The foundation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA – has forever changed science history and mankind itself. As of October 1st, 1958, NASA's operations started, in the middle of an intense science and space war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In July of that year, American president Dwight Eisenhower signed an Act urging the agency foundation as a reaction to the Soviet space program, which started the space race in 1957, when it launched into orbit the first artificial satellite, the Sputnik. Four months later, NASA's embryo launched satellite Explorer 1.
Before NASA became official as we know it, U.S. missions were conducted through the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), founded in 1917. When NACA turned into NASA, 8 thousand people worked in the program. Today, there are almost 18 thousand professionals.
Over the course of six decades, NASA reimagined the man-universe relationship and, as a result, unfolded new technologies which are now part of our lives, such as cameras built into smartphones - images and videos captured by astronauts used similar sensors.
Here we highlight the five most important moments of NASA’s history. See below:
Man on the Moon
In 1961, the USSR sent the first man into space. Astronaut Yuri Gagarin opened this new mankind era - one month later, American Alan Shepard did the same. Following the Soviet achievement, U.S. President John Kennedy settled the mission of sending a man to the Moon and bringing him back to Earth alive until the end of that decade. And he made it.
That is how the Apollo program was created; its first mission, Apollo 1, failed still on ground during tests, killing three crew members, in 1967. Two years later, Apollo 11 succeeded in sending a spacecraft to the Moon carrying the pair of astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on lunar soil and author of famous quote: “That's one small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind.”
At the time, 530 million people watched the event live - which would be questioned later by conspiracy theorists, some who argue that the footage was just a hoax. Besides Aldrin and Armstrong, ten other people were sent to the Moon, the last one in 1972.
In 1977, NASA sent Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 into space. The curious part is that Voyager 2 was launched two weeks before Voyager 1 (on August 20th, while the second version was launched on September 5th). The reason was that each had a different route: Voyager 2 took an elliptical route and Voyager 1 went straight to its targets, Jupiter and Saturn.
Upon Carl Sagan’s request, in 1990, NASA redirected the Voyager 1’s lenses to Earth and captured an image of our planet from 6 billion kilometers (3,70 miles) away: the iconic image was then named “Pale Blue Dot” by Sagan. After becoming the first man-made object to break through the solar system barrier and reach outer space in 2013, the spacecraft is still traveling across the universe equipped with “sounds of Earth,” a disc recorded with languages from all over the world as well as Beethoven and Bach compositions.
Space Shuttle: ascension and fall
The Space Shuttle project replaced Project Apollo in 1981, with a reusable and highly powerful spacecraft - its numbers went as far as 7 million pounds of thrust, only surpassed by Saturn V, with 7.5 pounds of thrust, which was deactivated in 1973. Four orbiters have been developed following the space shuttle prototype called Enterprise. Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis completed 135 space missions altogether, with 133 successful and two that ended up in tragedy.
The Challenger unsuccessful launch in 1986, 73 seconds after taking off, killed seven crew members and shook off confidence in the program. Up until that moment, each model was supposed to take 24 flights a year. In 2003, Columbia (the first functional spacecraft out of these four to reach space) failed re-entry and the whole world witnessed images of its debris in the sky - seven crew members died.
Among allegations of failing spacecraft quality control - appointed as the reason for the accidents -, the program conceived to make space travel cheaper was terminated in 2011.
Hubble telescope, whose name is an homage to American astronomer Edwin Hubble, was sent into orbit on April 24th, 1990, on board the space shuttle Discovery, and started Nasa’s large observatories era from outer space.
Since its launch, Hubble orbits the Earth every 97 minutes at 593 km (368 mi) above sea level - where it captures stunning images of other star and galaxy systems, such as GN-z11, the furthest one found so far, 13.4 billion light-years away from us.
Hubble’s mission was extended to 2021, when the telescope will be shut down. Hubble’s substitute, James Webb, is scheduled to be launched by 2020.
NASA has several projects dedicated to understanding Mars’ characteristics. The first one dates back to 1962: Marine 1, which failed and self-destructed following its launch. Marine 4, launched two years later, came close to the red planet and was able to capture some images. However, the first great Martian mission was Project Viking: the space agency sent two spacecrafts to Mars in 1975, one of which landed on Mars’ surface. It was the first man-made object to reach another planet.
The 90’s were rover time: vehicles that moved across the Martian surface, gathering information on the planet. In 1996, the first of them took off from the USA towards Mars: Mars Pathfinder. In 2003, missions Mars Exploration Rover A and B sent rovers Spirit and Opportunity to the red planet, and they are still active there. Other active mission on neighboring soil is Mars Science Laboratory, whose vehicle - Curiosity - was launched in 2011.
The latest mission to Mars was sent to space in May, 2018. Lander InSight will be mounted on the red surface to study underground information. NASA has disclosed its new ambitious plan: to take a manned spacecraft and allow human beings to set foot on another planet by 2030.