At 60, NASA has a wealth of space science history behind it. So what were the highlights?
Founding and first steps: 1958 -1972
NASA's origin lies in the aggressive space race between the Soviets and the USA. Back in 1957, the USSR shocked the world with a demonstration of their technical prowess when they launched the first manmade satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. In November of the same year, they did it again, with Sputnik 2 carrying a dog called Laika, who became the first living creature larger than a microbe to make it off our planet and into orbit.
While the US had some success later in the year, safely launching Explorer 1 after their first attempt, Vanguard exploded a few feet off the ground and the US government realised a more concerted effort was needed. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] was born in 1958, opening its doors on 1st October to continue the work done by National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics [NACA] and extending it to include spaceflight.
When the Soviet Union then put Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April 1961, it further galvanised President JFK to make a bold statement at the State of the Union:
"First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
This, at a time when America had only just put Alan Shephard into space for 15 minutes, was a very bold statement indeed. But it is exactly what they did.
On the 20th July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left Michael Collins in the command module Columbia, and descended in the lunar lander Eagle to the moon’s surface, where they made “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were stepping out from the lunar lander, Michael Collins was setting his own record. Left orbiting the moon alone in Columbia, he became the most isolated human in existence, with the nearest of his species being about 3.5 thousand kilometres away, leaving footprints on the moon.
Since then only 5 other astronauts have faced the same scenario, as a total of 12 people have walked on the surface of the moon, all within a 3 year period.
After the space race: 1972 - Present day
So what was NASA’s next target? They had achieved their greatest aim of safely reaching our nearest celestial neighbour, and returning with samples to analyse. Declaring victory in the space race, NASA extended their focus to look both out into the cosmos and back at earth.
NASA sent out the pioneer and voyager satellites to explore the outer planets in our solar system. Voyager would carry with it the “Golden Record” of humanity, a disc containing information about us for anyone who may find it.
Telescopes would look out even further, to help us understand the origins of the universe, the formation of galaxies and stars, and the birth of planets. At the same time our satellites would look inwards, viewing earth as a complete system for the first time, studying the earth's climate, weather and photographing the land.
And finally a huge, concerted, international effort would be made to build and maintain the International Space Station, for all sorts of fascinating microgravity research experiments, and NASA’s Shuttle to ferry the American occupants up and back.
But it wasn’t without sacrifice. 7 trainees, the crew of Apollo 1, along with Shuttle passengers of Challenger and Columbia were all lost in the name of science and continued exploration of the unknown, and only the ingenuity of NASA scientists and astronauts brought home the crew of Apollo 13 safely after the famous but oft misquoted “Houston, we’ve had a problem”.
All of this work took astounding technological development, and found uses not just up in space, but around the globe too. There’s plenty of NASA tech that we use every day! Laser Emitting Diodes (LEDs), the computer mouse, dust busters to name just a few. And of course miniaturised cameras that have found uses in smartphones. That’s right, we have NASA to thank for the selfie.
NASA’s next 60 YEARS
So what have they been up to since, and what are they planning to do next?
“NASA are looking at the origin of the universe, black holes, how they form, and how matter came together in the first place. The Cassini mission has been exploring Saturn and its moons: Enceladus with plumes of water, Titan with complex chemistry,” says Professor Andrew Coates of University College London.
“The Spirit rover and Opportunity rover have been looking at water on Mars, and finding out that Mars is quite habitable. NASA have played an important role in space measurements confirming early ground based measurements of global warming.”
In a galaxy far, far away...
But why should we care about what is out in space? And why are we spending money on things that have no current practical application?
“Well it is expensive of course to launch anything into space”, explains Coates. “We use space for a number of different things, and there are of spin-offs in technology terms, but the actual reason we’re doing it is to understand more about how we’re here and why we’re here..
“We are trying to understand our place in the universe. For the big questions like 'is there life anywhere else in the universe' or 'are we alone on this pale blue dot', we have to be able to understand the big picture and space is a very important part of that.”
Not only that, but discovery for discovery’s sake has always been vital for the progress of humanity. There was no intended use for an electron when the scientists went looking for it, but now our understanding of it drives nearly everything we take for granted. Who knows what uses we will find for future NASA technology? We’ll just have to wait and see.