National Aeronautics and Space Administration

views updated May 18 2018


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the principal civilian space agency in the United States, and the leading space science agency in the world. Its scientific and technological activities pose a variety of ethical issues, from setting program priorities to environmental impacts and risk–safety tradeoffs. NASA decisions, however, rarely turn on explicitly ethical considerations (see, for example CAIB 2003, PCSSCA 1986). Common influences on NASA decisions include interest-group lobbying, Congressional politics, and intra-agency competition for resources.

NASA's Mission and Other Space Activities

Legislation created NASA in 1958, building on existing civilian aviation research activities of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The core of NASA's mission is space exploration, divisible into human exploration and space science. Human exploration includes, for example, the space shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS) in Earth orbit and the Apollo missions to the Moon. Space science includes astronomy and robotic planetary exploration missions; the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is the most visible example of the former, while the Mars rover missions of 2004 exemplify the latter. Exploration and science overlap: Astronauts installed instruments on the Moon, and scientific experiments are conducted on the ISS and shuttle. Other NASA programs include earth science (satellites that look down at the earth) and practical applications such as communication satellites. In 2004 President George W. Bush called for human planetary exploration.

Other U.S. agencies with space activities include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense. NOAA operates satellites to gather data in support of its missions (weather forecasting, for example). The Defense Department and intelligence agencies support their missions with satellites for surveillance, communication, and navigation. Private commercial activities, some virtually independent of NASA, include launch services and satellites for communications and Earth observation.

As an independent agency, NASA reports directly to the U.S. president. Although managed from a Washington, DC, headquarters its operations are decentralized in two ways: First, the great majority of NASA employees work at eight field centers such as the Johnson Space Center near Houston, Texas. Second, private-sector contractors do most of NASA's work, and most of its scientific research is conducted through grants to universities. In 2002 the NASA budget was around $15 billion, supporting 18,000 civil service employees and a contractor workforce several times as large.

NASA's involvement with science and technology is extensive: Virtually all its missions embody advanced technology (although some long-lived missions use yesterday's state-of-the-art technology). It developed the Saturn launch vehicle for Apollo, and the shuttle as a general-purpose, reusable launch vehicle. It created the HST, perhaps the most productive scientific instrument ever, and its series of missions to other planets were the basis for the new field of planetary science.

Ethical Issues

Broadly speaking, many justify space exploration primarily in terms of human adventure and scientific knowledge. A strong version of this position is that humans have an innate need to explore and learn about the world around them. In this view, humans leaving Earth is a straightforward extension of the species' past spread across Earth. Further in this vein, certain images from space, such as Earth seen from Apollo 11 and the violent galaxies captured by HST, show how fragile and lonely this beautiful planet is, inspiring efforts to preserve it. A somewhat more modest justification holds that, regardless of human history, today humans want to go into space essentially because they can.

Against this background, and to some extent because of it, NASA activities raise a diverse set of ethical issues. These run from whether space exploration can or need be justified in terms of human history, anthropology, and psychology, to the dangers of planetary cross-contamination, risks to astronauts, and honesty in justifying and describing particular programs.

The possibility of life on other planets has animated reflection across much of human history. Search for evidence of life is an important aspect of many planetary missions. But if missions that land on Mars carry with them microbes from Earth, the Earth microbes may confuse the results. Future generations may be misled. Humankind may have "polluted" another planet. (Against this possibility NASA sterilizes spacecraft before launch.)

Further, many scientists want to bring back to Earth a Mars sample for study more complete than can be done remotely on Mars. If life exists there, a returned sample or dust on the returning spacecraft might contain organisms threatening to life on Earth. The threat is remote because NASA will take steps to isolate any returned spacecraft and sample, but given human ignorance it still raises the issue of whether NASA programs might cross-contaminate planetary life-forms. NASA recognizes the issue and therefore ended the Galileo mission in 2001 by crashing it into the atmosphere of Jupiter, which was intended to extinguish all Earth-life aboard it. If humans "colonize" Mars, however, cross-contamination is probably inevitable.

Another form of contamination is the debris missions leave in orbit. A collision with even a small object can disable a spacecraft. Thus early missions leave risks for following ones. Debris in low Earth orbit will slowly reenter because of residual atmospheric drag, but debris in higher orbits remains for centuries. The vastness of space dilutes the risks, but they remain real. Recognizing this, NASA and the world's other space agencies are working to minimize debris from future missions.

Risks to Life

The loss of life in space transportation accidents dramatically raises questions of risks. For example, what purposes justify risking astronaut lives in space missions? In the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters risk became loss.

In the past NASA dismissed the risks of shuttle flight, claiming at one time that the accident rate would be one shuttle lost in 100,000 flights. Empirically it is roughly 2 in 100. Reliability of 98 percent is good for a launch vehicle—perhaps the best possible, and perhaps acceptable for professional astronauts on valuable missions. What about amateurs: a "teacher in space," members of Congress, scientists? Do the experiments done on the ISS justify the risk to astronauts tending them? Is returning the HST to the Smithsonian Institution at the end of its life worth the risk of a shuttle mission to retrieve it? Do seven astronauts have to be sent up for this mission? Perhaps the science done by the HST justifies the risk of the missions flown to keep it operating, but a mission to retrieve it for the Smithsonian seems questionable.

The death of seven astronauts in each of two shuttle accidents makes clear that one way to reduce the potential loss is to reduce the number of crew on each mission. The first accident involved a "teacher in space" who was to inspire young students. In order to decide if the risk she took was appropriate, one would have to ask hard-to-answer questions such as whether inspiration was likely, and whether students most needing inspiration would be positively affected. Another dimension is whether an amateur could give adequately informed consent to the risk.

Risk issues become entangled: The HST will eventually reenter Earth's atmosphere. Being massive, it will not burn up; large pieces are expected to reach the ground, presenting an involuntary risk to people on Earth. Guiding the HST down to a remote ocean area would greatly reduce that risk, but it has no capability for a guided reentry because NASA originally planned for shuttle retrieval. A mission to install a reentry package could also service HST to lengthen its scientifically productive life. Several incommensurate considerations are thus involved: The risk to professional astronauts, the risk to bystanders on Earth, and the value of HST science. Balancing these risks calls for ethical discussion. One proposed solution involves the use of robots to service HST.

Promoting and Justifying Programs

A different ethical problem arises in the description and justification of programs. NASA began as a geopolitical response to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik I, to demonstrate that U.S. technical capability was superior to that of the USSR. The program, however, was promoted as space exploration—as the realization of humanity's drive to explore and gain knowledge. In reality space exploration was the means for the end of demonstrating U.S. prowess. From the beginning there has been a mix of motives, of ends and means. The ISS is variously justified and described as space exploration and as a science laboratory in space. But these are both problematic: As the station goes around and around Earth, the incremental exploration on additional orbits becomes vanishingly small, while the risk to astronauts remains the same. Second, there are questions as to whether the science on the ISS is worth what it costs. That is, if the justification is scientific, one must ask whether the same funds could support better science, for example in space astronomy (SSB 2003).

Similarly, NASA's justification of a program to develop a nuclear power reactor in space is questionable. The public justifications are that nuclear power would enable new activities, including scientific missions. Nuclear power is probably necessary for missions outside the solar system, and perhaps for extended human exploration missions within the solar system. Nevertheless, to justify the nuclear program a scientific mission to study Jupiter's moons, which had been endorsed by the scientific community and which could be done without nuclear power, has been adopted as the nuclear program's first mission, to give the technology development a clear target. The adopted mission had to be redesigned to require nuclear power; a scientific mission became a nuclear mission. That is, from the time of adoption forward the criteria for making decisions about the mission became nuclear first, science second. Scientific questions no longer drive the mission; rather the driver is developing and demonstrating nuclear power in space—science is a stalking horse. It would be more honest to call this a nuclear program using a science mission to demonstrate possibilities.

Of course a program to put a nuclear reactor into space faces all the ethical problems of nuclear programs on Earth, if in a different form. First are the hazards in the development program and the hazards of launching fissile material. Further, when its fuel is exhausted the reactor will become both another bit of nuclear waste and another bit of space debris. Where and how will it be "disposed of"? Typically, such questions are considered technical, not ethical.


SEE ALSO Apollo Program;Space Exploration;Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia Accidents;Space Telescopes.


Bilstein, Roger E. (1989). Orders of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915–1990. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA history as seen from the inside.

McDougall, Walter A. (1985). The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic. The best general history of space activity.

National Research Council. Space Studies Board (SSB). (2003). Factors Affecting the Utilization of the International Space Station for Research in the Biological and Physical Sciences. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Scientists describe the scientific usefulness of the space station.

U.S. Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). (2003). Report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, Vol. 1. Arlington, VA: Author. The official, comprehensive report.

U.S. Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (PCSSCA). (1986). Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. 5 vols. Washington, DC: Author. Comprehensive report from the executive branch.


National Research Council. Space Studies Board (SSB). "On Scientific Assessment of Options for the Disposal of the Galileo Spacecraft." Available from Letter, June 28, 2000, from SSB Chair Claude Canizares and Committee on Planetary and Lunar Exploration Chair John Wood to Dr. John Rummel, NASA planetary protection officer. Describes efforts to prevent planetary contamination.

National Research Council. Space Studies Board (SSB). "Factors Affecting the Utilization of the International Space Station for Research in the Biological and Physical Sciences." Available from

U.S. Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). "The CAIB Report." Available from

U.S. Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (PCSSCA). "Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident." Available from

NASA (National Air and Space Administration)

views updated May 21 2018

NASA (National Air and Space Administration)


The Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have to date elevated aerospace technologies to great heights. In a July 31, 1915, interview in Collier's Weekly, aviation pioneer Orville Wright (18711948) said, "The greatest use of the aeroplane [airplane] to date has been as a tremendously big factor of modern warfare." His statement could also be considered true today, along with the role played by commercial transportation in world's affairs. The victory of the United States in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 illustrated the utilization of air and space to quickly quell an opponent's fighting ability. In this conflict, air and space utilization came in the form of direct air support, air to ground strategic targeting, Global Positioning System (GPS) targeting, and aerospace reconnaissance, both airplane and satellite. This utilization of air and space remains among the most powerful physical tools for ensuring national security.

NASA and DOD joint research has propelled the advances that make air and space important military assets. NASA's part in national security strategy is not as substantial as it was during NASA's first 35 years of existence (during the space race), but it still plays an important

role. As a national icon, NASA inspires nationalism in the American people, and its achievements are projected worldwide as an exhibit of America's scientific ability. A superpower nation with a space program was historically perceived as a potential threat to other nations, as seen with the United States reaction to the launching of the Soviet Union's Sputnik during the Cold War. The nation's response was the creation of a national civilian air and space agency called NASA.

NASA aeronautical research spurred numerous advances in aviation from which the military benefited; early studies regarding lifting bodies and fly-by-wire aircraft, which used NASA-developed electronics to control the inherently unstable aircraft, are two examples. Many of the aerospace research projects at the Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) in California are joint projects that advance aerospace engineering, science, and develop military hardware. Some of the research involves speed of sound (sonic and supersonic) studies, aeroelastic wing research, lifting body studies, unmanned vehicles, and other proprietary research.

Even though DOD and NASA have different space programs, they share numerous resources and have many joint contracts that support both the DOD program and the NASA program. These range from the simple support contracts for routine battery maintenance to expansive operations such as communications and spacecraft tracking. Both organizations share launch pads for expendable launch vehicles. Some of the expendable launch vehicles at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Cape Canaveral, Florida, are the Titan, Atlas, and Delta rockets. Launch and other facilities at KSC are resources shared by NASA, the Navy, and the Air Force.

NASA played a direct role in national security by providing the means to take heavy payloads into orbit. DOD has made its most direct use of NASA equipment in utilizing the Space Shuttle to bring up numerous DOD payloads. The contents of many of these payloads are classified information. There have been ten DOD dedicated shuttle launches. They are STS 51C, 51J, 27, 28, 33, 36, 38, 39, 44, and 53 (STS, which stands for Space Transportation System, also known as the Space Shuttle). Many of these missions remain secret even today, although some general knowledge about national security-based payloads has been disseminated and reported. In The Space Shuttle Roles, Missions and Accomplishments space historian David M. Harland stated that the shuttle delivered three new reconnaissance satellites in recent years. One satellite, called Lacrosse, provides all-weather vehicle-tracking capability. Another satellite included an advanced geostationary listening post. The third satellite is considered to house advanced imaging capabilities. It remains a secret as to what other DOD dedicated missions delivered to orbit or accomplished using the shuttle. Classified DOD missions continue to be carried out today, but mainly utilize the expendable launch vehicles. DOD and NASA both frequently have multiple minor payloads in addition to the major payload on a mission (both shuttle and expendable) to save costs. Some of these minor payloads are DOD sponsored payloads.

At one point, the vision of routine Space Shuttle launches was so powerful that the Air Force reluctantly agreed to phase out expendable launch vehicles. The Air Force's acceptance of the shuttle came with imposing requirements on the shuttle to launch heavy payloads of up to 60,000 pounds and to provide a cargo bay of 18 meters. The shuttle's payload mass weight has been downgraded to increase its margin of safety. The failure of the shuttle to run routinely, once a week, and the Challenger accident in 1986 motivated the DOD and NASA to change the DOD's main launching platform back to the expendable launch vehicles. Department of Defense then moved to utilizing new heavy lifting expendable launch vehicles to replace the shuttle's heavy lifting capacity. These new heavy-launch expendable launch vehicles can deliver almost 50,000 pounds to low Earth orbit.

Launch vehicles, including the Space Shuttle, utilize hardware that could be used for military applications such as the sophisticated guidance and navigations systems. The loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 required personnel to retrieve instrumentation from the crash site to secure it to protect the secrecy of the technology.

The most well known NASA personnel are its astronauts. Astronauts have been used to carry out the DOD dedicated Space Shuttle missions. This required the astronauts to receive training on the secret payloads in order to properly execute the mission. The classified information given to the astronauts is usually kept to a minimum of relevant required knowledge. The payloads are normally loaded into the launch vehicle at the latest possible opportunity in order to maintain security. Shuttle astronauts repaired one DOD satellite via EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity), spacewalk, when it failed to start. The majority of astronauts chosen for these missions have a military background, mostly for the flight experience. It is difficult to define to what extent NASA personnel have worked on DOD payloads because of the classified nature and the numerous joint research activities.

The Air Force has had astronaut-like programs, such as the Spaceflight Engineers and the Military-Man-In-Space program. Before the shuttle, spaceflight engineers were recruited to utilize the Gemini spacecraft to go to a planned Manned Orbiting Laboratory. The orbiting laboratory was cancelled with the introduction of automated cameras on satellites. Afterwards, spaceflight engineers were Air Force pilots who would train to be the specialist that would fly on the shuttle to oversee specific DOD payloads. In January, 1985, Gary Payton (a Spaceflight Engineer) flew on the first dedicated DOD shuttle mission, STS 51C, to supervise the deployment of a classified payload. The spaceflight engineers program was later disbanded. The Military-Man-In-Space program was designed to determine the potential for humans to be used for Earth observations. Human vision and intelligence was found to be a valuable asset as remote sensors, because of man's adept ability to distinguish subtle variations in hues more accurately than cameras and film. Remote sensing from space with accurate ground truth can greatly enhance the understanding of large natural systems like forests and ocean dynamics.

NASA's main role for national security is to inspire the youth of today that will populate aerospace professions in the future. This pool of technically minded persons will give the DOD a more intelligent and numerous base from which to recruit a future workforce. High-risk technologies have the potential to provide tremendous benefit for mankind. For aeronautics, NASA research divisions are positioned to study more technologies for their own benefit as well as that of the DOD, and the nation as a whole.



Harland, David M. The Space Shuttle Roles, Missions and Accomplishments. New York: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 1998.


Dryden Flight Research Center. "Flight Research Milestones." <> (May 6, 2003).


Geospatial Imagery
Infrared Detection Devices
Near Space Environment
Satellites, Spy
Strategic Defense Initiative and National Missile Defense
USSTRATCOM (United States Strategic Command)


views updated May 17 2018


The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to "provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the Earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes." At the time of NASA's creation, it was not possible to predict what the organization would later accomplish. Although not without its critics, NASA has been one of the most respected organizations in the world for more than forty years. The impetus for the Space Act was the Cold War. The act was passed by Congress one year after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into space. From these beginnings, NASA has continued to educate and amaze the public with a nearly continuous stream of "out of this world" achievements.

NASA's accomplishments in its more than forty years of existence are led by the Apollo missions that landed humans on the Moon, the exploration of all but one of the planets in the solar system, the development of remote sensing and communications satellites, and dramatic advances in aeronautical research. NASA technology has been adapted for many non-aerospace uses by the private sector, and NASA remains a leading force in scientific research. Perhaps most importantly, NASA has served as a beacon for public understanding of science and technology as well as aerospace innovation.

Current Missions

NASA is undertaking ambitious programs such as the International Space Station to provide a permanently inhabited outpost for humankind. NASA's space science program is planning to send an armada of spacecraft to Mars to prepare for future human missions to that planet. The space agency is a "solution" organization, solving problems as mandated by the Space Act and the nation's leadership.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act declares that "it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind." NASA is organized into five Enterprises and four Crosscutting Processes that are responsible for carrying out the nine objectives of the Space Act:

  1. The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;
  2. The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;
  3. The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies and living organisms through space;
  4. The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes;
  5. The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;
  6. The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defenses of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;
  7. Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results thereof;
  8. The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort; and
  9. The preservation of the United States' preeminent position in aeronautics and space through research and technology development related to associated manufacturing process.

The Agency, the Plan, and the Personnel

NASA's twenty-five-year goals and objectives are codified in the NASA Strategic Plan, most recently published in September 2000. The agency's current organizational structure is outlined in its Strategic Management Handbook. Both are available on NASA's web site:

The space agency has been led by a total of ten administrators (nine individuals, one of whom served two separate terms) since its inception. These individuals have had the opportunity to carry out the mandate of the Space Act while being responsive to the political will of the nation, the true owners of the government's civil space activities.

Public interest in NASA's success has fluctuated. Many people assume that the decade of the 1960s were the agency's high-water mark not only for large budgets but also for public support. While this is true in the budgetary sense (see NASA Briefing chart), public opinion polls show a greater level of support twenty-five years after the Moon landings than existed at that time.

The space agency was born in the Cold War environment. Increased spending on NASA throughout the early 1960s was rationalized as an investment in beating the Russians in the space race. Thus, when the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, NASA required a new rationale for its exploration programs. The agency found that rationale partly through cooperation with the former Soviet Union. NASA seized the opportunity to partner with the Russians, and as a result cosmonauts and astronauts are living and working permanently on the International Space Station today.



  • To understand and protect our home planet
  • To explore the Universe and search for life
  • To inspire the next generation of explorers as only NASA can


  • 2001 Budget: $14.2 billion*
  • 1985 Budget: $11 billion*
  • 1967 Budget: $21 billion*


  • 2001 Staff: 18,000
  • 1985 Staff: 21,000
  • 1967 Staff: 36,000

*2001 dollars

In 1997 a poll revealed that joint missions involving Americans and Russians was the space program most favored by adult Americans. The public has continued to support government spending for the civilian space program. The America's Space Poll shows consistently favorable support for NASA and space activities. No federal agency has higher favorable impression ratings among the public.

This public support has led to essentially stable budgets for NASA for over two decades. Early fluctuations in the budget reflected the Cold War-fueled Apollo program and its aftermath. Since a post-Apollo low in 1975, NASA funding has climbed from $10 billion to $15 billion.

NASA has succeeded in carrying out the bold objectives of the National Aeronautics and Space Act beyond expectations. When the national leadership has set a goal and articulated a rationale, NASA has produced results. From Apollo to voyages to the outer planets and beyond the solar system, NASA has given the public the Moon and the stars.

see also Apollo (volume 3); Apollo-Soyuz (volume 3); Challenger (volume 3); Gemini (volume 3); History of Humans in Space (volume 3); Humans versus Robots (volume 3); International Space Station (volumes 1 and 3); Mercury Program (volume 3); Skylab (volume 3); Space Centers (volume 3); Space Shuttle (volume 3).

Lori Garver


Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. "The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): History and Organization." June 9, 2000.

"Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the US Civil Space Program." Volume I: Organizing for Exploration. NASA SP 4407, 1995.

"Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the US Civil Space Program." Volume II: External Relationships. NASA SP 4407, 1996.

"Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the US Civil Space Program." Volume III: Using Space. NASA SP 4407, 1998.

McDougall, Walter A. The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1997.

"Together in Orbit: The Origins of International Participation in the Space Station." Monographs in Aerospace History 11. NASA History Office, November 1998

"US Human Spaceflight: A Record of Achievement, 1961-1998. " Monographs in Aerospace History 9, NASA History Office, July 1998.

Internet Resources

America's Space Poll. Space Foundation, April 2000. <>.

*In 2002 NASA appointed Sean O'Keefe as the agency's tenth administrator.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

views updated May 29 2018


NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION (NASA) is the unit of the federal government charged with operating the nation's space exploration and aeronautics programs. The administrator of NASA, an independent agency, is appointed by the president, subject to Senate confirmation. NASA came into existence on 1 October 1958, after Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, at the recommendation of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Many Americans had been highly alarmed when, on 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union put into orbit Sputnik, the first man-made satellite. In the midst of the Cold War, Americans feared that the Soviets might develop superior missile and space technology and use it against the United States. The new agency absorbed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a poorly funded research agency formed in 1915.

Even though much of NASA's early political support stemmed from America's Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, NASA was designed as an explicitly civilian agency to pursue peaceful space activities. Overseeing the military applications of space technology was left to the Department of Defense. In practice, however, the distinction has sometimes blurred. From the beginning, NASA and the military have cooperated in a variety of ways, and many astronauts have come from military backgrounds.

Projects Mercury and Gemini

NASA designed its first major program, Project Mercury, to study human abilities in space and to develop the technology required for manned space exploration. The program and the original seven astronauts received tremendous public attention, and the astronauts became national heroes. One of those seven, Alan Shepard, became the first American in space with his suborbital flight on 5 May 1961. On 20 February 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth (Soviet cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin was the first human in space and the first to orbit the Earth, on 12 April 1961).

President John F. Kennedy congratulated the astronauts and NASA but said that the nation needed "a substantially larger effort" in space. Speaking to Congress on 25 May 1961, Kennedy declared what that effort should be: "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." Kennedy admitted that the lunar program would be expensive and risky, but the public came to support it enthusiastically. Congress approved the program—called Project Apollo—with very little debate. Apollo became the most expensive civilian project in American history.

Kennedy's dramatic goal exhilarated NASA. Under the skillful leadership of administrator James Webb, NASA set out to achieve the goal. The Mercury flights (a total of six from 1961 to 1963) and the subsequent Project Gemini (ten flights from 1965 to 1966) served as preliminary steps to going to the moon. The larger and more advanced Gemini spacecraft allowed astronauts to practice maneuvers that would be essential in the Apollo program.

Project Apollo

Ironically, as NASA worked toward fulfilling its exciting goal, public support for the agency began to decline. After it became clear that the United States was not really losing the "space race" to the Soviet Union, many Americans wondered whether the lunar program was worth its cost. Then, on 27 January 1967, three astronauts conducting tests inside a sealed Apollo capsule died when a fire broke out in the spacecraft. A review board found that NASA had not paid adequate attention to safety.

After several unmanned Apollo test flights and one manned mission that orbited the Earth, NASA was ready to send a spacecraft into lunar orbit. Circling the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 beamed back to Earth spectacular pictures of the moon's surface. NASA

sent two more test flights into lunar orbit and was then ready to land on the moon. Apollo 11 lifted off on 16 July 1969 and landed on the moon four days later. As much of the world watched televised coverage in awe, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. Just after he stepped from his spacecraft onto the lunar surface, Armstrong spoke his immortal line: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." The crew of Apollo 11 returned safely to earth on 24 July.

Apollo 12 made a smooth journey to the moon and back, but the next mission—Apollo 13—encountered serious problems. On the way to the moon in April 1970, one of the spacecraft's oxygen tanks exploded, crippling the ship and leaving doubt whether the crew could return safely. Some ingenious work by the astronauts and the NASA engineers on the ground brought the crew of Apollo 13 home alive. NASA conducted four more successful expeditions to the moon, but dwindling public interest and congressional support led to the cancellation of the final two planned flights.

The Space Shuttle

NASA's next major project was the space shuttle, which the agency promoted as a means of reliable and economical access to space. As it developed the shuttle during the 1970s, NASA also pursued the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project with the Soviets, Skylab, and a series of unmanned exploratory missions, including the Viking probe of Mars. The shuttle began flying in 1981. Although the shuttle proved not to be as efficient as NASA promised, more than twenty flights had taken place by the end of 1985.

On 28 January 1986, tragedy struck. The shuttle Challenger exploded seventy-three seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard. The disaster stunned NASA and the nation. A presidential commission investigating the accident sharply criticized NASA's management and safety procedures. After revamping the program, shuttle flights resumed in 1988.

The Space Station

The 1990s saw NASA make significant improvements to the shuttle program, pursue a variety of unmanned missions (including the impressive Hubble Space Telescope), continue research in aeronautics and space science, and work on its next major project, an orbiting space station. Hampered by budgetary restraints and widespread criticisms of the initial station design, the project progressed slowly. In the mid-1980s, NASA had announced that the station would be a cooperative effort. Fifteen other nations—including Russia, America's former rival in space—eventually joined with the United States to develop the International Space Station (ISS). Russia's own space station, Mir, orbited the Earth from 1986 to 2001.

In late 1998, the first of more than forty space flights needed to transport and assemble the station in orbit took place. Plans originally called for international crews of up to seven astronauts to stay on the station for three to six months at a time. However, unexpectedly high development costs, plus unexpectedly low financial contributions from Russia, forced NASA to scale back the project to save money. The first crew to inhabit the station arrived in November 2000. Assembly of the station was scheduled for completion around 2004.


Bilstein, Roger E. Orders of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915–1990. Washington, D.C.: NASA, 1989.

Byrnes, Mark E. Politics and Space: Image Making by NASA. West-port, Conn.: Praeger, 1994.

Launius, Roger D. NASA: A History of the U.S. Civil Space Program. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1994.

Walsh, Patrick J. Echoes Among the Stars: A Short History of the U.S. Space Program. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.

Mark E.Byrnes

See alsoChallenger Disaster ; Hubble Space Telescope ; Space Program ; Space Shuttle .

National Aeronautics and Space Act (1958)

views updated May 29 2018

National Aeronautics and Space Act (1958)

Douglas B. Harris

Excerpt from the National Aeronautics and Space Act

  1. (a) The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.
  2. (b) The Congress declares that the general welfare and security of the United States require that adequate provision be made for aeronautical and space activities. The Congress further declares that such activities shall be the responsibility of, and shall be directed by, a civilian agency exercising control over aeronautical and space activities sponsored by the United States.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (Space Act) (P.L. 85-568, 72 Stat. 426) established a civilian-controlled National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) headed by an administrator as well as a presidential advisory council on aeronautics. The newly created NASA assumed the responsibilities, functions, and many of the employees of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), while programs related to the military and the development of space-related weapons systems were retained by the Department of Defense with turf battles to be mediated by the President of the United States.

The immediate impetus for the Space Act was widespread fear that the United States was losing its Cold War with the Soviet Union. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the artificial satellite Sputnik. This technological achievement and the launch of Sputnik II the following month evoked considerable anxiety among policymakers and the American public that the Soviets had gained technological superiority in aeronautics that, coupled with evidence of military superiority (the Soviets had recently tested intercontinental ballistic missiles), portended a Cold War imbalance in the Soviets' favor. Passed as it was in the midst of the Cold War, the Space Act was seen as crucial to the preservation of the United States and its competitiveness with the Soviet Union. Indeed, the constitutional basis cited in the act was Congress's power and obligation, under Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution, to "provide for the common defense and general welfare" of the United States.


While the legislative process is generally slow, remarkably the Space Act was conceived and passed in less than one year. Both the pronounced need for a concerted national effort and both parties' political needs to emphasize, prior to the 1958 elections, their efforts to compete in the space race led to widespread, bipartisan support for the Space Act. For its part, the Eisenhower administration, embarrassed by the Soviet advance evidenced by Sputnik, hoped to be perceived as proactive in overcoming the technological deficit in the Cold War. In his State of the Union address, delivered January 9, 1958, President Eisenhower announced the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) within the Department of Defense to coordinate research into space exploration, satellite technology, and ballistic missiles.

Skeptical of the Defense Department's ability to meet the needs of the space race, top congressional Democratic leaders sought passage of a Space Act that would establish a civilian-led NASA. From December 1957 to January 1958, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who chaired the Preparedness Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, held multiple hearings on space and astronautics. On February 6, the Senate established its Special Committee on Space and Astronautics also to be chaired by Senator Johnson. And, on March 5, the House created its Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration to be chaired by Majority Leader John W. McCormack of Massachusetts. With legislative efforts already underway, on April 2 President Eisenhower acceded to Congress by sending a special message requesting that Congress create a civilian-run NASA. Both the House Select Committee and the Senate Special Committee moved quickly, reporting legislation to their full chambers on May 24 and June 11, respectively.

The content of the legislative debate on both the House and Senate floors reveals the emphasis on the Cold War and military preparedness. In the House debate on June 2, Majority Leader McCormack emphasized the future consequences of congressional action, marveling at the quick technological advance and warning that if an "enemy of the free world" were "able to get a decided advantage, that advantage might result in the destruction of the entire world or in the subjugation of the entire world to that particular nation." These sentiments were echoed on the Senate side as Senator Johnson argued to his colleagues in the June 16 legislative debate: "What Congress does with this legislation is of vital importance. The success our country enjoys in space exploration and development depends to a large degree upon the kind of organization and powers which the Congress creates. Unless our success in this new field exceeds that of totalitarian countries, human freedom may perish."

The chief objections to the Space Act, raised during the legislative debate, centered on political turf. Supporters of NACA, ARPA, and other Defense Department programs raised objections to the encompassing nature of NASA's influence. Despite these areas of disagreement, the Space Act enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support, and it passed by voice vote in the House on June 2nd and similarly by voice vote in the Senate on June 16. Differences between House and Senate versions of the bill were reconciled in conference committee and the Conference Report was approved by voice vote in both the House and the Senate on July 16. Congress completed its actions on this legislation by altering House and Senate rules to establish the House Committee on Science and Astronautics on July 21 and the Senate Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee on July 24 in order to oversee the continuing operations of NASA. On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed P.L. 85-568 into law.


The Space Act recommitted the American national government to space research and development and spawned a tremendous growth in the federal government's investment in the study of aeronautics. This is most obvious in a comparison of NASA and its predecessor, the NACA. According to the NASA Historical Data Book, whereas the NACA employed 8,000 individuals and had a budget of $100 million in 1958, just a decade later, in 1967, NASA employed 36,000 individuals and had a budget of over $5 billion. This massive effort to engage in high technology research and development generated advances that spilled over into many academic, commercial, and military enterprises.

In addition to raising the very real technological and military stakes in the United States' space race with the Soviet Union, the Space Act's major impact seems to have been symbolic. Without the Space Act, the United States would not have won the space race to the moon. Indeed, perhaps the most significant impact of the Space Act can be found in how the images of NASA's successes and tragic failures have played a central role in the American collective consciousness. From the moonwalk to the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, NASA's highs and lows have been nationalizing events that are embedded in America's collective memory.


Griffith, Alison. The National Aeronautics and Space Act. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1962.

Van Nimmen, Jane, Leonard C. Bruno, and Robert L. Rosholt. NASA Historical Data Book, Volume 1: NASA Resources, 19581968. Washington, DC: NASA, 1988.


NASA History Office. <>.


views updated Jun 11 2018


Whether it be through film or print, Americans have always been fascinated with space travel. Stories range from the more mainstream exploration of space to "far-out" depictions of alien abductions and other encounters with creatures from another world. Much of our fascination with space has come out of the work of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), which was established in 1958 as an agency of the United States Government. With ten facilities—including the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and the main launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida—NASA's purpose is to coordinate and conduct aeronautical and space research.

With the Soviet launching of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, in October 1957, Americans became concerned about the apparent "technological gap" between the two world powers. In an attempt to bridge this gap, America launched its own satellite and established NASA. NASA quickly brought the "space race" to national attention as it sought to fulfill President John F. Kennedy's challenge to reach the moon before 1970.

Americans watched these events with a childlike fascination. A new frontier was about to be conquered. Cowboys, soldiers, and sports figures were replaced by America's new heroes, the seven astronauts chosen for the first manned space program, Project Mercury. NASA's work ignited tremendous excitement in the nation. Children played with spaceships, wore space helmets, and fired ray guns. Indeed, families even made trips to Cape Canaveral making it clear that our fascination with space was not just a fleeting one.

The world of popular culture would eventually catch up, and profit from, this fascination. Television programs such as Men Into Space and The Twilight Zone became popular as Americans anticipated the first manned flight, not knowing exactly what to expect. Science fiction movies and comic books, already popular since the days of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, became even more popular. They pictured astronauts traveling into space, landing on hostile worlds, battling aliens, and encountering dangers that threatened mankind. Even Disneyland had its own World of Tomorrow. NASA sparked America's imagination by opening a frontier that had only been a dream.

Excitement was also mixed with fear. Some people who knew the families of astronauts wondered how they could let their sons go into space and bring back a deadly disease. Others objected because they believed that God never intended people to leave earth. But NASA launched two successful sub-orbital flights and then placed John Glenn into orbit. In the early years, though, NASA always seemed to be one step behind the Soviet space program. Americans wondered if NASA would win the ultimate prize of the space race… the first moon landing.

NASA enjoyed overall success until the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts in early 1967. The three prime candidates for the first moon landing were killed when their spacecraft caught fire on the launching pad. This proved a setback to the program, but NASA would reach its goal on July 20, 1969 when the Apollo Project resulted in the first successful moon landing. The image of Neil Armstrong walking on the lunar surface is permanently impressed upon the memories of Americans who watched it on television. The astronauts were immediate celebrities and NASA's popularity soared. The Apollo spacecraft toured American cities and it became clear that the successful Apollo program was the ultimate sign of American prestige and technological superiority. NASA's popularity, however, began to wane as Americans grew weary of moon landings. Reruns of The Howdy Doody Show achieved higher ratings than NASA's later lunar voyages and people complained to television stations that their soap operas had been interrupted by these space missions.

In 1973, NASA launched Skylab, the first United States manned space laboratory. The Apollo-Soyuz project was a later joint American-Soviet mission, but it took the first manned space shuttle, launched in 1981, to rekindle NASA's popularity. The rise in popularity, however, would be short-lived as a series of failures changed the way Americans looked at NASA.

Christa McAuliffe, the school teacher who trained with NASA astronauts for the Challenger shuttle mission, made Americans everywhere believe that space travel was possible for the average person. The vision of Challenger exploding on the television screen on January 28, 1986 is indelibly burned into the memories of millions of Americans. Many Americans became critical of NASA and the space shuttle program, questioning the safety of space travel and research. After a two year hiatus, shuttle launches resumed when Discovery blasted off in September of 1988.

While the agency made successful shuttle launches, it also sent unmanned probes to other planets and placed the Hubble space telescope into orbit, supplying detailed pictures of other worlds. NASA also captured the imagination of the public when it successfully launched the Mars Pathfinder in July of 1997—the Mars rover sent photographs back to Earth and the public once again discussed the possibility of life on the Red Planet.

After the Challenger tragedy, space shuttle flights became so routine they were only briefly mentioned in the news. Former Astronaut and Senator John Glenn changed that when he came out of retirement to join the crew of the Discovery in 1998, becoming the oldest person to ever travel into space.

Over the years, NASA has provided inspiration for many science fiction writers and movie makers. The television series Star Trek and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were released during the "space race" era. NASA has been featured in many popular movies, including Apollo 13 (1995), that popularized astronaut Jim Lovell's announcement "Houston, we have a problem." The Right Stuff (1983) and the HBO (Home Box Office) mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (1998) have also documented NASA's work. NASA has even been the source of speculation for conspiracy theorists. Some authors believe NASA covered up Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) sightings by early astronauts. They also accuse NASA of hiding the truth about an alleged monument on Mars supposedly caught on film in 1976. Some groups believe that no moon landing ever took place and that the lunar landing was staged on a movie set.

The history of NASA is a mixture of tragedy and triumph. Over the years, the American public has had mixed feeling regarding the success and usefulness of NASA. With the on-going speculation regarding life on other planets, Americans will continue to be intrigued with NASA's efforts to explore outer space.

—James H. Lloyd

Further Reading:

Gray, Mike. Angle of Attack: Harrison Storms and the Race to the

Moon. New York, Norton, 1992.

Launius, Roger D., and Bertram Ulrich. NASA and the Exploration of Space: With Works from the NASA Art Collection. New York, Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1998.

McCurdy, Howard E. Inside NASA. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York, Bantam Books, 1983.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

views updated Jun 11 2018

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Space exploration was just one of the areas in which the world superpowers (the United States and the former Soviet Union) competed. Neither wanted to be left behind, or considered second best. So intense was this competition between 1957 and 1975 that it was dubbed the Space Race .

In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. The United States was immediately concerned that the Soviet Union was more technologically advanced. With the hopes of catching up, Congress established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on July 29, 1958. The purpose of NASA was to coordinate and conduct aeronautical and space research. It opened with four laboratories and approximately eighty governmental employees.

Rises to the challenge

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) challenged the United States to travel to the moon before 1970, and NASA took that challenge seriously. The result was Project Mercury, the first manned space program. On April 9, 1959, NASA introduced the seven men who would be the program's first astronauts. From that point on, astronauts and space exploration became a national obsession. Children wore space helmets and played with pretend ray guns. Families took vacations to Cape Canaveral in Florida , where NASA rockets blasted off, to tour the facility and learn about space flight. Science fiction books and television shows became even more popular as Americans vividly imagined what space travel would be like.

Within five years, NASA sent six manned space flights into orbit. Alan B. Shepard Jr. (1923–1998) was the first American in space when he piloted the Freedom 7 in May 1961. John Glenn (1921–) was the first American to orbit the Earth almost one year later as he flew the Friendship 7 for more than five hours in February 1962. More than two million people from within government agencies and the aerospace industry combined their skills and talents to make these manned flights happen. The United States had definitely joined the race.

To the moon

In 1965, Virgil (Gus) Grissom (1926–1967) and John Young (1930–) flew the first of nine missions that comprised Project Gemini. These missions collected data on the effects of weightlessness on humans and proved that orbiting and docking two spacecraft together in space were possible.

The next step was to put a man on the moon. This was the mission of Project Apollo, which would include both manned and unmanned missions and last from 1961 to 1975. The program received a setback in 1967 when three astronauts were killed on the Apollo I when their shuttle caught fire on the launchpad. NASA knew there would be failures and accidents; that was part of space exploration. The years 1969 to 1972 were the high points of the program—when U.S. astronauts landed on the moon.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong (1930–) became the first human to land on the moon. As commander of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, Armstrong said as he took his first step, “That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” His mission also included astronauts Buzz Aldrin (1930–) and Michael Collins (1930–).

NASA did not rest on its success with the Apollo 11 mission. In 1973, it launched into orbit Skylab, the first space station. The station included a laboratory for studying various space-related phenomenon.

Space shuttle ups and downs

The focus for the remainder of the decade was on the space shuttle. By 1985, four space shuttles had been built. The plan was for these vehicles to be easily launched and reusable. The first shuttle, Columbia, launched in April 1981. This launch rekindled the American public's interest in space flight. After the excitement of the Apollo missions, the moon landings lost their novelty on the public. People even complained that their soap operas were being interrupted by space missions.

Five years after the first launch of the space shuttle, Americans across the nation watched in horror as the Challenger shuttle exploded in midair, just seconds after takeoff. This particular mission was a major milestone in space flight history, as the seven-member crew included Christa McAuliffe (1948–1986), an elementary school teacher. She had been selected from more than eleven thousand applicants to be the first school teacher in space. The entire crew was killed in the Challenger space shuttle explosion on January 28, 1986, an event that gave the American public cause to question the safety of space travel and research. It was another two years before NASA resumed its shuttle launches.

Modern day NASA

NASA has not slowed down in its quest to explore space in the twenty-first century. Although the American public has expressed mixed feelings about the usefulness of NASA in modern society, the organization continues to demonstrate its value as it moves ahead with its study of space, which includes the Mars Exploration Program.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

views updated Jun 08 2018

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Since 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been responsible for the U.S. government's exploration of space. It also became a primary force in fueling Americans' passionate interest in space. In the years since its founding, NASA has had some spectacular successes and some dramatic failures.

The need for NASA grew out of the Cold War (1947-91; see entry under 1940s—The Way We Lived in volume 3), the intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. The political competition between these two superpowers moved into space in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite (see entry under 1950s—The Way We Lived in volume 3), Sputnik. The Soviets also launched the first man into space and the first man to orbit the Earth. NASA launched Alan Shepard (1923–1998), the first American in space, in May 1961. In February 1962, John Glenn (1921–) became the first American to orbit the earth. These successes created a huge interest in space travel and made celebrities out of the first astronauts. The decision of President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) to send a man to the moon before the 1960s ended spurred further public interest in space and an all-out effort by NASA. Although NASA suffered a huge setback when three astronauts died during a pre-liftoff fire in 1967, the agency—and the world—reached a tremendous milestone on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong (1930–) and Buzz Aldrin (1930–) became the first men to walk on the moon. Broadcast on television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3), the event held the world spellbound. More moon landings followed in the 1970s, but other than a near-disaster aboard Apollo 13, public interest decreased.

NASA suspended its manned flights in the early 1970s. It focused instead on its space laboratory, Skylab, launched in 1973, and on unmanned flights to Mars and to deep space. In 1981, NASA launched the first space shuttle, a new method of space flight that allowed astronauts to leave Earth using rockets and to land their ship like an airplane at mission's end. These reusable shuttles promised a new era in space flight. In 1986, tragedy struck the shuttle program when the space-shuttle Challenger blew up seconds after liftoff, killing all on board, including the first civilian in space, teacher Christa McAuliffe (1948-1986). Despite this setback, NASA continued launching the shuttles on a fairly regular basis into the twenty-first century.

NASA's efforts had a great impact on popular culture, as television shows and films came out to capitalize on the public's interest in space. In the 1960s, Star Trek (see entry under 1960s—TV and Radio in volume 4) and Lost in Space were popular TV series. The 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey (see entry under 1960s—Film and Theater in volume 4) directed by Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) was among the first serious looks at space. Some films examined the NASA programs directly, including The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995). NASA's main launch facility at Cape Canaveral, Florida, became a huge tourist attraction in the 1970s, giving tours and selling space souvenirs. Along with this interest, there were some who challenged the necessity of NASA's many activities that came at great financial expense. But despite this, NASA continues to direct the United States' efforts in space, keeping America's attention focused on the mysteries of space.

—Timothy Berg

For More Information

Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Launius, Roger D., and Bertram Ulrich. NASA and the Exploration of Space: With Works from the NASA Art Collection. New York: Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1998.

McCurdy, Howard E. Inside NASA. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

NASA. (accessed March 21, 2002).

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

views updated Jun 11 2018

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) US government agency that organizes civilian aeronautical and space research programmes. It has departments throughout the USA. The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, is responsible for manned space flights. Space rockets, both manned and unmanned, are launched from the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.


views updated May 08 2018

NASA The National Aeronautic and Space Administration, the agency of the US federal government that was established under the National Aeronautics and Space Act 1958 to plan, direct, and conduct all US aeronautical and space activities, other than those that are primarily military.

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