National Aeronautics and Space Administration Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The civilian space agency and aeronautical research agency for the United States of America.

Origins

The idea of a central agency for aeronautical research in the United States dates back to 1915, when an amendment to another bill created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to help the United States catch up with European countries in aeronautical research. NACA was primarily involved in aircraft design and testing. An aeronautical research center, later to be named the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, was founded with NACA. In the years leading to World War II, additional aeronautical facilities were constructed at Moffett Field in California (later named the Ames Research Center) and at Lewis Field in Cleveland, Ohio. Rockets and space travel were of little interest to NACA until the 1950’s. During the 1930’s, however, rocketry experiments were being conducted at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT). During World War II, GALCIT became the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and was under Army control. Besides developing missiles for the Army, such as the WAC Corporal, JPL also developed the Aerobee, a version of the WAC Corporal designed for civilian high-altitude research activities. After the war, the U.S. Army also created a separate missile unit, which eventually became the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), near Huntsville, Alabama. During the early 1950’s, the Navy and the Air Force began their own missile programs.

Each of the separate missile and rocket programs eventually began to develop rocket boosters with a goal of launching satellites into orbit around the earth. By the mid-1950’s, the Air Force and the Army were both looking at possible lunar space probes, and JPL was considering the possibility of interplanetary space probes. The Air Force was also investigating rocket-propelled aircraft, an area of research that overlapped with NACA’s mission. At this time, there was no central unified agency overseeing rocket development or space exploration. Multiple agencies, and even separate departments within each agency were working independently of one another, often duplicating efforts and competing with one another for resources. Possibly as a result of the fragmented approach to space exploration and rocket development, the United States appeared to lag slightly behind the Soviet Union in these areas during the 1950’s. The Soviet Union’s rocket development and space exploration activities were coordinated under one authority, largely working under the leadership of Sergei Korolev. A working group, called the Upper Atmospheric Rocket Research Panel (UARRP), consisting of representatives from the different U.S. agencies involved in space exploration, including NACA, was formed in the mid-1950’s to address some of these concerns. In January, 1956, UARRP issued a report suggesting that all U.S. space-related activities be centralized in one agency. A later report suggested that civilian space exploration be formed into an agency separate from Department of Defense space activities.

Little real progress had been made in consolidating U.S. space efforts until the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, and Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957, with Sputnik 2 carrying a dog into space. The United States tried to respond with the Navy’s Vanguard rockets, but the early Vanguards failed to launch a satellite. Finally, on January 31, 1958, the Army succeeded in launching Explorer 1, built by JPL, atop a modified intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) built by ABMA. The U.S. government finally began to take seriously the need for a unified effort at space exploration. On July 29, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. This act dissolved NACA and created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), effective October 1, 1958. NASA was responsible not only for aeronautical research, as NACA had been, but would also be the U.S. civilian space agency. NASA acquired all NACA facilities, including the Langley Research Center, the Lewis Research Center, and the Ames Research Center, along with two flight stations. On December 3, 1958, JPL was transferred to NASA. Much of ABMA was also transferred to NASA, becoming the Marshall Space Flight Center on July 1, 1960. Since that time, NASA has built numerous research centers and other stations throughout the country. Though space exploration gets most of the public attention, NASA has always remained active in aeronautical research, with several research centers devoted primarily to non-space-related activities.

Early Crewed Spaceflight

One of NASA’s early goals was to launch a person into space. This goal was formally stated on October 7, 1958, shortly after NASA’s formation. The first U.S. crewed spacecraft project was named Mercury. Prior to the Mercury project, two competing ideas for crewed spaceflight had existed. Wernher von Braun and many others believed that a crewed spacecraft should take off like an aircraft, fly into space, and land again like an aircraft. Such a spacecraft would be fully reusable, and would be an extension of well-proven flight technology. Preliminary work toward such a space plane had already begun. Like the Soviet Union’s Korolev, many of the engineers in NASA were not willing to wait for the development of a safe and reliable space plane. Rather, they wanted to use modified ICBMs to launch a crewed capsule into space. Such an approach would yield results much faster. NASA engineers realized that the Soviet Union would likely beat the United States in sending a human into space if the United States were to wait to develop a method of flying a space plane into orbit. Thus the Mercury project aimed to launch a small capsule containing a human being atop a modified ICBM. Researchers at Ames showed that a nuclear warhead could safely survive reentry into the atmosphere with a blunted body. The Mercury capsule, therefore, would be shaped with a blunted bottom and use an ablative heat shield to prevent the capsule from burning up due to friction as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere at the high speeds required for Earth orbit. Such a craft could not land as an aircraft, so it deployed a parachute and floated down to a landing in the ocean, called a splashdown. The first launch of a Mercury capsule was an uncrewed test flight on September 9, 1959. The first crewed launch was May 5, 1961, when Alan B. Shepard was launched into space atop a modified Redstone rocket. The Redstone, however, was not powerful enough to put the Mercury capsule into orbit. Rather, Shepard’s flight, lasting only about fifteen minutes, was merely a suborbital ballistic trajectory. The first U.S. crewed spaceflight took place on February 20, 1962, when a modified Atlas missile carried a Mercury capsule containing John H. Glenn into orbit. The United States, however, did not beat the Soviet Union into space, for a modified ICBM had carried Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the Earth in a Vostok capsule on April 12, 1961.

With the Soviet Union beating the United States in sending a human into space, President John F. Kennedy consulted his science advisors for a goal that the United States might hope to accomplish ahead of the Soviet Union. That goal was for a U.S. crewed mission to the Moon within a decade. President Kennedy made this goal public in a speech on May 25, 1961, even before the United States had put a human into orbit. NASA had to scramble to accomplish this goal. The crewed lunar mission, called the Apollo Program, was born in November 1961. In order to launch a spacecraft to the Moon, NASA had to create the largest rocket ever known, eventually dubbed the Saturn V. Realizing that it would take a rocket bigger than they could build to launch a spacecraft to the Moon’s surface and back, they opted to launch a spacecraft into orbit around the Moon. Astronauts would then descend to the lunar surface in a small landing craft, and then ascend to rendezvous with the orbiting spacecraft, which would carry them back to Earth. Such a mission would involve extended missions in space, and spacecraft rendezvous. None of this was at that time possible. Thus, as work progressed on the Apollo missions, NASA created the Gemini Program to develop the skills and test the procedures needed in the upcoming Apollo missions. The Gemini Program ran from December 7, 1961, until December 23, 1966, with the first crewed flight on March 23, 1965. While the Mercury capsules held just one astronaut, the Gemini capsules each had a crew of two astronauts. The first crewed Apollo spaceflight was Apollo 7, launched October 11, 1968. Apollo 7 was an Earth orbital test flight. The first lunar landing mission was Apollo 11, launched July 16, 1969, crewed by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, both of whom walked on the surface of the Moon, and by Michael Collins, who piloted the command module that orbited the Moon during the landing mission. The last lunar mission was Apollo 17, launched December 7, 1972.

Crewed Spaceflight After the Moon

The last three scheduled Apollo missions to the Moon were cancelled. The hardware for these missions, however, was not wasted. The third stage of a Saturn V rocket was adapted to be used as a crewed space station called Skylab, launched May 14, 1973. Three Apollo capsules were used to ferry astronauts to and from Skylab from May 25, 1973, to February 8, 1974. Left in low-Earth orbit, Skylab eventually reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up on July 11, 1979, with some solid pieces striking the Indian Ocean and Australia.

The final Apollo mission was the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. This program was a rendezvous mission between the U.S. Apollo spacecraft and a Soyuz spacecraft from the Soviet Union during July, 1975. This rendezvous mission was primarily a political mission, designed to show good will between the two superpowers. It was, however, one of the first space missions involving more than one nation. This project eventually became a model for later international space coventures.

One of the major drawbacks of the spacecraft used in the early days of the U.S. space program was that they could only be used one time. By the 1970’s, the United States was no longer in a space race with the Soviet Union, so NASA took the time to investigate a reusable spacecraft, much as had been envisioned in the earliest days of space exploration. A compromise vehicle was eventually developed that would take off as a rocket, with strap-on solid rocket boosters and a discardable external fuel tank. The spacecraft would land, however, as a glider. Designed to transport satellites and equipment into orbit and to carry astronauts and equipment to a permanent space station, this partially reusable spacecraft was called the space shuttle. The first operational flight of a space shuttle was on April 12, 1981. The worst accident in NASA’s history involved the explosion that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, seventy-three seconds after launching, when the shuttle’s external fuel tank ruptured after being penetrated by a plume of gas escaping from a failed solid-rocket joint seal. On July 27, 1995, the space shuttle Atlantis launched to rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir to exchange crew. Over the next three years, there were several more missions to Mir, fulfilling some of the hopes of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

Beginning in 1998, the first elements of the International Space Station (ISS) were launched. This space station was a scaled-down version of the proposed space station Freedom authorized by President Ronald Reagan in 1985. The space shuttle is scheduled to have many dozens of flights through the 2000’s, constructing the ISS and transporting crew and equipment to the station. The space shuttle missions to Mir and the ISS finally fulfill some of the original design plans of the space shuttle project.

Uncrewed Space Exploration

In addition to crewed spaceflight, NASA is responsible for most U.S. uncrewed space flights. Some of these missions, such as the Ranger Moon probes (1961-1965) and the Surveyor Moon landers (1966-1968) were precursors to crewed missions. Others, such as the Explorer series, which began as an Army project but was transferred to NASA after its formation, were scientific missions designed to study the Sun, Earth, and space environments. NASA has been a leader in interplanetary explorations, with spacecraft in the Mariner series that visited Mercury, Venus, and Mars. The Pioneer series of spacecraft were designed as small interplanetary spacecraft. Some were lunar flyby missions, others were placed into solar orbit to study the solar wind, several of which remained in operation for over thirty years. Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, launched in the early 1970’s, were the first spacecraft to fly past Jupiter and achieve escape velocity to leave the solar system. They were joined by the two Voyager spacecraft as the only four spacecraft ever launched from Earth to leave the solar system. Voyager 1, launched September 5, 1977, flew past Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2, though launched on August 20, 1977, before Voyager 1, arrived at Jupiter and Saturn after Voyager 1 and continued on to pass Uranus in January, 1986, and Neptune in August, 1989. NASA launched the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter on October 18, 1989, and the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn on October 15, 1997. On August 20 and September 9, 1975, NASA launched two Viking spacecraft to the planet Mars, both of which achieved the first successful surface landing missions on Mars. Starting on December 4, 1996, with the launch of the Pathfinder mission, NASA began a decade-long series of missions to study Mars. In addition to interplanetary missions, NASA has launched many astronomical satellites into orbit around Earth to study the universe. These satellites contained telescopes of various types to study the entire range of the electromagnetic spectrum. The most famous of these orbiting observatories is the Hubble Space Telescope, deployed from the space shuttle in April, 1990.

Aeronautical Research

When NASA was formed in 1958, it absorbed NACA, and was charged with not only space exploration but also aeronautics. Though most public attention, and much of NASA’s budget, is directed toward space exploration activities, a major portion of NASA’s activity has involved aeronautical research. Upon its formation, NASA inherited the Air Force X-15 project. The first X-15 rocket plane flew in 1959 as a NASA aircraft. X-15 flights continued until 1968. Other aeronautical research involved lifting-body aircraft designs, such as the X-24, the HL-10, and the M-2 aircraft of the 1950’s. Such aircraft use the shape of the aircraft rather than wings to provide lift.

In 1975, NASA began the Aircraft Energy Efficiency Program, designed to increase flight efficiency and develop less-polluting aircraft engines. The new engine designs from this program were incorporated in Boeing’s 767 and McDonnell Douglas’s MD-80 commercial aircraft. Additional designs showed that wingtip winglets also increase efficiency, and many aircraft designed from the 1980’s and later have included these winglets.

In addition to efficiency, NASA has also promoted aircraft safety. NASA conducts crash tests to design safety systems that maximize the likelihood of survival during an aircraft crash. NASA also works to develop improved guidance systems for both commercial and private aircraft. During the 1990’s, NASA undertook a study at major commercial airports to determine the optimal spacing between arriving and departing aircraft. The Lewis Research Center has had a long history of studying icing on aircraft and ways of dealing with this problem, dating back to NACA days. During the 1970’s, NASA developed fly-by-wire technology, whereby aircraft control could be done electronically rather than using mechanical means.

NASA has not limited itself to fixed-wing aircraft. The Ames facility oversees NASA’s helicopter research. Ames was also the lead site for the XV-15, an experimental aircraft with tilting rotors designed as a hybrid between helicopters and traditional fixed-wing aircraft.

NASA also operates research aircraft designed to carry infrared and radar instruments to study the ground under the aircraft’s flight path. Additional science aircraft include the Kuiper Airborne Observatory that flew from 1977 to 1995. The Kuiper was a modified C-141 aircraft carrying a 36-inch-diameter infrared telescope high above much of Earth’s atmosphere anywhere it was needed in the world. The Kuiper is to be replaced with another airborne observatory called the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), expected to begin operations in 2002. The SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP designed to carry a 2.5-meter reflecting telescope into the lower stratosphere. Unlike the Kuiper, which was entirely a NASA project, the SOFIA is to be jointly operated with the Deutschen Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), the German equivalent to NASA. SOFIA, like Kuiper before it, is operated out of NASA’s Ames facility.

NASA Centers

Due to the complex and varied nature of NASA’s mission, the agency has many research and operations centers, each with its own specialty. NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., handles administrative duties. The Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, Florida, is NASA’s primary launch facility, supported by the White Sands Test Facility at Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is NASA’s primary center for interplanetary spacecraft development and operations. The Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, coordinates all crewed spaceflight activities. The Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, handles most Earth-orbiting satellites and oversees much of NASA’s astronomical studies. Aeronautical research is performed at the NASA Ames Research Center (at Moffett Field, California), the Dryden Flight Research Center (at Edwards Air Force Base, California), Langley Research Center (at Hampton, Virginia), and the Glenn Research Center (at Lewis Field, Cleveland, Ohio). Ames is also the headquarters for NASA’s astrobiology program, and Dryden supports space shuttle landings if the shuttle cannot land at Kennedy due to weather. The Marshall Space Flight Center (at Huntsville, Alabama) and the Stennis Space Center (in southern Mississippi) are the primary centers for rocket research and development.

Bibliography
  • Bilstein, Roger E. Orders of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915-1990. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1989. A very thorough history of NASA and NACA, with a major emphasis on crewed flight research, both spaceflight and aeronautics.
  • Dewaard, E. John, and Nancy Dewaard. History of NASA, America’s Voyage to the Stars. Rev. ed. New York: Exeter Books, 1988. A good description of NASA’s space exploration activities.
  • Koppes, Clayton R. JPL and the American Space Program. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. A very thorough history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from its beginnings in rocket studies through its interplanetary exploration activities in the early 1980’s.
  • Launius, Roger D., and Bertram Ulrich. NASA and the Exploration of Space. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998. An excellent chronicle of NASA activities, with explanations for the layman, with the added benefit of a great deal of artwork related to the space program.
  • Shepard, Alan, and Deke Slayton. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon. Atlanta, Ga.: Turner Publishing, 1994. A narrative from an astronaut’s perspective of the crewed space program from its beginnings to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

Air Force, U.S.

Apollo Program

Neil Armstrong

Astronauts and cosmonauts

Crewed spaceflight

Gemini Program

John Glenn

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Johnson Space Center

Mercury project

Military flight

Missiles

National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

Orbiting

Rockets

Rocket propulsion

Satellites

Alan Shepard

Spaceflight

Uncrewed spaceflight

Uninhabited aerial vehicles

X planes

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