Happy 55th birthday, NASA! Or are you actually 98 years old? Either way, congratulations on your senior discount at IHOP.
The space agency that we know and love was actually built on a government organization founded much earlier -- the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which started up in 1915 and initially focused on military projects. NACA research contributed to the Bell X-1 plane that broke the sound barrier for the first time, and the agency had already started dipping its toe into space projects by the time that the USSR’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 fired the first shot in the Space Race.
“NACA was established with good intentions but operated mostly as a bureaucratic backwater, a government body that couldn't hope to keep up with a rapidly evolving private industry,” Time magazine wrote in 2008.
While America was eager to match the Soviets in mastering space after Sputnik, many questions remained as to what a new U.S. space agency would look like. Both the U.S. Air Force and the Army thought space exploration should fall at least partly under their supervision; some considered whether a space division rightfully belonged within the National Science Foundation.
President Dwight Eisenhower, on the advice of the Presidential Science Advisory Committee, proposed a civilian space agency that would arise from a revamped NACA. The National Aeronautics and Space Act adopted the model, was passed by Congress and signed into law on July 29, 1958. NASA absorbed NACA’s 8,000 employees, $100 million annual budget and three research laboratories, and started gobbling up other scientific organizations too, like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
NASA went to work right away, and its first major program, Project Mercury, sent American astronaut Alan B. Shepard into space in May 1961 -- just less than a month after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin claimed the mantle of first human in space. Its crowning achievement, the Apollo program aimed at sending people to the moon, lasted for 11 years and cost $25.4 billion overall.
“Only the building of the Panama Canal rivaled the size of the Apollo program as the largest nonmilitary technological endeavor ever undertaken by the United States; only the Manhattan Project was comparable in a wartime setting,” NASA’s history program office writes.
The road to the stars is a rough one, as the proverb says. Fourteen astronauts have died on NASA space shuttles in two separate accidents -- the Challenger and the Columbia disasters. In 1966, all three of the Apollo 1 crew members died in a test on the launch pad.
In recent years, NASA has struggled in the face of budget cuts, and efforts to continue human spaceflight have largely stalled. But the scientists and engineers that labor at the agency are still producing wonders every day, from the robots that roam on Mars to the Hubble Space Telescope that peers back to look at the lights of galaxies forged in the dawn of creation. Hopefully, they’ll be able to do so for another 55 years and beyond.