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NASA's Early Years Through Apollo

Updated on January 31, 2013

"An Act to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes." With this statement, the Congress and the President authorized the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on October 1, 1958.

NASA is a federal agency of the United States government responsible for the country’s civilian space program. It came into existence largely in response to growing Soviet advances in space culminating in the October 4, 1957 launch of the artificial satellite, Sputnik. President Eisenhower decided to create a new agency and assign it the task of developing and overseeing all non military efforts in space. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created in February 1958 to develop military space technology.

NASA was formally established on July 29, 1958 when President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act. NASA replaced the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). NACA was established on March 3, 1915 to undertake and promote aeronautical research. It had been testing and researching advanced rocket planes such at the Bell X-1 (NACA XS-1) since 1946. The Bell X-1 was followed by the X-15 which reached a record altitude of 354,200 feet.

President Eisenhower approved a plan to orbit a satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) which was from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958. The Soviet Union soon announced its own plans to orbit a satellite.

NASA absorbed a great deal of technology from the World War II German rocket program under the direction of Wernher von Braun. Von Braun joined NASA and eventually became director of the Marshall Space Flight Center.

In 1955 Project Vanguard under development at the Naval Research Laboratory was chosen to support the IGY effort. It used a civilian Viking rocket, but funding levels were too small for any hope of success. When the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957 the United States was jolted into action and space budgets were sharply increased.

On October 1, 1958 NASA became operational with a $100 million budget. It absorbed NACA including its eight thousand employees, three research laboratories including Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory. Parts of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) where Werhner von Braun’s team was developing rockets and the U.S Naval Research Laboratory were also incorporated into the new agency. NASA gained control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in December 1958. JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology. Its main function is the building and operating of spacecraft for planetary exploration. It also operates the Deep Space Network and oversees a number of astronomy missions. NASA got its own seal in 1959.

The United States launched its first satellite, the Explorer 1 in January 1958. It successfully documented the Van Allen radiation zones shaped by the Earth’s magnetic field. The satellite continued to transmit data until its batteries died four months later.

With the Space Race heating up President John F. Kennedy issued his stirring call on May 25, 1961: "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 Earth.” NASA moved quickly and undertook a number of important missions to reach Kennedy’s goal. The massive decade long project cost $25 billion dollars (Over $200 billion in today’s US dollars.)

NASA’s first step in reaching the moon was Project Mercury which ran from 1959 to 1963. Seven astronauts were chosen including Alan Shepard, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Donald “Deke” Slayton. The program was setup to orbit a man around the earth and to see if humans could survive spaceflight.

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to soar into space. He was launched on a fifteen minute suborbital mission in Freedom 7, a one man Mercury capsule boosted aloft by a Redstone rocket. On February 20, 1962 John Glenn became the first astronaut to orbit the Earth in Friendship 7. Gus Grissom flew a second suborbital mission on July 21, 1961 aboard Liberty Bell 7. Carpenter flew three orbits on May 24, 1962 aboard Aurora 7. Schirra flew six orbits aboard Sigma 7 and Cooper flew twenty-two orbits aboard Faith 7. Deke Slayton never flew on a Mercury mission due to heart problems.

The second phase of NASA’s moon mission was project Gemini which ran from 1961 to 1966. Developed by McDonnell aircraft, Gemini’s purpose was to develop spaceflight techniques in support of the Apollo program. Ten manned missions were flown from 1965 to 1966. The program utilized a Titan II rocket and a two man spacecraft which provided NASA with crucial information on weightlessness, reentry, space docking, splashdown and EVA (extravehicular activity). Propulsion and life support systems were contained in a detachable module located behind the reentry module.

Gemini 3 was the first mission in the program and was flown by Gus Grissom and John Young. On June 3, 1965 Ed White became the first astronaut to walk in space after leaving his Gemini 4 capsule. Gemini 5 was in space for an eight day endurance test. Gemini 6A and 7 performed space rendezvous tests and Gemini 7 stayed in space for fourteen days. Gemini 8 performed docking with the Agena target vehicle and Gemini 11 set an orbital altitude record of 739 nautical miles. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin did work outside the Gemini 12 spacecraft proving that people could work effectively in space.

Project Apollo was the final phase on the way to the moon. It was developed to carry men to the moon and land them on the surface via a lunar lander. The powerful Saturn 5 rocket launched the Apollo spacecraft into orbit where it began its journey to the moon. The program actually began in 1961 and ended in 1972. There were twelve manned Apollo missions including Apollo 1, and Apollo 7 to 17. Apollo 1 never launched and a fire killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee on the launch pad February 21, 1967. This tragedy resulted in a rocket launched escape tower being added to the launch vehicle. Apollo 8 became the first mission to orbit the moon on December 21, 1968.

On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the surface of the moon from Apollo 11. They touched down in the Sea of Tranquility aboard the lunar lander, Eagle. When Armstrong stepped off the ladder onto lunar surface he uttered his famous line, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” President Kennedy’s vision had been fulfilled with six months to spare.

Apollo 13 under the command of James Lovell was forced to abandon the moon landing when an Oxygen tank exploded half way to the moon. Lovell and his crew Jack Swigert and Fred Haise were forced to use the lunar lander as a lifeboat as they made their way back to earth in a harrowing and dangerous trip.

Apollo 17 commanded by Eugene Cernan was the last manned mission to the moon. It landed in Taurus–Littrow on December 11, 1972. Cernan was the last man to step foot on the moon.

Facing budget cuts and reduced interest in space, NASA spent the mid 1970’s on Skylab, an orbiting space laboratory. By the late 1970’s NASA’s efforts were refocused on the new Space Shuttle era.


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