Following the Soviet space program by launching the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1) on October 4, 1957, the US attention turned to their own efforts in the space program. US Congress, alarmed by the perceived threat to security and technology leadership in the US, urged a rapid and immediate measure. The President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his advisers have debated and come up with these measures of creating an organization that could explore the space. Several months of debate led to the decision which established a new agency to conduct all non-military actions in space.
On July 29 1958, President Eisenhower signed the act that established the American Space Agency (NASA). When it started to function on October 1 1958, NASA’s work consisted mainly of four laboratories and a few of the 8000 employees from government agency, 46-year-old, NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). NASA programs were the first that promoted manned space flight and were conducted under the pressure of competition between US and USSR (the Space Race) during the Cold War. Mercury program, initiated in 1958, placed NASA towards space exploration by man with a mission designed to discover whether humans can 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 suborbital flight. John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth on February 20 1962 with Friendship 7.
Once shown that Mercury manned space flight is possible, it had been launched a new program for the Gemini moon mission. The first manned flight of Project Gemini, Gemini III was on March 23 1965; part of the crew were represented by Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John W. Young. Nine other missions followed, showing that long manned flights are indeed possible, proving that meeting and docking with another spacecraft is possible too. A great amount of medical data was collected and the effects of the imponderability on the human body were started to be more studied.
Following the success of Mercury and Gemini programs, the Apollo program was launched to try to work in space. Apollo program goals have been radically changed following the announcement of President John F. Kennedy on March 25 1961, that the United States should send humans to the moon and safely get them back on Earth until 1970. Thus Apollo lunar landing program was to send a man on the moon. Gemini program was started shortly to provide an interim spacecraft to demonstrate the techniques necessary for Apollo missions which were supposed to be far more complicated and they really were.
After eight years of preliminary missions, including NASA astronauts first loss of the launch of Apollo 1 when it caught fire, the Apollo program achieved its goals with the Apollo 11 that led the first humans on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on July 20 1969 and returned them safely to Earth on July 24. Armstrong’s first words off the lunar module Eagle were: “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Twelve people have set foot on the moon by the end of the Apollo program in December 1972.
NASA won the space race. After Lyndon Johnson left office, NASA has lost its main political supporter, and Wernher von Braun was moved to a position of lobbying in Washington. In these conditions, the plans for the ambitious projects to build a space station, to establish a lunar basis and to launch a manned mission to Mars by 1990, which already have been proposed, seemed that won’t get the necessary support. The nearly disastrous mission of Apollo 13, where an oxygen tank explosion nearly condemned three astronauts to death, helped reuptake the attention towards Apollo missions. Although there were planned Apollo mission until they’ve reached Apollo 20, Apollo 17 was the last Apollo mission to fly under the logo. The program ended because of low budgets (in part because the Vietnam War) and the desire to achieve a reusable space vehicle.
Although most of the NASA budget was spent on manned space missions, also there were many unmanned missions undertaken by NASA. In 1962 Mariner 2 mission was launched and became the first spacecraft to fly to another planet – in this case Venus. Missions Ranger, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter was essential to collect lunar data in conditions before attempted by the Apollo human missions. Later, the two Viking landers reached the surface of Mars and sent color images on Earth, but perhaps most impressive was the mission of the Pioneer and Voyager missions that visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, which sent Earth color images and data from all these.
Having lost the space race, the Soviet Union has changed regarding the US approach. On July 17 1975, an Apollo spacecraft was used to ship the Soviet Soyuz 19. Although the Cold War lasted for many years, this was a critical point in NASA history and the most part, the international cooperation in space exploitation that exists today has its origins there. The first US space station Skylab, was the concern of NASA from the end of Apollo missions until late ’70s.
Today, NASA is preparing to use commercial rockets in order to explore the space and the international cooperation is widely spread than ever before. The scientists who worked on NASA projects more than 30 years ago probably could not even believe that something like this would be possible after years. This is happening because they have realised that only together we can protect our planet and seek answers that trouble our minds since we are young: Who we are ? From where are we coming? Where are we going to?