This Day in History: NASA Established
This day in history marks the beginning of the United States’ official journey to explore the “final frontier”–outer space. Featured here are a few of the significant events in the history of American manned space flight.
“Equipping the United States for Leadership in the Space Age”—President Dwight D. Eisenhower
When the Soviet Union put the first human-made object into space by launching the artificial satellite named Sputnik in October 1957, the United States faced mounting pressures to enter the “Space Race.” Fearful of being surpassed in missile technology, Congress quickly passed legislation to create a new government agency to conduct civilian space exploration. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration into law on July 29, 1958.
“Sailor Among the Stars”—Dr. Allen O. Gamble
The word astronaut first appeared in the English language in 1929, probably in science fiction, but it wasn’t commonly used until December 1958. That’s when NASA adopted it as the name for the men (and eventually women) it would train to compete in the space race. Dr. Gamble, NASA’s manpower director from 1958-1964, described the selection this way: “Someone found that the term aeronaut, referring to those who ride in balloons and other lighter-than-air vehicles, was derived from ‘sailor in the air.’ From this we arrived at astronaut, meaning ‘sailor among the stars.'”
“Why Don’t You Fix Your Little Problem and Light This Candle?”—Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr.
The men who made up NASA’s first astronaut class were called the “Mercury 7.” The seven men chosen from a pool of more than 500 American military aviators were Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Walter M. “Wally” Schirra Jr., Alan B. Shepard Jr., and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton.
Shepard became the first American man in space, making his historic suborbital flight on May 5, 1961. He made the above statement to Mission Control as he sat in the cramped Mercury capsule atop a Redstone rocket on the launch pad, while the launch was delayed for over four hours. The actual flight lasted only 15 minutes but was a success.
“Not Because They Are Easy, But Because They Are Hard”—President John F. Kennedy
President Kennedy gave NASA the goal of sending a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s. On May 25, 1961, he stood before Congress and proclaimed that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” On September 12, 1962, he gave another speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas, outlining his goals for America’s space program. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Less than seven years later, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would fulfill Kennedy’s vision by landing on the moon.
“We Came in Peace for All Mankind”—Plaque affixed to the leg of the Apollo 11 lunar landing vehicle
When astronauts first landed on the moon in 1969 as part of the Apollo 11 mission, they left behind evidence that they’d been there. Among these items were an American flag and a plaque, which was signed by President Richard Nixon and astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. The plaque bears a map of the Earth and this inscription:
HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH
FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON
JULY 1969 A.D.
WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND
“The Eagle Has Landed”—Astronaut Neil Armstrong
Six Apollo missions landed on the moon during the years between 1968 and 1972: Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. Twelve men actually walked on its surface. Each of the five later Apollo missions also left a flag. Photographs taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) satellite show the five flags still standing in place. (Buzz Aldrin reported that he saw Apollo 11’s flag blown down by rocket exhaust when the lunar lander blasted off the Moon’s surface to rejoin the orbiting command module.) The LRO images also show objects such as the lunar rovers used by some Apollo missions, and even the tire tracks they left behind.
“Okay, Houston, We’ve Had a Problem Here”—Astronaut Jack Swigert
Apollo 13’s journey to the moon was aborted when two of the oxygen-producing fuel cells exploded 2 days after its launch, with the spacecraft about 200,000 miles from Earth. The lack of oxygen wasn’t a real issue, but there was a problem with the CO2 scrubbers–which meant that the three astronauts on board could be suffocated by their own carbon dioxide exhalations. Guided by engineers on the ground at Mission Control, the astronauts used duct tape and surplus materials to repair air filtration canisters in the lunar module to help them survive the journey back to Earth.
“We Will Never Forget Them, Nor the Last Time We Saw Them”—President Ronald Reagan
President Reagan addressed the nation on January 28, 1986, after the Space Shuttle Challenger blew apart just 73 seconds after launch. The entire country mourned the loss of all seven astronauts aboard. The tragedy was a huge setback for the program, and the next mission wasn’t launched until almost three years later. The program suffered another catastrophe on February 1, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas during re-entry, killing all seven crew members.
The space shuttle program was launched in 1981, designed to be the “world’s first reusable spacecraft“–launching like a rocket, orbiting like a spacecraft, and landing like a plane. Crews ranged in size from five to seven people. NASA’s space shuttles have traveled 542,398,878 miles, making 21,152 Earth orbits. In all, there were 833 crew members in the 135 shuttle missions that were carried out through the end of the program in July 2011.
The history of NASA includes not only manned spaceflight, but also the exploration of our solar system, galaxies, and the entire universe. Scientific advances have been made in astronomy, astrophysics, astrobiology, aeronautics, Earth and life sciences, as well as lunar and planetary exploration and much more. NASA technology and research have contributed countless innovations and technologies first pioneered in space exploration that benefit everyday life. Among these are cordless power tools, telemedicine, carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, satellite television, joysticks and GPS navigation systems. The impact of our nation’s decision to enter the “Space Race” nearly 60 years ago can’t be truly defined or accurately measured.
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