Happy Birthday, NASA!!

In July of 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law, which transformed the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) into today’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The nation had been galvanized into action by the surprise launch of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957. With Cold War tensions running high, President Eisenhower appointed T. Keith Glennan and Hugh Dryden as administrator and deputy administrator respectively as NASA began formal operations on October 1, 1958.

Although the public may more readily associate the agency with manned spaceflight and unmanned exploration of our universe, NASA at first continued a rich tradition of aeronautical research excellence. Since 1915, NACA’s directive had been to, “supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight.” NASA scientists and engineers are figuratively “with you when you fly,” impacting every aspect of aviation from materials to aircraft design to fuel-efficient engines to air safety. Countless hours of wind tunnel, flight and computer simulation testing verified the many NASA innovations we see in today’s planes. Currently, NASA is testing electric-powered and low-boom aircraft, the latter of which may one day make supersonic commercial flight a reality over the continental United States.

From left to right: Contributions to Commercial Aviation (Credit: NASA lithograph #NL-2008-10-008-HQ), X-57 Maxwell (Credit: NASA lithograph #LG-2018-04-048-AFRC), and Low-Boom Flight Demonstration (Credit: NASA lithograph #LG-2018-04-047-AFRC)

NASA’s experimental (X) aircraft have made it possible for humans to fly ever higher and further. X-pilots set unofficial world altitude and speed records while collecting valuable information (that group included Neil A. Armstrong whose historic moonwalk with Buzz Aldrin will mark its 50th anniversary in 2019). NASA announced its first astronaut class, the Mercury 7, on April 9, 1959. Behind the scenes, thousands worked on every aspect of human spaceflight, including female “computers” who performed the complex calculations necessary to launch the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle astronauts and return them safely to Earth. An exciting new era of human spaceflight is about to debut with NASA’s selection this past August of nine astronauts who will crew commercial vehicles. This partnership with private industry has yielded two new spacecraft, Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which will deliver astronauts and supplies to the ISS. Both companies are completing final tests and are targeting their first crewed launches for 2019.

From left to right: Mercury 7 Astronauts (Credit: NASA), Buzz Aldrin poses for portrait (Credit: NASA History Office and JSC Media Services Center), and Commercial Crew Program (CCP) Astronauts (Credit: NASA)

By contracting commercial partners to take over low Earth orbit spaceflight, NASA has shifted efforts back to the Moon before sending humans on to Mars and beyond. In mid-October 1958, NASA launched Pioneer 1, the first in a series of unmanned satellites that have re-defined views of our home planet and the cosmos in which we find ourselves. The Agency has now sent probes either to or past every planet in our solar system, most recently flying New Horizons past Pluto and plunging Cassini into Saturn’s atmosphere after nearly 20 spectacular years. Voyager 1 and 2 continue to send data back to Earth from their interstellar vantage points beyond the heliopause; the Hubble Space Telescope continues to awe while its successor, the James Webb Telescope, is being built. Our fascination with the Red Planet intensified in 1976 when Viking 1 sent back the first images from Mars’ surface. In the 40+ years since, a small rover army, including Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity, have roamed the Martian surface; InSight will join her sisters in next month. Although many challenges remain, NASA astronauts will one day follow these trailblazing robots, courtesy of the Orion capsule and Space Launch System (SLS).

From left to right: Voyager 2 Crosses the Shock (Credit: NASA JPL), The Evolution of a Martian (Credit: NASA lithograph #NP-2015-09-648-LaRC), and NASA’s Space Launch System: The Next Giant Leap. (Credit: NASA MSFC)

At every step along the way, educator professional development and student engagement have played key roles in fulfilling NASA’s mission. In 1961, the Agency created its Aerospace Education Services Project (AESP), whose Specialists traveled around the country in “Spacemobiles” to inspire the next generation of explorers. Today, the NASA STEM Educator Professional Development Collaborative (EPDC) carries on this proud legacy by offering face-to-face events, webinars and digital badges for teachers and students alike. Please visit https://www.txstate-epdc.net/ for more information.

All in all, it has been an amazing odyssey for an Agency 60 years young; more information can be found here (https://www.nasa.gov/specials/60counting/overview.html). Here’s to another inspiring trip around the Sun, NASA!!


Anne Weiss, Ph.D.
Educator Professional Development Specialist, NASA STEM EPDC
NASA Langley Research Center