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Happy Birthday, NASA (July 29, 1958)

07/29/2006 8:00 AM

Forty-eight years ago today, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed landmark legislation that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although the United States had funded aeronautical research since 1915, the nation's Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union started a new chapter in the history of space exploration. On October 4, 1957, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik I, the world's first artificial satellite. Less than a month later, the Soviets sent Sputnik II and a dog named Laika into space. While the American public worried about Soviet military capabilities, the U.S. Army started the Explorer project, a satellite program that rivaled the Navy's stalled Vanguard project. Mindful of inter-service competition, President Eisenhower recommended the creation of a new federal agency to conduct all non-military missions in space. On January 31, 1958, Explorer I carried a small scientific payload and the hopes of a nation into orbit above the Earth. Six months later, Eisenhower underscored America's commitment to winning the space race by signing the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958.

When NASA began operations on October 1, 1958, the new agency took over the assets of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a 46-year old organization whose airfoil designs and air valves are still used today. Although NACA's four laboratories and 8,000 employees formed the bulk of NASA operations, the new agency also included scientific and engineering resources from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) and the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the organizations responsible for the Explorer and Vanguard satellites. When the southern half of the Redstone Arsenal became the Marshall Space Flight Center, ABMA scientists Werner von Braun and Arthur Rudolph also joined NASA. A leading developer of rocket technology in Nazi Germany, von Braun is often regarded as the father of the U.S. space program. For its part, the NRL also provided NASA with intellectual and operational assets, including the development of the first satellite tracking system in 1956 and the construction of a satellite-launching facility at Cape Canaveral, Florida in 1957. NASA's first major program, Project Mercury, was designed to determine if humans could survive in space. On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space and the first person to orbit the earth. On May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan B. Shepard matched part of Gagarin's feat, becoming the first American in space. A year later, Mercury astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr. orbited the earth. The year 1962 also marked the start of NASA's Gemini Project, an intermediate but important step between the space agency's Mercury and Apollo programs. To meet President John F. Kennedy's goal of sending astronauts to the moon by 1970, NASA developed a two-person spacecraft, subjected crews to longer flights, studied the effects of weightlessness, and developed effective docking mechanisms. Although the first Apollo mission ended with a tragic fire on the launch pad, NASA took corrective action and pressed onward. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon while Michael Collins remained aboard the command module. Five other Apollo missions – 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 – also featured moon landings.

After Apollo, NASA launched numerous manned and unmanned missions. Some are still ongoing. Past missions include:

    Genesis (2001 – 2004) collected samples of solar wind.
    Mars Pathfinder (1996 – 1997) delivered a lander and free-ranging robotic rover to the surface of Mars.
    Pioneer (1972 – 2003) traveled to the far reaches of our solar system.
    Pioneer Venus (1978) investigated Venus's solar wind, mapped the planet's surface and studied its upper atmosphere.
    Skylab (1973 – 1979) was America's first space station and orbital science and engineering laboratory.
    The Space Shuttle (1981 - ) is a reusable, launch vehicle that carries five to seven astronauts into low earth orbit before re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.
    Topex (1992 – ) collects information with which scientists can relate changes in ocean currents to atmospheric and climate patterns.
    Viking (1975 – 1976) landed on Mars and captured over 50,000 images of the planet's surface.
    Ranger (1959 - 1965) obtained the first closeup images of the surface of the Moon.

According to NASA's website, there are now over 50 current missions and eight future missions.

NASA's budget has grown from less than $1 billion dollars in 1958 to over $16 billion today. According to some estimates, this amount represents less than 1% of U.S. government outlays. Although the agency's critics complain of unnecessary projects and cost overruns, the benefits of NASA research are significant. For example, charged couple device (CCD) image sensors that were designed for the Hubble telescope are now used for digital imaging biopsies. Shroud material from the Viking Lander's parachute has been adapted for use in radial tires, increasing tread life by as much as 10,000 miles. NASA studies about future bases on the moon and Mars have led to advances in hydroponics, the growing of plants in mineral solutions or liquid instead of soil. NASA spinoffs have also improved weather forecasting, golf ball aerodynamics, engine lubricants, and magnetic bearing systems.


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Anonymous Poster

terrific article

07/29/2006 10:48 PM

Stephen, Enjoyed reading your article and look forward to reading the next one....Mar/vin

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Join Date: Dec 2005
Posts: 18

U.S. space program

07/30/2006 1:57 AM

If von Braun is the father of the U.S. space program, then Wolfgang Klemperer is its grandfather. "Klemp" was a German scientist who came to tha U.S. long before WWII. During the war he worked in the engineering Dept. of the Douglas Aircraft Co. At the close of the war it was Klemp who went to Germany and persuaded von Braun and his team of rocket scientists to come to the U.S. instead of to Russia. Without Klemp's efforts, the U.S. space program, and even the history of the cold war, might have been greatly different.

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