Wind Tunnel

The full-scale wind tunnel at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. While Langley had a rich heritage in aeronautics work, engineers and scientists at Langley also became involved in space exploration with the birth of NASA. (NASA photo 90-H-190)



Model of Mercury Redstone Rocket

NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan shows Associate Administrator Robert C. Seamans a model of the Mercury Redstone rocket on July 19, 1960.


President Johnson

President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses space workers at Cape Kennedy, Florida, on September 15, 1964. NASA Administrator James E. Webb is in the background. (NASA photo 64-H-2365)

NASA's Origins & the Dawn of the Space Age

 Monographs in Aerospace History # 10

Denouement—NASA's First Eighteen Months: October 1, 1958–December 20, 1960

On October 7, NASA formally organized its first "man-in-space" program, which was formally dubbed Project Mercury on November 26. ARPA's launch of the thirty-seven-and-a-half-kilogram (eighty-two-and-a-half-pound) Pioneer 1 on October 11 marked the resumption of U.S. efforts to reach the Moon. The probe failed to attain lunar orbit because of a problem in its second stage, but it did reach a record 115,000-kilometer (69,000-mile) apogee. Pioneer 1 burned up on October 13.

John Hagen transferred from NRL to NASA on November 5 to prepare for the Vanguard transfer, which duly moved to the agency on November 20 with $25 million in unexpended funds. Vanguard staff transferred from NRL on November 30. Personnel continued to work where they were located, however, with many making no physical transfer until the new Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland opened in early 1960.

ARPA handed over Pioneer to NASA in November. The Army proved reluctant to carry out transfers and in fact fought them in public, through the press. On December 3, however, Eisenhower intervened, issuing an executive order that transferred JPL—then under Army jurisdiction—to NASA. The ABMA remained under Army control but agreed to make its resources responsive to NASA needs. In fact, NASA received authorization to bypass the Pentagon and deal directly with Huntsville.

On December 6, the almost six-kilogram (thirteen-pound) Pioneer 3 spacecraft carried out NASA's first foray beyond low-Earth orbit. The probe reached an apogee of 102,000 kilometers (61,200 miles) before falling back to Earth.

The IGY, the eighteen-month scientific program that spawned the space race and NASA, drew to a successful close on December 31. On January 2, 1959, Luna 1 (also known as Mechta, meaning "dream") perform the first lunar flyby. It soared past the Moon's ancient, battered craterscape at a distance of about 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles). The just over 361-kilogram (795-pound) probe left Earth on an R-7 with an upper stage. Luna 1, intended to impact the lunar surface, instead became the first artificial object in solar orbit.

On March 3, NASA launched Pioneer 4. The little probe flew 60,000 kilometers (36,000 miles) past the Moon and entered solar orbit. Then, on April 9, NASA selected seven astronauts for the Mercury program.

The Soviet Union succeeded in hitting the Moon on September 12, 1959, with the Luna 2 spacecraft, a near-twin of Luna 1. Luna 3 lifted off on the second anniversary of Sputnik I. The 278-kilogram (612-pound) flyby probe returned the first pictures of the Moon's far side on October 7.

The United States had lost another heat in the space race to the Soviet Union. This "second Sputnik" humiliation helped push the Moon closer to the center of U.S. space policy. On balance, though, the American response to Soviet Moon successes was less strident than those generated by the Sputniks. This time, the United States had a space agency in place to meet the challenge.

In early 1960, Korolev began launching a series of recoverable Korabl-Sputniks—test versions of the Vostok spacecraft that would launch the first humans into orbit in 1961. NASA, meanwhile, took delivery of its first Mercury capsule on April 1, 1960.

The ABMA finally transferred to NASA on July 1, 1960, bringing with it its million-pound-thrust rocket engine and Saturn rocket programs. The ABMA formed the nucleus of the Marshall Space Flight Center. Later that month, on July 29, NASA issued a request for proposal for studies leading to the construction of the next generation of piloted spacecraft, called Apollo. The spacecraft was envisioned as an Earth-orbital vehicle with eventual circumlunar application.

In November 1960, John Kennedy defeated Eisenhower's Vice President, Richard Nixon, by a narrow margin, in part by emphasizing a "missile gap" that did not exist. On December 20, the President-elect announced his intention to make Vice President-elect Lyndon Johnson chair of the National Aeronautics and Space Council.

In the popular history of spaceflight, President Dwight Eisenhower is frequently relegated to the dark ages before the United States got moving and conquered the Moon. However, when Kennedy took charge in January 1961, the organizational apparatus and technology programs that made possible the spectacular events of NASA's first decade were already in place. Eisenhower had a legalistic agenda—establishing "freedom of space" as a principle of international law—and was fiscally conservative and loathe to be drawn into a battle of spectaculars with Khrushchev. A more dynamic leader might have been more emotionally satisfying at the time, but the four decades since the start of the space age demonstrate the firm foundations laid in the last half of the 1950s.