NASA's 55th Birthday

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NASA opened it’s doors for business on Oct. 1, 1958, just shy of a year after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. But creating a national space agency didn’t happen overnight; before there was a NASA, there was the National Aeronautics and Space Act, the document that brought the agency into existence.

Sputnik shocked, frightened, and in some cases angered the United States. Not only was history’s first satellite a surprise, it opened a new arena in the Cold War and a new way for nations to prove their might over one another. The American military responded with a slew of manned spaceflight proposals. The Army, Navy, and Air Force each developed plans to get a man into space before the Soviet Union.

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The problem was that there was no overarching agency to manage the influx of proposals and see one through to completion. President Dwight Eisenhower responded by establishing the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), an agency within the Department of Defense, in the February of 1958.

ARPA was designed as a a high-level defense organization. Its official reason for being was to direct and perform “certain advanced research and development projects.” The goal was to ensure that the United States would never again be surpassed by another nation’s technological advances. Immediately, this included advances in spaceflight technology. By default, ARPA became the nation’s spaceflight agency.

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But Eisenhower never wanted a military space agency. He was wary of space becoming a Cold War battleground, hoping instead to make space exploration a peaceful endeavor for the sake of all mankind. And so he called for the creation of a civilian space agency, one that would manage all spaceflight programs and unite all national efforts under an umbrella that promoted the peaceful exploration of space.

The President’s initial call came in February, around the time ARPA was created, but it was months before the congressional declaration of policy and purpose was complete and ready to sign. The finished document appeared in July titled the National Aeronautics and Space Act.

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The NAS Act stipulated that the United States adopt a policy whereby all activities in space be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all humankind. This new agency would exercise control over all military space endeavors, programs, and technologies that might be developed as part of national security programs. The space agency would also: take full advantage of the commercial use of space; take responsibility for detecting, tracking, cataloging, and characterizing near-Earth asteroids and comets that we might protect ourselves from an imminent impact; and lend its science and engineering expertise to other areas like the development of ground propulsion systems and bioengineering research to alleviate the effects of disabilities.

Before the NAS Act was finalized, NASA stood for National Aeronautics and Space Agency. It was Eilene Marie Galloway, who researched and wrote House and Senate documents for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, who proposed that NASA be an Administration rather than an Agency. An Administration could have an administrator, enabling the new space agency to plan and coordinate across federal agencies.

President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29, 1958, and NASA was born.

Image credit: NASA

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