Our Spaceflight Heritage: NASA at 56
Today marks the birth of the United States’ space agency, which ushered in a new era of space exploration from its inception in 1958. From its start as NACA looking to better aviation in the early 1910s, it quickly transformed into an influential and innovative organization looking to expand into outer space.
Months before NASA officially started operation, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (Public Law 85Ð568) was passed on July 29, declaring that NACA would become NASA after ninety days. The first administrator, T. Keith Glennan, was nominated by President Eisenhower on Aug. 8, with current NACA Director Hugh Dryden becoming deputy administrator. Both were sworn into their new offices on Aug. 20.
On Oct. 1, 1958, NASA was officially operational, just one year after the Soviet Union had launched their first satellite, Sputnik, into space. Marking the beginning of the space race, NASA was formed under the pretense “to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere and for other purposes.”
When founded, NASA had inherited five major facilities from its predecessor, NACA: Lewis Research Center, Langley Research Center, Wallops rocket test range, Ames Research Center, and the Muroc aircraft test range, as well as other resources from assorted military space programs.
Right from the start, NASA was 8,240 employees strong (most of whom came from NACA), with an impressive starting budget of $340 million.
Earlier that year, on Jan. 31, 1958, the United States caught up to its Russian competition by launching the first U.S. Earth satellite. Dubbed Explorer 1, the spacecraft went on to document the radiation zones in the atmosphere that encased our planet, and later served as a precursor to many more Earth-based space missions for the developing agency.
The first 20 years of NASA saw such feats as the Mercury and Gemini programs, landing men on the moon with Apollo, planetary missions with Viking 1 and 2, Pioneer 10 and 11, and Voyager 1 and 2. Of these accomplishments, Voyager 1 would eventually become the first satellite to reach interstellar space.
Over the decades, we have seen NASA at the forefront of both human and robotic spaceflight. All of the agency’s missions have been crucial to our understanding of not only our own planet, but our solar system as well.
Today however, at 56, NASA is a much different agency than it was in the late 1950s. The space agency’s accomplishments in space exploration spans over five decades and — despite cuts in funding and last year’s government blackout — shows little sign of slowing down.
In an effort to look toward the future, NASA has shifted its focus from low-Earth orbit (LEO), onto deep space exploration. As part of that process, the agency has passed the “LEO torch” on to multiple commercial space companies, allowing the agency to refocus funding. NASA is designing bigger missions to places like Mars, with the Orion spacecraft, and possibly, even a return to the Moon.
NASA’s unique history lets these commercial aerospace companies stand on the shoulders of their giant predecessor, in hopes of making the next giant leap. American space exploration may not be the giant monopoly it was of the past, but certainly NASA has paved the way for even greater opportunities to explore the cosmos.
Britt Rawcliffe is a professional freelance aerospace and aviation photographer based out of Pennsylvania with over six years of professional photographic experience. Her creative imagery has spanned into all areas relating to space, including launches, photojournalism, architecture, and portraiture. Britt’s passion for history has been a common thread in much of her work, including having photographed many Moonwalkers such as Buzz Aldrin and Gene Cernan.