National Aeronautics and Space Administration

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(PD) Photo: NASA
Astronauts: Past and Present. An all-star gathering of legendary American astronauts appeared in Cleveland Aug. 29, 2008 to celebrate NASA's 50th anniversary. John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, Jim Lovell, veteran of two Apollo missions, and Kathryn Sullivan, the first woman to walk in space joined 15 other astronauts from Ohio. From left to right in the front row are Kenneth Cameron, Robert Springer, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, James Lovell and Kathryn Sullivan. From left to right in the middle row are Nancy Currie, Terence Henricks, Ronald Sega, Curt Brown, Gregory Harbaugh, Thomas Hennen and Carl Walz. From left to right in the back row are Mary Weber, Michael Foreman, Michael Gernhardt, Kevin Kregel, Donald Thomas and Suni Williams. Image Credit: NASA

NASA (formally the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is an independent agency of the United States government responsible for the nation's public space program. Established on July 29, 1958 by the National Aeronautics and Space Act[1], its annual funding amounts to $17 billion. In addition to the space program, NASA is also responsible for long-term civilian and military aerospace research.


Space race

For more information, see: Space Race.

Following the Soviet space program's launch of the world's first man-made satellite (Sputnik 1) on October 4, 1957, the attention of the United States turned toward its own fledgling space efforts. The Congress, alarmed by the perceived threat to U.S. security and technological leadership (known as "Sputnik Shock"), urged immediate and swift action; President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his advisors counseled more deliberate measures. Several months of debate produced agreement that a new federal agency was needed to conduct all non-military activity in space. On July 29, 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act or NASA, establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). When it began operations in October 1958, NASA consisted mainly of the four laboratories and some 80 employees of the government's 46-year-old research agency for aeronautics, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

One important contribution came from the U.S. Army, which had reassembled a team of German rocket scientists led by Wernher von Braun, who is today regarded as the father of the United States space program. Elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (of which von Braun's team was a part) and the Naval Research Laboratory were incorporated into NASA.

NASA's earliest programs were research into human spaceflight, and were conducted under the pressure of the competition between the USA and the Soviet Union (the Space Race) that existed during the Cold War. The Mercury program, initiated in 1958, started NASA down the path of human space exploration with missions designed to discover simply if man could survive in space. On May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American in space when he piloted Freedom 7 on a 15-minute suborbital flight. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962 during the 5-hour flight of Friendship 7.

Once the Mercury project proved that human spaceflight was possible, project Gemini was launched to conduct experiments and work out issues relating to a moon mission. The first Gemini flight with astronauts on board, Gemini III, was flown by Virgil "Gus" Grissom and John W. Young on March 23, 1965. Nine other missions followed, showing that long-duration human space flight was possible, proving that rendezvous and docking with another vehicle in space was possible, and gathering medical data on the effects of weightlessness on humans.

Apollo program

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced his support for the Apollo program as part of a special address to a joint session of Congress:

...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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish..."[2]

The Apollo program was designed to land humans on the Moon and bring them safely back to Earth. Six of the missions (Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17) did achieve this goal. Apollo 7 and Apollo 9 were Earth orbiting missions and were designed to test the operating systems of the Command and Lunar Modules including rendezvous radar and essential life support systems. Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 tested various components while orbiting the Moon, and returned photography of the lunar surface. Apollo 13 did not land on the Moon due to a malfunction, but also returned photographs. The six missions that landed on the Moon returned a wealth of scientific data and almost 400 kilograms of lunar samples. Experiments included soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismic, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields, and solar wind experiments.[3]

Having lost the moon race, the Soviet Union had, along with the USA, changed its approach to match the new spirit of detente, which eased the Cold War. In July 1975 Apollo 18 (finding a new use after the cancelling of planned lunar flights) was docked to the Soviet Soyuz 19 spacecraft, in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Although the Cold War resuned in 1979 (and lasted until 1989), this was a critical point in NASA's history and much of the international co-operation in space exploration that exists today has its genesis with this mission.

Early unmanned missions

Although the vast majority of NASA's budget has been spent on human spaceflight, there have been many robotic missions instigated by the space agency. In 1962 the Mariner 2 mission was launched and became the first spacecraft to make a flyby of another planet – in this case Venus. The Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter missions were essential to assessing lunar conditions before attempting Apollo landings with humans on board. Later, the two Viking probes landed on the surface of Mars and sent color images back to Earth, but perhaps more impressive were the Pioneer and particularly Voyager missions that visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune sending back scientific information and color images.


America's first space station, Skylab, occupied NASA from the end of Apollo until the late 1970s.

Shuttle era

The space shuttle became the major focus of NASA in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Planned to be a frequently launchable and mostly reusable vehicle, four space shuttles were built by 1985. The first to launch, Columbia, did so on April 12, 1981.[4]

The shuttle was not all good news for NASA — flights were much more expensive than initially projected, and even after the 1986 Challenger disaster highlighted the risks of space flight, the public again lost interest as missions appeared to become mundane. Work began on Space Station Freedom as a focus for the manned space program but within NASA there was argument that these projects came at the expense of more inspiring unmanned missions such as the Voyager probes. The Challenger disaster, aside from the late 1980s, marked a low point for NASA.

Nonetheless, the shuttle has been used to launch milestone projects like the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The HST was created with a relatively small budget of $2 billion but has continued operation since 1990 and has delighted both scientists and the public. Some of the images it has returned have become near-legendary, such as the groundbreaking Hubble Deep Field images. The HST is a joint project between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, and its success has paved the way for greater collaboration between the agencies.

In 1995 Russian-American interaction would again be achieved as the Shuttle-Mir missions began, and once more a Russian craft (this time a full-fledged space station) docked with an American vehicle. This cooperation continues to the present day, with Russia and America the two biggest partners in the largest space station ever built – the International Space Station (ISS). The strength of their cooperation on this project was even more evident when NASA began relying on Russian launch vehicles to service the ISS following the 2003 Columbia disaster, which grounded the shuttle fleet for well over two years.

Costing over one hundred billion dollars, it has been difficult at times for NASA to justify the ISS. The population at large have historically been hard to impress with details of scientific experiments in space, preferring news of grand projects to exotic locations. Even now, the ISS cannot accommodate as many scientists as planned.

During much of the 1990s, NASA was faced with shrinking annual budgets due to Congressional belt-tightening in Washington, DC. In response, NASA's ninth administrator, Daniel S. Goldin, pioneered the "faster, better, cheaper" approach that enabled NASA to cut costs while still delivering a wide variety of aerospace programs (Discovery Program). That method was criticized and re-evaluated following the twin losses of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999.

NASA's shuttle program made over 112 successful launches.

NASA's future

2009 budget

NASA's 2009 budget of $18 billion calls for three priorities:[5]

1. Build rockets and spacecraft that will enable us to explore the solar system

  • Designs new human spaceflight vehicles. New vehicles will extend human presence to the Moon and beyond.
    • $1 billion for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, a new piloted spacecraft that will allow astronauts to land anywhere on the Moon, support a lunar outpost, and eventually support human expeditions to Mars.
    • $1 billion for the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle, a new rocket that will launch Orion.
    • Launches robotic spacecraft. Robotic spacecraft will further explore the solar system.
    • $105 million to conduct a program of small lunar robotic missions and research.
    • $1.3 billion to explore Mars and other destinations in the solar system.

2. Continue the assembly of the International Space Station, and encourage the development of commercial services that will provide transportation to the Station.

  • Operates the International Space Station. $2.1 billion for this multi-national, Earth-orbiting research facility that enables future exploration activities and meets the Nation’s commitments to our international partners.
  • Continues to assemble the International Space Station. $3 billion to fly the Space Shuttle to complete the International Space Station, while keeping the Shuttle on the path to retirement by 2010.
  • Develops new commercial services. $173 million for successful demonstrations of private-sector services to transport cargo to the International Space Station, and $2.6 billion over five years to purchase transportation services to the Station.

3. Expand the frontiers of knowledge in Earth and space science and aeronautics.

  • Promotes our understanding of the Earth. $1.4 billion—$6.3 billion over five years—to embark on a series of high-priority, space-based Earth observation research missions that will advance understanding of the causes and consequences of changes to Earth's climate, oceans, and land surfaces.
  • Pursues further research in space. $1.7 billion to conduct spaceflight missions and research to enhance understanding of the Sun and the universe.
  • Enables breakthrough aeronautics technologies. $447 million to enable cheaper, safer, cleaner, and more convenient air travel.


Utilizing the 30 years of robotic, interplanetary exploration experience from the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), NASA's current investigations include in-depth surveys of Mars. The Mars Global Surveyor probe has been performing science in Mars orbit from 1997 to date. Since 2001, the orbiting Mars Odyssey has been searching for evidence of past or present water and volcanic activity on the red planet. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which reached Mars in 2006, will continue investigations of Martian climate and geology. Both built and managed by JPL, the most spectacular missions, however, have been the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have been traversing the surface of Mars at Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum since early 2004, returning thousands of images and other scientific data. With NASA funding, JPL expects to continue to explore the Red Planet with more spacecraft such as Phoenix and the Mars Science Laboratory later this decade.

Scheduled to launch in 2007, Phoenix shall search for possible underground water courses in the northern Martian pole. The name "Phoenix" is appropriately given. During the dark days (accidents) of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, the prime contractor to JPL -- Lockheed Martin, Denver -- mothballed an identical Mars Polar Lander. With the success of the Mars Exploration Rovers, JPL and Lockheed Martin have "revived" the Mars mission to search for underground water in the northern poles. Hence, the name "Phoenix" was given to the "un-mothballed" identical, Mars Polar Lander probe.


Other notable JPL-NASA missions include the Cassini probe, launched in 1997 and in orbit around Saturn since mid-2004, investigating Saturn and its inner satellites; and the New Horizons mission, launched 2006 and due to reach Pluto in 2015. With over twenty years in the making, Cassini-Huygens demonstrates the importance of international cooperation between JPL-NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). ===Columbia disaster The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, which killed the crew of six Americans and one Israeli, caused a 29-month hiatus in space shuttle flights and triggered a serious re-examination of NASA's priorities. The U.S. government, various scientists, and the public all considered the future of the space program.

On January 14, 2004, ten days after the landing of Spirit, President George W. Bush announced a new plan for NASA's future, dubbed the Vision for Space Exploration. According to this plan, humankind will return to the moon by 2018, and set up outposts as a testbed and potential resource for future missions. The space shuttle will be retired in 2010 and Orion will replace it by 2014, capable of both docking with the ISS and leaving the Earth's orbit. The future of the ISS is somewhat uncertain — construction will be completed, but beyond that is less clear. Although the plan initially met with skepticism from Congress, in late 2004 Congress agreed to provide start-up funds for the first year's worth of the new space vision.

Hoping to spur innovation from the private sector, NASA established a series of Centennial Challenges, technology prizes for non-government teams, in 2004. The Challenges include tasks that will be useful for implementing the Vision for Space Exploration, such as building more efficient astronaut gloves.


Some commentators, such as Mark Wade, note that NASA has suffered from a 'stop-start' approach to its human spaceflight programs. The Apollo spacecraft and Saturn family of launch vehicles were abandoned in the 1970s after billions of dollars had been spent on their development. In 2004 the U.S. Government proposed eventually replacing the Shuttle with a Crew Exploration Vehicle that would allow the agency to again send astronauts to the Moon. Despite the reduction of its budget following project Apollo, NASA has maintained a top-heavy bureaucracy resulting in inflated costs and compromised hardware.

Currently, the ISS relies on the Shuttle fleet for all major construction shipments. The Shuttle fleet has lost two spacecraft and fourteen astronauts in two disasters in 1986 and 2003. While the 1986 loss was made up with a space shuttle built from replacement parts, NASA does not plan to build another shuttle to replace the second loss. (See also CEV.) The ISS, which was intended to have a crew of seven as of 2005, just now has been restored to a crew of three for the first time since it was cut to a skeleton crew of two in May 2003, causing many intended research projects to be delayed. However, Anatoli Perminov, director of Roskosmos, told Russian news agency Itar-Tass that from 2009 there would be six permanent crew members on board the station. Since the Columbia Shuttle accident, the permanent space station crew has comprised one Russian and one American, on board for six months at a time, meaning European and Japanese astronauts could not stay for longer missions. An increase in the number of crew members has been in the pipeline for some time but was delayed following the Columbia disaster in February 2003. Other nations that have invested heavily in the space station's construction, such as the members of the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, have expressed concern over the completion of the ISS. However, with the July 4th, 2006 launch of STS-121 "Discovery," NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has proclaimed the ISS schedule as "on-track."

Field installations

NASA's headquarters are located in Washington, DC.

NASA's Shared Services center is located on the grounds of the John C. Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Construction of their facility began in August 2006 and the scheduled completion date is October 2007.

NASA has numerous field and research installations listed in the subpage.


Throughout its history, NASA has used several different types of aircraft on a permanent, semi-permanent, or short-term basis. These aircraft are usually surplus (or in a few cases new-built) military aircraft. Included among these are:

  • F-8 Crusader, Several F-8Cs were used by NASA in the early 1970s to test such features as Aircraft flight control systems#Digital fly-by-wire FCS|Digital Fly-By-Wire Control Systemand supercritical wings, which have become standard on modern high performance military aircraft.
  • F-104 Starfighter, Three F-104Gs delivered to NASA in 1963 for use as high-speed chase aircraft and designated F-104N. One of these aircraft, piloted by Joe Walker, collided with the XB-70 Valkyrie experimental bomber on June 8, 1966.
  • F-106 Delta Dart, Beginning in the late 1980's handful of F-106A's were retained by NASA for test purposes, the last being retired in 1998 in aviation|1998.
  • F-16 Fighting Falcon, During the late 1980's and early 1990's 2 prototypes of the F-16XL, designed as a competitor to the F-15E Strike Eagle in the United States Air Force|USAF's Enhanced Tactical Fighter program, were taken in hand by NASA for aeronautical research.
  • T-38 Talon, a number have been used by NASA as jet trainers for its astronauts since the 1960's; NASA's T-38 fleet is housed primarily at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas.
  • P-3 Orion, NASA currently uses the P-3 as an earth-science suborbital research platform and is located at Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia.
  • KC-135 Stratotanker, Two ex-United States Air Force|USAF KC-135's were used by NASA from 1973 to 2004 for the Reduced Gravity Research Program, where potential astronauts are exposed to simulated near-weightlessness. It was these aircraft that collectively gained the name Vomit Comet.
  • C-5 Galaxy, two specially designed C-5C's were procured by NASA for use as a heavy transport aircraft and flown by United States Air Force|USAF crews.
  • C-141 Starlifter, in the early 1960's a single C-141A was procured by NASA for use as a heavy transport aircraft.
  • C-9 Skytrain II, One ex-United States Navy|USN C-9B was taken in hand in 2004 to replace the famous KC-135s used in NASA's Reduced Gravity Research Program.
  • Boeing 747, Two 747's, one registered N905NA (which is a 747-100 model that was acquired from American Airlines in 1974) and a second reqistered N911NA (a 747-100SR model purchased from Japan Airlines in 1988) are currently used by NASA as Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.


  2. John F. Kennedy, "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs", May 25, 1961
  3. Chaikin, Andrew A Man On The Moon
  4. Bernier, Serge (Stephen Lyle Translator) Space Odyssey: The First Forty Years of Space Exploration (Cambridge University Press, 2002) ISBN 0-521-81356-5
  5. See 2009 budget summary