The History of NASA

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Podcast Transcript

In 1958 the United States government created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA.

NASA has achieved some of the most incredible accomplishments in human history and also has suffered some incredible failures. 

Yet this agency wasn’t created out of nothing. It has a past that goes back far earlier than most people realize. 

Learn more about the history of NASA and how it came to be on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

While NASA as an official government entity dates back to 1958, the predecessor organization actually dates back much earlier. 

The first “A” in NASA stands for aeronautics, and the first government organization to promote aeronautical research was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

This group was actually created in 1915 during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson. 

It was established during the first world war as an emergency measure, even though the US had not entered the war at this point. It was following in the footsteps of similar organizations which were established by France, Germany, and Britain

According to the Congressional resolution which established the committee, “…It shall be the duty of the advisory committee for aeronautics to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution. …

The committee initially consisted of 12 members, all of which were unpaid. 

The organization grew slowly but surely over the years. It had 100 employees in 1922 and 426 in 1938 on the eve of World War II.

They created several research facilities around the country, including the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in California, and the Muroc Flight Test Unit also in California. 

They created expensive wind tunnels and made them available to American aircraft manufacturers. 

They were directly or indirectly responsible for many aircraft innovations in the 1930s and 1940s. 

Their research was directly or indirectly responsible for aircraft such as the B-17 bomber and the P-51 Lightning during the second world war.

The program to break the sound barrier, while conducted by the Navy, was actually a NACA project. 

After the war, the United States managed to recruit most of the scientists and engineers who were involved in Germany’s rocket program. They were unquestionably the most knowledgeable and experienced rocketeers in the world at this time.

In a previous episode, I told the story of Operation Paperclip, which brought these German scientists to the US. 

The NACA had dabbled in rockets, and the Bell X-1, which broke the sound barrier, was a rocket plane, but rocketry really wasn’t their forte. 

The United States had rocket scientists scattered across several different organizations, including the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, the Air Force, and the NACA itself. 

Everything came to a head on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. 

This created what was known as the “Sputnik Crisis” in the United States. A desperate desire to quickly catch up to the Soviet Union in space. 

As soon as Sputnik was in orbit, the NACA began investigating the creation of a civilian space agency and what it would do. 

The first American satellite, Explorer 1, was launched on January 31, 1958, and soon after, a proposal was on the desk of  President Dwight Eisenhower for the creation of a new civilian space agency. 

The proposal that was put forward by the NACA chairman, Hugh Dryden, was to simply use the currently existing NACA as the basis for this new organization. 

He wrote, “It is of great urgency and importance to our country both from consideration of our prestige as a nation as well as military necessity that this challenge [Sputnik] be met by an energetic program of research and development for the conquest of space… It is accordingly proposed that the scientific research be the responsibility of a national civilian agency… NACA is capable, by rapid extension and expansion of its effort, of providing leadership in space technology.”

Things moved rapidly, and on July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act. 

The new organization, known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, came into being on October 1, 1958.

The basis of this new organization was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. All of its now 8,000 employees, its $100 million dollar budget, and its three major research centers. In addition to this, it also incorporated parts of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the Naval Research Laboratory. 

In December of 1958, they also took control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. 

One of the first things they focused on was getting a human into orbit. 

One of the projects inherited by NASA was a NACA program known as the X-15. It was a rocket-powered plane. It set records for speed and altitude, but ultimately it was decided, quite early after the creation of NASA, that this wasn’t the path forward. 

Instead, they decided to focus on a capsule on the top of a rocket as the preferred method for sending a person to space. The new name for this program was Project Mercury, and it was approved on October 7, 1958, just seven days after NASA was created. The program was announced in December.

While project Mercury was quick to approve, it required the creation of a host of facilities to support it and future space missions. In particular, they needed a place to launch their rockets. 

Starting in 1949, the newly created US Air Force took over the previous Banana River Air Station to create the Joint Long Range Proving Ground. Its location was in Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

Cape Canaveral was an ideal location for launching rockets for two reasons. First, it was located on the Atlantic coast, which allowed rockets to be safely launched over unpopulated areas. Second, it was one of the closest points to the equator in the United States, which helped launch satellites into orbit.

In early 1960, all space-related activities by the US Army were transferred to NASA, including the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

On May 5, 1961, NASA launched their first man into space, Alan Shepard, and continued the Mercury program for two years. 

However, just 20 days later, on May 25, President John Kenney challenged congress to establish the goal of sending a person to the moon and back by the end of the 1960s.

This was to be an enormous undertaking. 

One of the first orders of business was the creation of a manned spaceflight center. The location which was chosen was Houston, Texas, in no small part to the fact that the Vice-President, the Speaker of the House, and the heads of several important committees were all from Texas. 

There was also a lot of testing and research which needed to be conducted before they could think about going to the moon. This necessitated an intermediate program before the moon missions could start. This became known as Project Gemini. 

Gemini was a series of two-person missions that tested several things, including space walks, space rendezvous, and long-duration space flights of up to two weeks. 

The program ran from 1965 through 1966. 

While Gemini was going on, NASA was laying the foundation for the missions to the moon, known as the Apollo Program. Much of the early work involved designing the Saturn V rocket, capsule, and lunar landers. 

Just went they were getting ready to begin manned flights in 1967, NASA suffered its greatest setback to that point. On January 27, the three crew members who were to fly on Apollo 1 in under a month’s time, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, were killed in a fire during a launch rehearsal. 

This set the Apollo program back almost a year and a half, and the first Apollo manned flight took place in October 1968 on Apollo 7. 

In December 1968, Apollo 8 sent three people to orbit the moon and back, the first humans ever to travel to the moon. 

Finally, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, achieving the goal set by President Kennedy eight years earlier. 

In many respects, Apollo 11 was the pinnacle of achievement for NASA. The entire world watched American astronauts walk on the moon, and in under ten years, NASA had accomplished one of the greatest achievements in world history. 

Once the mission was accomplished, many people lost interest, including congress, which provided the funding for NASA. 

They canceled three of the Apollo missions, which I previously did an episode, and they reused the leftover equipment for a long-term orbital facility known as Skylab, and they also had an orbital rendezvous with the Soviet Union in 1975. 

While NASA had been successful in getting to the moon, it was obvious to everyone that the system they had used to get to space over the last decade wasn’t sustainable. 

In effect, every space launch was disposable, which made going to space extremely expensive. No matter what the future held in space, it was going to have be on the back of a reusable launch system that could reduce the cost of getting to orbit.

In 1972, Congress and the President approved the creation of the Space Transportation System, or STS, or as it is better known the Space Shuttle. 

From approval of the program to the first launch, it took longer than it did from conception to completion of the Apollo program.  It turned out that creating a reusable orbiter that could return to Earth and land like an airplane was really difficult. 

The first space shuttle launch was in 1981, and the program carried on for 30 years. There were 135 missions that carried 355 astronauts from 16 countries. There were five orbital shuttles that were created: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor. 

Two of the shuttles were lost: Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, killing seven crew members in each disaster.

Unfortunately, the space shuttle wasn’t the cheap and reliable method of getting to orbit that it was supposed to be. Each space shuttle was an incredibly complex machine that had to be inspected for months after each launch. Likewise, the booster rockets and external fuel tanks basically had to be made from scratch each time, even though the solid fuel boosters were supposed to be reusable. 

The space shuttle was instrumental in the creation of the International Space Station, or ISS, which began construction in 1993. 

The shuttle program was retired in 2011, which made NASA entirely reliant on Russia for getting to and from the ISS for a decade. This was the reality until November 2020, when a crewed launch from Florida returned to the ISS, but this time it was with a private capsule built by SpaceX. 

In 2017, NASA announced a return to the moon with the project Artemis program. The plan is to be more ambitious than the Apollo program and will include the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), which will have a 15% greater payload capacity than Apollo’s Saturn V. 

The plan is to land the next humans and the first woman on the moon in the year 2024. 

So far, I’ve just focused on manned space flights. However, even though that has gotten most of the attention, NASA is a lot more than that. 

NASA has been actively exploring the solar system for the last 60 years.  This includes the first successful flybys, returning images and data for every planet in the solar system. 

I have covered many of these missions in previous episodes, but in addition to flybys, they have also landed multiple probes on Mars, including several very successful rovers, landed a probe on Saturn’s moon Titan, as well as asteroids and comets. They have placed spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter and Saturn and sent the very first probes out of the solar system. 

The entire unmanned program is run out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and if you are ever in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend taking a tour of the facility. 

NASA has also spearheaded the creation of several space telescopes, including the Hubble, the James Webb, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. 

Before I end, I should note that while space gets all the attention, the first “A” in NASA stands for aeronautics. NASA has never stopped working on the original mission of the old NACA.  

They still work with aircraft manufacturers on testing and design and have worked on lifting body aircraft like the Northrop HL-10 and forward-swept wings like the Grumman X-29. 

They also still operate the world’s largest wind tunnel at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, as well as 41 other wind tunnels. 

The future of NASA will probably not look like its past. Much of what NASA did, especially in its early days, they did because no one else could do it. 

As spaceflight is becoming more commercialized, NASA doesn’t have to be the organization that builds and launches all the rockets. They will be able to hire companies to transport them to and from space, which will allow them to focus on more interesting projects. 

NASA has done an incredible amount since it was established in 1958. Arguably, they have a track record better than any other government organization in history. NASA’s future might not look like its past, but it will probably still be at the forefront of space exploration for decades to come.