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 History Office Current events; index of sites covering history of major aeronautic and astronautic programs, key NASA and NACA (1915-1958) officials, policy documents, statistics, timeline of air and space achievements; publications; links to other resources. http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/
Shoot for the Moon! Outlines the highlights of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo Space Programs from 1961 to 1972. Includes a brief bibliography. http://www.apollo-society.org/shootmoon.html
The 6555th: Missile and Space Launches Through 1970 A detailed history of the United States Air Forces' 6555th Aerospace Test Wing at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. Discusses the role of the 6555th in military missile tests and civilian launch operations at Cape Canaveral. Includes detailed references. https://www.patrick.af.mil/heritage/6555th/6555fram.htm
John Glenn: Three Orbits to History Presents a brief multimedia history of John Glenn's Mercury flight, the first American mission into Earth orbit. Discusses the training and technology of the Mercury Program and the events of Glenn's space flight. http://www.capstonestudio.com/mercury/
Where No Man Has Gone Before W.D. Compton provides a solidly researched and authoritative history of the engineering and scientific accomplishments of the Apollo program from its inception to its last mission. Includes useful appendices and an extensive bibliography. http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SP-4214/cover.html
Robert Hutchings Goddard A biography of one of America's leading pioneers in rocketry. Includes his contributions to the development liquid and solid fuel rockets and their application to military and civilian purposes. http://www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/67.html
A Field Guide to American Spacecraft Offers guides to locations of over 200 artifacts of USA's space program including X-15's and rocket boosters. http://aesp.nasa.okstate.edu/fieldguide/
NASA Historical Archive for Manned Missions Space history and information about NASA's manned missions. Mission descriptions, photos and videos of each of USA's manned space exploration missions. http://www.ksc.nasa.gov/inforcenter/history/history.html
The Cape: Military Space Operations 1971-1992. A history of 6555th Aerospace Test Wing's role in missile and space launches at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from 1971 to 1992. Solidly researched with an excellent citations. https://www.patrick.af.mil/heritage/Cape/Capefram.htm
The Ultimate Space Plane - Space History Articles related to Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz space flights. Also covers past, present, and proposed future missions of the Shuttle. http://www.thespaceplace.com/history/space.html
The History of Space Flight Includes an index on US American space programs from Project Mercury to the Space Shuttle. Provides a concise summary of each flight and a mission patch. Also has links related to the history of rocketry, important figures in space travel, and prominent NASA centers. http://mirkwood.ucs.indiana.edu/space/space.htm