October 1, 1958, the official start of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was the beginning of a rich history of unique scientific and technological achievements in human space flight, aeronautics, space science, and space applications. Formed as a result of the Sputnik crisis of confidence, NASA inherited the earlier National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and other government organizations, and almost immediately began working on options for human space flight. NASA's first high profile program was Project Mercury, an effort to learn if humans could survive in space, followed by Project Gemini, which built upon Mercury's successes and used spacecraft built for two astronauts. NASA's human space flight efforts then extended to the Moon with Project Apollo, culminating in 1969 when the Apollo 11 mission first put humans on the lunar surface. After the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz Test Projects of the early and mid-1970s, NASA's human space flight efforts again resumed in 1981, with the Space Shuttle program that continues today to help build the International Space Station.
Building on its NACA roots, NASA has continued to conduct many types of cutting-edge aeronautics research on aerodynamics, wind shear, and other important topics using wind tunnels, flight testing, and computer simulations. NASA's highly successful X-15 program involved a rocket-powered airplane that flew above the atmosphere and then glided back to Earth unpowered, providing Shuttle designers with much useful data. The watershed F-8 digital-fly-by-wire program laid the groundwork for such electronic flight in many other aircraft including the Shuttle and high performance airplanes that would have been uncontrollable otherwise. NASA has also done important research on such topics as "lifting bodies" (wingless airplanes) and "supercritical wings" to dampen the effect of shock waves on transsonic aircraft.
Additionally, NASA has launched a number of significant scientific probes such as the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft that have explored the Moon, the planets, and other areas of our solar system. NASA has sent several spacecraft to investigate Mars including the Viking and Mars Pathfinder spacecraft. The Hubble Space Telescope and other space science spacecraft have enabled scientists to make a number of significant astronomical discoveries about our universe.
NASA also has done pioneering work in space applications satellites. NASA has helped bring about new generations of communications satellites such as the Echo, Telstar, and Syncom satellites. NASA's Earth science efforts have also literally changed the way we view our home planet; the Landsat and Earth Observing System spacecraft have contributed many important scientific findings. NASA technology has also resulted in numerous "spin-offs" in wide-ranging scientific, technical, and commercial fields. Overall, while the tremendous technical and scientific accomplishments of NASA demonstrate vividly that humans can achieve previously inconceivable feats, we also are humbled by the realization that Earth is just a tiny "blue marble" in the cosmos.
Not enough history? Need more info? See our NASA History Fact Sheet or our book Orders of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915- or try our Centennial of Flight Timeline and Celebrating the Century of Flight brochure.
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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