Birth of NASA and Dawn of the Space Age
On July 29, 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower passed legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
For centuries, the people of earth have looked to the skies, curious about space and other worlds. The invention of the telescope in the 17th century enabled humans to take a closer look at the stars and gain a better understanding of the universe beyond our planet.
By the early 1900s, scientists – primarily in the Soviet Union, Germany, and the United States – realized that physical space exploration was possible. American Robert H. Goddard secured the patent for the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket, which he launched in 1926. With his success, Germany and the Soviet Union followed suit, launching their own rockets and furthering space technology.
The next major achievement occurred in 1942, when Germany launched the first rocket to reach the boundary of space (61 miles from earth’s surface). Four years later, the U.S. also successfully launched a rocket that took the world’s first pictures of earth from 62 miles above the surface.
In October 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1, the first human-made satellite. Alarmed by the potential threat the Soviet technology could pose, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
NACA immediately set to work exploring what a non-military space agency would involve. Meanwhile, several military organizations began planning out possible launch vehicles. They built and launched Vanguard that December, though it exploded shortly after takeoff. However, in January 1958, the U.S. launched its first successful satellite to orbit the earth – Explorer I.
President Eisenhower soon grew anxious about the Soviets’ advancements and wanted America to not only catch up, but surpass them. As a result, on July 29, 1958, he signed a bill establishing NASA. The new organization began operations in October 1958 and absorbed the employees, budget, labs, and facilities of NACA.
NASA’s first undertaking, Project Mercury, sought to discover if humans could survive in space. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard, piloting Freedom 7, became the first American in space. This was less than one month after Yuri Gagarin of the U.S.S.R. became the first person in space, aboard the Vostok 1. And less than a year later, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, in Friendship 7.
In a 1961 announcement, President John F. Kennedy said that America “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” Following the success of the Mercury Project, NASA then initiated Project Gemini, to perform experiments and resolve issues involved in moon exploration. The Gemini project proved that not only was it possible for humans to endure long space flights, but also that ships could dock together in space. Project Gemini also yielded extensive medical results on how the weightlessness experienced in space affects humans. Additionally, in 1962 Project Gemini sent the world’s first space probe to another planet, Venus.
With one achievement after another, the United States and the Soviet Union continued competing to try to prove who was the world’s leading “space power.” After the success of the Gemini missions, the United States then introduced the Apollo program, aimed at landing a man on the moon. In the interest of ending any hostilities, President Kennedy had proposed in 1963 that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. create joint programs, sending their astronauts to the moon together. However, the Russian government feared this was simply an attempt to steal Russian space technology, and refused to cooperate. In December 1968, America gained substantially in the space race when three of its astronauts successfully became the first to orbit the moon. Following the failed first Soyuz flight in 1967 and the deaths of several top Soviet astronauts, their plans for a moon landing soon fell apart and the program was canceled in 1969.
On July 20, 1969, the U.S. landed the world’s first humans on the moon – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Armstrong’s famous words, “That’s one small step [a] for man, one giant leap for mankind,” were witnessed by a worldwide audience of about 500 million – the largest television audience for a live broadcast up to that time.
With this success, the U.S. considered themselves the victors in the space race, although the U.S.S.R. claimed they “won” when they sent the first person into space years earlier.
With the space race effectively over and other nations beginning to develop space technology, the U.S. began work on the Skylab space station. Orbiting Earth from 1973 to 1979, Skylab’s initial purpose was to study gravity in other solar systems. Plans were made to dock a space shuttle with the lab, but the lab was destroyed entering earth’s atmosphere in 1979.
Despite the long-standing differences between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., in 1975, the two nations launched the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project joint flight. In a historic event, ships from each nation docked together, allowing the “rival” astronauts and cosmonauts to pass between ships and share experiments.
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