The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is a United States government agency that is in charge of the country’s civilian space program and space research.
In the 1950s, the Space Race was going on in full swing between the United States and the Soviet Union, the race being an offshoot of the Cold War between the two countries. After the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 into space in 1957, it triggered a crisis as well as a challenge in the US. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) had already been experimenting with non-military space activities. In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act establishing the NASA. The NASA absorbed the NACA with all its employees, research laboratories and test facilities. NASA’s entry into the Space Race was aided by the German Rocket Program as well as the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. NASA also gained control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1958, previously operated by the California Institute of Technology.
Most of US space exploration, both manned and unmanned space flights since the second half of the twentieth century have been led by the NASA. The first few decades of NASA’s operations were heavily influenced by US Space Race with the USSR. In 1958 itself NASA started working on the US Air Force’s Man In Space Soonest program aiming to put a man in outer space before the Soviet Union did. Soon it was replaced by NASA’s Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program of the US and Project Gemini, the second such program. Though NASA’s programs were still lagging behind the Soviet Space Program, the gap was reducing. In the 1960s, the race to the moon started with NASA’s Project Apollo, which aimed at putting a man on moon. This national goal was accomplished by the NASA’s Apollo 11 mission in 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon while Michael Collins orbited the moon. Subsequently, five more Apollo Missions landed men on the moon, many objects from which are on display at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museums.
After the moon landings, the Space Race turned in the direction of space stations. NASA launched U.S.A.’s first space station Skylab which orbited the earth from 1973 to 1979. It included a solar observatory and laboratory and was launched by an unmanned Saturn V rocket but Skylab was partially damaged during the launch.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the NASA launched several unmanned missions to explore the earth and solar system. The Mariner was the first to make multiple visits to Venus and Mars and one visit to Mercury. Pioneer 10 visited Jupiter in 1973. Viking 1 made the first successful moon landing in 1976. In 1979, Pioneer 11 visited Saturn. Voyager 2 visited Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989.
In the 1970s and 80s, the NASA focused on the Space Shuttle Program, the manned launch vehicle program of the U.S. government that officially started in 1972 and operated between 1981 to 2011. Between 1983 and 1998, twenty-two Space Shuttle missions carried Spacelab, a reusable laboratory that allowed scientists to perform experiments in microgravity. In another series of missions between 1990 and 1993, the Space Shuttle launched and later repaired the Hubble Space telescope. Since 1993, NASA has been involved in the International Space Station (ISS) with its Space Station Freedom project along with the projects of the Russian, Japanese, Canadian and European space agencies. The ISS is a habitable artificial satellite in low Earth Orbit. Since the early 2000s, NASA has been involved in the Commercial Resupply Services, the Commercial Crew Program, the Beyond Low Earth Orbit Program and also several unmanned missions like the Mars Science Laboratory Mission in 2011 and the Curiosity in 2012.