The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (established 1958) is the government agency responsible for the United States of America's space program and long-term general aerospace research. A civilian organization, it conducts (or oversees) research into both civilian and military aerospace systems.
Following the Soviet space program's launch of the world's first man-made satellite (Sputnik 1) on October 4, 1957, the attention of the United States turned toward its own fledgling space efforts. The U.S. Congress, alarmed by the perceived threat to American security and technological leadership, urged immediate and strong action; President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his advisers counseled more deliberate measures. Several months of debate produced agreement that a new federal agency was needed to conduct all nonmilitary activity in space.
On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). When it began operations on October 1, 1958, NASA consisted mainly of the four laboratories and some 8,000 employees of the government's 46-year-old research agency for aeronautics, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
NASA's early programs were research into manned spaceflight, and were conducted under the pressure of the competition between the USA and the USSR (the Space Race) that existed during the Cold War. The Mercury program, initiated in 1958, started NASA down the path of human space exploration with missions designed to discover simply if man could survive in space. On May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space when he piloted Mercury 3 on a 15-minute suborbital flight. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962 during the 5-hour Mercury 6 flight.
After eight years of preliminary missions, including NASA's first loss of astronauts with the Apollo 1 launch pad fire, the Apollo program achieved its goals with Apollo 11 which landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon's surface on July 20, 1969 and returned them to Earth safely on July 24. Armstrong's first words upon stepping out of the Eagle lander captured the momentousness of the occasion: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." Ten more men would set foot on the Moon by the end of the Apollo program in December 1972.
NASA had won the space race, and in some senses this left it without direction, or at the very least without the public attention and interest that was necessary to guarantee large budgets from Congress. The near-disaster of Apollo 13, where an oxygen explosion nearly doomed all three astronauts, helped to recapture attention and concern, but although missions up to Apollo 20 were planned, Apollo 17 was the last mission to fly under the Apollo banner. Budget cuts (in part due to the Vietnam War) brought about the end of the program, as did a desire to develop a reusable space vehicle.
Having lost the space race, the Soviet Union had, along with the USA, changed its approach. On July 17, 1975 an Apollo craft (finding a new use after the cancellation of Apollo 18) was docked to the Soviet Soyuz 19 space craft. Although the Cold War would last many more years, this was a critical point in NASA's history and much of the international co-operation in space exploration that exists today has its genesis here. America's first space station, Skylab, occupied NASA from the end of Apollo until the late 1970s.
The space shuttle became the major focus of NASA in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Planned to be frequently launchable and mostly reusable vehicle, four space shuttles were built by 1985. The first to launch, Columbia did so on April 12, 1981.
The shuttle was not all good news for NASA – flights were much more expensive than initially projected, and even after the 1986Challenger disaster highlighted the risks of space flight, the public again lost interest as missions appeared to become mundane.
Nonetheless, the shuttle has been used to launch milestone projects like the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The HST was created with a relatively small budget of $2 billion but has continued operation since 1990 and has delighted both scientists and the public. Some of the images it has returned have become near-legendary, such as the groundbreaking Hubble Deep Field images. The HST is a joint project between ESA and NASA, and its success has paved the way for greater collaboration between the agencies.
In 1995 Russian-American interaction would again be achieved as the Shuttle-Mir missions began, and once more a Russian craft (this time a full-fledged space station) docked with an American vehicle. This cooperation continues to the present day, with Russian and America the two biggest partners in the largest space station ever built – the International Space Station (ISS). The strength of their cooperation on this project was even more evident when NASA began relying on Russian launch vehicles to service the ISS following the 2003Columbia disaster, which grounded the shuttle fleet for well over a year.
Costing over one hundred billion dollars, it has been difficult at times for NASA to justify the ISS. The population at large have historically been hard to impress with details of scientific experiments in space, preferring news of grand projects to exotic locations. No one will argue the status of the ISS as the premier human facility for science off the Earth's surface that has ever been built, but even now it cannot accommodate as many scientists as planned, especially with the space shuttle out of use until March 2005 at the earliest, bringing expansion to a halt and limiting it to a two person crew.
During much of the 1990s, NASA was faced with shrinking annual budgets due to Congressional belt-tightening in Washington, DC. In response, NASA's ninth administrator, Daniel S. Goldin, pioneered the "faster, better, cheaper" approach that enabled NASA to cut costs while still delivering a wide variety of aerospace programs. That method was criticized and re-evaluated following the twin losses of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999.
NASA's Origins Program Seeks to answer the fundamental questions about the Universe: Are we alone in the Universe? How did we get here? What is the origin of the Universe? Is there another Earth-like planet in our celestial neighborhood? http://origins.jpl.nasa.gov/
Ocean Surface Topography from Space Seeks to study the sea surface height. Maintaining a database of ocean surface topography can help predict short-term changes in weather and longer-term patterns of climate. http://topex-www.jpl.nasa.gov/
Solar System Exploration The definitive source for news and information about our little niche in the Milky Way galaxy. http://sse.jpl.nasa.gov/
JPL DIAL NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab Digital Image Animation Laboratory is an advanced computer animation, and software engineering facility with broadcast quality video recording and editing capabilities. The DIAL was created and is continually developed by the Visualization and Earth Science Applications group. http://www-dial.jpl.nasa.gov/
Jet Propulsion Laboratory Managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, JPL is the leading U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system. http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/
Near-Earth Object Program Established in mid-1998 to help coordinate, and provide a focal point for, the study of those comets and asteroids that can approach the Earth's orbit. http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/
Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) An autonomous celestial observatory developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and funded by NASA to study asteroids and comets. The facility is a cooperative effort between the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the United States Air Force designed to complete a comprehensive search of the sky for near-Earth asteroids and comets. http://neat.jpl.nasa.gov
Asteroid Radar Research This web site is primarily a data-organization and communications tool that supports ongoing research by JPL scientists and our colleagues. http://echo.jpl.nasa.gov/
JPL Solar System Dynamics Provides detailed information related to known bodies in orbit around the sun. Ephemerides, physical parameters, Earth close-approaches, observer tools, etc. http://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/
JPL's HORIZONS System Provides access to key solar system data and flexible production of highly accurate ephemerides for solar system objects (163000+ asteroids and comets, 128 natural satellites, 9 planets, the Sun, L1, L2, select spacecraft, and system barycenters). http://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/horizons.html