet which should be able to fly ten times the speed of sound.
Mars Exploration 2004 Spirit and Opportunity rovers deployed
Space Shuttle 2005 Space Shuttle Program is restarted with STS-114
Space Shuttle 2011 Space Shuttle Program is wound down and retired. It has completed 135 missions and 5 test flights in total.
Moon space station 2017 Russia and NASA begin collaboration on a new space station that will orbit the Moon
TESS 2018 NASA announced their intention to work with SpaceX to deploy their TESS spacecraft
James Webb Space Telescope 2020 NASA plans to deploy its James Webb Space Telescope to replace the aging Hubble Telescope
Dream Chaser 2024 NASA plans to deploy its Dream Chaser Project

What does the future hold for NASA?

NASA recently published their ‘roadmap’ for the future with their National Space Exploration Campaign Report. It highlights their intended programs and overall strategies for the next few decades.

It follows after President Donald Trump signed the Space Policy Directive-1 (SPD-1). The President directed the NASA Administrator “to lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.” - NASA.

A bold and exciting vision for the future of the agency and one they are fully prepared to answer.

Their roadmap aims to “revitalize and add direction to NASA’s enduring purpose to carry out human and robotic exploration missions, expanding the frontiers of human experience and scientific discovery of the natural phenomena of Earth, other worlds, and the cosmos as a whole.” - NASA.

NASA promises their Campaign will address five core national drivers:  *Scientific Knowledge  

*Global Engagement  

*Economic Development

*Societal Improvement  

*Leadership and Inspiration

NASA history future roadmap
Source: NASA

“The call from the President and Congress for a National Space Exploration Campaign emerges at a critical point in America’s space program and its relationship to strategic issues facing the nation in space. Challenges and opportunities exist that must be addressed over the next several years.” - NASA.

You can find the entire document here, and it is an interesting read. But for brevity, it covers a few interesting projects including:

*Section 1 Forward to the Moon, Mars and Beyond

*Section 2 Americans in Lunar Orbit and on the Lunar Surface

*Section 3 Living in Space Prepared Us for this Moment

*Section 4 Vistas of Opportunity and Discovery - Mars and Beyond

*Section 5 Corporate Reform - Enabling Initiatives

Whether they can achieve these ambitious objectives is yet to be seen but it's certainly going to be exciting to watch.

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