Congress Creates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in response to the Soviet Union’s success in being the first to launch a satellite into Earth orbit. This initiative led to the two superpowers’ space race and, by the end of the 1960’s, to the United States’ being the first to land human beings on the Moon. Later programs included the Space Transportation System (space shuttle), the Hubble Space Telescope, and many other space firsts.

Summary of Event

On March 3, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson established the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as the importance of the airplane and flight technology began to demonstrate itself during World War I. The efforts of this group reached a pinnacle in 1947, when Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager Yeager, Chuck broke the sound barrier in an X-1 aircraft. World War II (1939-1945) saw more advances in flight technology, and at the end of that war, the United States found itself in a new competition: the Cold War Cold War;space race (1945-1991) between the democratic Western powers, notably the United States, and communist nations, led by the Soviet Union. Space program, Soviet
National Aeronautics and Space Administration;creation
Space program, U.S.
Military-industrial complex[Military industrial complex]
[kw]Congress Creates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (July 29, 1958)
[kw]National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Congress Creates the (July 29, 1958)
[kw]Aeronautics and Space Administration, Congress Creates the National (July 29, 1958)
[kw]Space Administration, Congress Creates the National Aeronautics and (July 29, 1958)
National Aeronautics and Space Administration;creation
Space program, U.S.
Military-industrial complex[Military industrial complex]
[g]North America;July 29, 1958: Congress Creates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration[05900]
[g]United States;July 29, 1958: Congress Creates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration[05900]
[c]Space and aviation;July 29, 1958: Congress Creates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration[05900]
[c]Organizations and institutions;July 29, 1958: Congress Creates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration[05900]
[c]Government and politics;July 29, 1958: Congress Creates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration[05900]
Wilson, Woodrow
Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;space program
Killian, James R., Jr.
Medaris, John B.
Braun, Wernher von
Glennan, T. Keith
Dryden, Hugh Latimer

The political and technological rise of the Soviet Union made Americans suspicious and nervous of Soviet intentions. The United States was initially hesitant about launching satellites over Soviet airspace. The Soviets answered these compunctions with the launch of October 4, 1957, of their R-7 rocket Rockets carrying the satellite Sputink Sputnik program (meaning “fellow traveler” or “traveling companion”). No country protested; the Freedom of Space Principle Freedom of Space Principle had been established. A second Soviet satellite followed on November 3.

While these satellites posed no military threat, the American public, with help from the media, panicked. President Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed the nation on television on November 7 as two Russian satellites were orbiting overhead. He tried to calm the nation and spoke of improving education in science and technology. Standing beside the intact nose cone of an Army Jupiter-C missile, Eisenhower announced that scientists had solved the problem of missile reentry (which had posed an obstacle to U.S. satellite launches). He also announced the creation of the Office of Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and named James R. Killian, Jr., then president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as his special presidential adviser in that new post.

The United States then responded to the Soviet launches with a series of public, and unfortunately disastrous, launches of Vanguard rockets. Project Vanguard Finally, the Army stepped forward with Werner von Braun, his German rocket team, and plans for the International Geophysical Year International Geophysical Year (IGY) launch of the Explorer program. On January 31, 1958, at 10:55 p.m., a Juno-1 booster lifted the Explorer 1 Explorer program
Space program, U.S.;Explorer program satellite into orbit. Unlike the Sputnik, this satellite actually collected scientific data about Earth’s magnetic field and, as predicted by James A. Van Allen, Van Allen radiation belts[Vanallen radiation belts] detected belts of intense radiation around Earth, now known as the Van Allen radiation belts.

The political pressure was off Eisenhower, but what was needed was an organization to conduct and monitor space research. In the winter of 1957-1958, Killian, working with congressional leaders, drafted legislation (House Resolution 12575) to create a space agency. What resulted was an expansion of the existing NACA, a group with experience in military aircraft, into a nonmilitary agency with the broad mission to plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities. On July 29, 1958, the Congress passed and the president then signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Act. The act created the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which began functioning on October 1, 1958. Its first job was to establish a man-in-space program. Known as Project Mercury, Project Mercury
Space program, U.S.;Project Mercury the program would use the Atlas launch vehicle Atlas launch vehicle to boost the first Americans into space.

President Eisenhower commissioned Dr. T. Keith Glennan (right) as NASA’s first administrator and Dr. Hugh L. Dryden (left) as deputy administrator.


With the establishment of a government-sponsored civilian space agency, an explosion of schemes and suggestions concerning how to organize U.S. science, education, and technology in general (particularly the space program) inundated NASA. The beginnings of a space industry were already in place, because a combination of private companies and military service branches had already been in the aerospace business during World War II, when rockets were a growing part of the military’s weapons arsenal. However, existing technologies needed to be developed and coordinated to create a rocket system for space. The closest thing to such a system was the Germans’ V-2 V-2 rocket[V 2] system. Another challenge was to transform the existing wartime industry and economy to a severely modified civilian one, aimed at the new goals for space exploration. Furthermore, industry had to meet the rising demands of an entirely new line of production and products: rockets for space travel. Finally, competition within the military service branches—Army, Navy, and Air Force—over which branch would control and employ missile technology soon cascaded into the companies that supported various military projects. As subcontractors to the government, these companies found themselves transforming, sometimes painfully, from conventional aircraft and rocket weapons systems firms into companies serving the developing aerospace industry.

The Air Force Air Force, U.S. had already moved rapidly into a leadership role by suggesting a unified space program under Air Force leadership. The other branches of the military did not heartily endorse this proposal and suggested other structures for a space program. However, back in February of 1958, after Sputnik 2 Sputnik program had been launched, U.S. secretary of defense Charles E. Wilson Wilson, Charles E. (1890-1961) had formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency. Advanced Research Projects Agency This agency had assumed jurisdiction over space programs and helped defuse the interservice rivalry. Congress had given it the authority, for one year, to conduct civilian and military space projects. By the winter of 1958, with NASA now in operation, science adviser Killian and President Eisenhower believed that the scientific and civil part of the program had to be under the aegis of a civilian agency. Although Eisenhower was interested in the military aspects of space, he felt the civilian leadership would help establish the “open skies” precedent and set the stage for military satellites to fly over any country’s airspace.

NASA began its own evolution with the absorption of other government agencies or portions of government agencies, including NACA, the Department of Defense, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. NASA’s director would be appointed by and report directly to the president and the agency would have a strong research program. NASA would perform not only scientific research but also technological development and other practical tasks. Furthermore, it could enter into contracts with individuals or multinational corporations.

T. Keith Glennan was sworn in as administrator and Hugh Latimer Dryden as deputy administrator. Glennan favored contracting out as much work as possible so that advances in the industry would have fallout benefits for the U.S. economy. One area was the commercial use of space for communications, a new and developing industry. In December, President Eisenhower’s Christmas message was transmitted using the last non-NASA satellite, which had been launched under the aegis of the Department of Defense’s Project Score. His was the first human voice beamed in from space.


The birth of NASA is directly related to the political and technological rise of the Soviet Union and the angst prompted by ensuing Cold War tensions. The government’s response to a panicked population was to create an agency to compete with the Soviet space efforts.

The result was an unprecedented rivalry—a “space race” for the next technological goal, landing a man on the Moon. The United States won that race in 1969 and kept advancing space technology. NASA was more than a government program for science and technology development. NASA’s activities, which overlap those of the defense industry, came to be regarded as instrumental in national policy. The expanding pace of economic-technological developments stretched the Soviet economy to the breaking point and contributed to its demise in 1989. NASA played a decisive role in the diplomacy of the Cold War and afterward, into the 1990’s when the International Space Station International Space Station helped transform U.S.-Russian relations—a relationship that began with the U.S.-led Apollo-Soyuz project in 1975 and extended into joint projects with the Soviets’ Mir Space Station.

Furthermore, NASA helped to create and foster spin-off technologies that would lead to revolutionary advances in medicine, communications, and computers. The development of NASA and its various programs have contributed inestimably to the greatest age of discovery of all time. National Aeronautics and Space Administration;creation
Space program, U.S.
Military-industrial complex[Military industrial complex]

Further Reading

  • Bilstein, Roger E. Orders of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915-1990. NASA SP-4406. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1989. A thorough account of the development of the U.S. aeronautics program and especially the transition from NACA to NASA, referencing many primary sources.
  • Brombreg, Joan Lisa. NASA and the Space Industry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Examines the partnerships that produced novel artifacts for NASA’s use. Specifically addresses how the division of labor was decided and how it evolved over time. The birth of space industries such as the communications industry and the launch vehicles industry are also chronicled.
  • Emme, Eugene M. Aeronautics and Astronautics: An American Chronology of Science and Technology and the Exploration of Space, 1915-1960. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1961. A complete chronology of the events leading up to and through the first three years of NASA, with a selected bibliography.
  • Heppenheimer, T. A. “How America Chose Not to Beat Sputnik into Space.” Invention and Technology 19, no. 3 (Winter, 2004): 19-21. Relates a little-known episode to explain how the government was not as shocked as the American public by the Russian launch.
  • Hunley, J. D., ed. The Birth of NASA. Washington, D.C.: University Press of the Pacific, 2004. A reprint of NASA administrator Thomas Keith Glennan’s The Birth of NASA: The Diary of T. Keith Glennan (NASA SP-4105), a particularly insightful account of the trials and tribulation of early NASA, integrating the political and social events of the time. The accounts were taken from tape recordings and transcriptions from his diary from 1958 to 1961.

Soviet Union Launches the First Artificial Satellite

United States Launches Its First Orbiting Satellite

Pioneer Space Program Is Launched

Boeing 707 Begins Commercial Service

Deep Space Network Begins

NASA Launches Project Gemini

X-15 Rocket Aircraft Program

Luna 2 Becomes the First Human-Made Object to Impact on the Moon

Luna 3 Provides the First Views of the Far Side of the Moon

TIROS 1 Becomes the First Experimental Weather Reconnaissance Satellite

First Passive Communications Satellite Is Launched

Ranger Program

First Human Orbits the Earth

United States Places Its First Astronaut in Space

Glenn Becomes the First American to Orbit Earth

First Commercial Communications Satellite Is Launched

Mariner 2 Becomes the First Spacecraft to Study Venus

Canada Becomes the Third Nation to Orbit a Satellite

Soviet Cosmonaut Conducts First Space Walk

Mariner Missions Conduct Mars Flybys

Venera 3 Is the First Spacecraft to Impact Another Planet

Gemini VI and VII Complete an Orbital Rendezvous

Luna 9 Makes the First Successful Lunar Soft Landing

Surveyor Program Prepares NASA for Piloted Moon Landings

Lunar Orbiter 1 Sends Photographs of the Moon’s Surface

McDonnell and Douglas Aircraft Companies Merge

Outer Space Treaty Takes Effect

Glaser Proposes an Orbiting Solar Power Station

Soyuz 4 and 5 Spacecraft Dock in Orbit

First Humans Land on the Moon

Congress Begins Hearings on Overspending for the C-5 A Galaxy

Apollo 12 Mission Marks Second Moon Landing

First Jumbo Jet Is Delivered to Airlines

Apollo 13 Crew Survives Onboard Explosion

Soviet Rover Lunokhod 1 Lands on the Moon

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