National Aeronautics & Space Administration

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is an American civil space program responsible for space exploration.

NASA has its basis in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which had formed a special committee on space technology in response to the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. This was followed, on 29th July 1958, by the National Aeronautics and Space Act which was signed by President Eisenhower. This created a civilian organisation that was to encourage peaceful applications in space science, while the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), later known as the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was previously formed to manage defence research. The new agency would begin operations on 1st October 1958 and was initially formed of 3 existing laboratories, 2 test facilities and 8,000 staff inherited from the NACA as well as elements from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, United States Naval Research Laboratory and the Air Force. The first head of the agency was Dr T. Keith Glennan who was appointed by the president.

One of the first projects it was involved in was Explorer, which was the first American uncrewed satellite. The first of these was launched in January 1958, before NASA’s formation, but this continued after October 1958 and is still in operation at present. In addition to this, there was the X-15 hypersonic aircraft used to investigate extreme altitudes. In December 1958 NASA gained control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which had been operated by the California Institute of Technology.

The first NASA project was Project Mercury, which ran from 1958 until 1963. As part of this, on 5th May 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and on 20th February 1962, John Glenn became the first American in orbit. This was followed in 1961 by Project Gemini, which made use of a spacecraft built for two astronauts. It aimed to investigate the possibility of a human trip to the moon including extravehicular activity as well as rendezvous and docking. Upon its conclusion, it led to 10 missions that gathered medical data on the effects of weightlessness on humans. This was followed by Project Apollo, the name for the American mission to land on the moon that was launched by President Kenndey’s speech to congress on 25th May 1961. Although marred by the loss of the crew of Apollo 1 in a fire, Apollo 8 would conduct the first flight around the moon in December 1968 and Apollo 11 would land the first men on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. This was followed by 5 further landings until the program was cancelled in 1972.

The 1970s would see NASA’s involvement in several different projects including Skylab and the Apollo/Soyuz mission. Skylab was the United State’s first, and to date only, independent space station. Conceived in 1965 it was launched in 1973 and occupied until 1974. It would reenter the atmosphere on 11th July 1979. The Apollo/Soyuz mission was begun with an agreement signed between the US and USSR on 24th May 1972 and led to a joint mission in July 1975. This was the first cooperation in space between the two superpowers and would be the predecessor to other cooperative endeavours. The decade would also see the first successful landing on Mars when Viking 1 landed on the planet. It would also see the launch of both Voyagers 1 and 2 which were sent to study the out solar system. Both of these have now left it and are the most distant spacecraft currently operating at the edge of the solar system and interstellar space. Pioneer 11, launched in 1979, would be the first spacecraft to reach Saturn.

In 1981 the agency would resume human spaceflight with the commencement of operations with the Space Shuttle. This had been the focus of NASA during the 1970s and 80s and was a fully reusable space vehicle, 4 of which were built by 1985. It would undertake its first flight on 12th April 1981 and would remain in service for 30 years, during which time it was instrumental in the construction of the International Space Station as well as the Hubble Telescope. Two shuttles would be lost, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, but one additional vehicle, Endeavour, would be built using spare parts. After 135 missions the Space Shuttle would be retired on 21st July 2011.

The 1990s would see the beginning of the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). Initially planned as an American project, under the name Freedom, budget constraints meant that it was merged with the Russian Mir-2, European Columbus and Japanese Kibo projects and received input from the Canadian Space Agency. NASA made use of their Space Shuttle to transport the modules into space, alongside the Russia Proton and Soyuz rockets Assembly in orbit began in 1998 and would be completed in 2019. Ownership of the station was divided with a Russian Orbital Segment and a US one, which was shared between the American and other agencies. Since the 2nd November 2000, the station has been continually occupied with crews usually staying 6 months at a time.

Outside of work on the International Space Station the 1990s would also see work on several other projects. The first of these was the Hubble Telescope, which was launched in 1990 again using the Discovery Space Shuttle. A mission in 1993 would be launched to correct an error in the main mirror. 1995 would see the Galileo probe become the first to orbit Jupiter and the following year Mars Pathfinder would become the first rover to land on Mars.

From 2005 NASA would begin the Constellation Programme which aimed to finish the ISS, return to the Moon and eventually launch a crewed mission to Mars. This would be cancelled in 2010 as it wouldn’t be possible to complete without a major increase in the agency’s budget. The following year would also see the retirement of the Shuttle and the beginning of the Commerical Crew Program that aimed to replace the use of the Russian Soyuz system for crew transfers to the ISS. Boeing and SpaceX would be later selected to produce the capsules to introduce them in 2017, but this was later delayed until 2020 and 2021.

In 2012 the Mars Science Laboratory would land the Curiosity rover on Mars to begin the search for life on the planet. The following year would see the beginning of the Asteroid Redirect Mission which aimed to move a Near-Earth asteroid using ion thruster technology. This would be cancelled in 2017 and the same year would see the start of the Artemis program, a crewed spaceflight programme that hoped to return to the moon by 2024. On 18th February 2021, the Perseverance rover landed on Mars, carrying a small helicopter, Ingenuity, which made the first powered flight on another planet on 19th April 2021 as well as producing the first breathable oxygen on Mars. 2021 was also when the James Webb Space Telescope was scheduled for launch.

Currently, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is headed by an administrator appointed by the President of the United State, with approval by the Senate. The current administrator is Bill Nelson, who was sworn in on 3rd May 2021. In addition to this there is an there is also an Advisory Group, including the NASA Advisory Council and Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, an Officer of the Inspector General, Mission Directorates, including Aeronautics Research, Human Exploration and Operations, Science and Space Technology, and a Mission Support Directorate, including Human Captial Management, Strategic Infrastructure, Headquarters Operations, NASA Shared Services Center and Procurement and Protective Service.

The agency also manages the following centers and facilities: Ames Research Center (IT, fundamental aeronautics, bio and space technologies), Armstrong Flight Research Centre (Flight Research), Glenn Research Centre (Aeropropulsion and Communications Technologies), Goddard Space Flight Center (Earth, Solar System, and Universe Observations, and Space Communications and Navigation), Headquaters, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (robotic Explorationof the of the solar system), Johnson Space Center (Human Space Exploration), Kennedy Space Center (Prepare and Launch mission around the Earth and beyond), Langley Research Center (Aviation, Space Technology and Earth Science), Marshall Space flight center (space transportation and propulsion technologies), Stennis Space Center (Rocket propulasion testing and remote sensing technology), Goddard Institute for Space Studies (Broad Stuy of global climate change), Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility (Safety and cost-effeciveness for mission-critical software), Michoud Assembly Facility (manufacture and assembly of critical hardware for exploration vehicles), NASA Engineering and Safety Centre (Independent Testing analysis and assessment of NASA high-risk projects), NASA Safety Centre (Development of personnel, processes and tools needed for the safety and successful achievement of strategic goals), NASA Shared Services Centre (Financial management, human resources, information technology and procurement) and Wallops Flight Facility (Suborbital Research Programes)