NASA: Six Decades of Space Exploration for the Good of All Humankind

NASA is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year; here’s a brief recap of the space agency’s six-decade-journey and its accomplishments in, and contributions to, space exploration

NASA: Six Decades of Space Exploration for the Good of All Humankind

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known by its acronym NASA, has been the nation’s mainstay in space exploration for as long as sixty years – well, technically, a week short of the mark – and continuing.

That’s correct! The U.S. space agency is turning 60 on October 1, with anniversary celebrations having started as early as January this year, with more to come.

Ever since its inception in the late fifties, NASA has been working relentlessly to achieve all those goals that justify its mission “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”

Of course, it’s an ever-evolving process, as there are always new goals to achieve; new frontiers to conquer.

Having come into existence in a hurry, by bringing together several existing agencies, NASA has come a long way over the decades, now boasting ten different centers across the length and breadth of the country and many glorious achievements to its credit.

On July 29, 1958, calling it a “historic step,” President Dwight D.

Eisenhower passed legislation for the creation of a dedicated agency for space exploration, christening it the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The fact of the matter is that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was formed in 1915 for aeronautical research, was being expanded into NASA for the purpose of a larger US presence in space, what with the Soviet Union having already made forays into that domain.

Not only did NASA absorb NACA, but it also acquired the Langley Research Center in Virginia and Ames Research Center in California, both entities existing even today.

Some of the others that were taken into the NASA fold included the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

It’s not that the United States wasn’t involved in any kind of space activity before NASA was formed; because in 1957, as part of the International Geophysical Year, President Eisenhower gave his official nod to launch a scientific satellite into orbit.

Not to be outdone, U.S. Cold War rival Soviet Union didn’t take long to counter that with an announcement of its own and, before long, surprised the world by putting into orbit the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1; the date was October 4, 1957.

According to NASA, the launch of the Soviet satellite had a “Pearl Harbor effect on American public opinion, creating an illusion of a technological gap and provided the impetus for increased spending on aerospace endeavors.”

On January 31, 1958, the U.S. launched its answer to Sputnik 1 in the form of the Explorer 1 satellite, the world’s second artificial satellite to hit space in a matter of less than four months.

The race to space had begun!

The Explorer 1 was not put into orbit as a showpiece that could circumnavigate the Earth but, rather, as part of a data gathering science mission that would give scientists better insights into our planet and its environment.

“Explorer 1 was also a science mission,” program scientist for NASA’s Explorer Program, Willis Jenkins, has been quoted as saying on the NASA website.

“This wasn’t just launched to get a satellite up in space, it was meant to bring science data back down,” Jenkins said.

Destination Moon

On May 5, 1961, as part of Project Mercury, Alan Shepard became the first American to make it to space on the Mercury-Redstone 3 spacecraft.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.

“No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”

photo; NASA
Photo; NASA

These were the famous words spoken by President John F Kennedy in his May 25, 1961, address to Congress on Urgent National Needs that made it a matter of prestige and priority for NASA to put a man on the moon ASAP.

NASA accomplished its second manned mission to space when it sent a two-astronaut crew into space on board the Gemini spacecraft as part of Project Gemini, which started in 1961 and lasted until 1966.

Project Gemini also saw as many as ten astronauts fly low Earth orbit (LEO) missions in 1965 and 1966 before it was discontinued.

Project Gemini was a precursor to the moon mission as its purpose was to develop space travel techniques to support the Apollo cause.

Despite hurdles and setbacks, including loss of lives, NASA finally managed to send astronauts around the moon, in 1968, but not on it; that was still a year from happening.

The day when a man was to set foot on the moon for the first time ever, finally did arrive.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became a household name as he became the first human to walk the surface of the moon.

His famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” stay etched in history and memory.

By the time the Apollo program culminated in 1972, NASA had landed one dozen astronauts on the surface of our only natural satellite over six landing missions.

Although there were no more lunar landings after the discontinuation of the Apollo program, NASA continued to send astronauts on space missions.

NASA sent three human missions to stay onboard the Skylab space station over a period of 24 weeks between May 1973 and 1974.

“The Skylab program also served as a successful experiment in long-duration human spaceflight,” says NASA.

1975 was the year that saw NASA and the Soviet Union work together towards achieving the first international manned spaceflight, successfully carrying out space procedures as part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

NASA’s space shuttle fleet included Columbia, Atlantis, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavor, and Enterprise, with Columbia being the first to be launched in April 1981.

Space Shuttle Columbia, the world’s first reusable space vehicle, landing at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center (now NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center) at Edwards Air Force Base, California, April 14, 1981. Image Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Columbia, the world’s first reusable space vehicle, landing at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (now NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center) at Edwards Air Force Base, California, April 14, 1981. Photo; NASA

Challenger and Columbia were ultimately destroyed in explosions in 1986 and 2003, respectively.

However, by the time the shuttle program ended, NASA had launched 300 astronauts into space over 135 missions.

Work on the International Space Station (ISS) began in 1984, with Russia and other countries joining the project in 1993; human occupation of the station started in November 2000.

Some of NASA’s recent space achievements include the Mars landing of its nuclear-powered Curiosity rover in November 2011.

As recently as earlier this year, Curiosity rover discovered organic matter embedded in the sedimentary rocks of the three-billion-year-old Gale Crater on Mars, giving newfound impetus to the possibility that extraterrestrial life existed on the planet at some point in time.

Then, in August, the space agency launched its car-sized Parker Solar Probe from a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, sending it on a seven-year mission, deep into the sun’s atmosphere, the corona.

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