On This Date: Ike Signed a Bill Creating NASA 60 Years Ago
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by Causes | 7.29.17
On July 29, 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Act was signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and tasking it organizing American space exploration efforts. NASA’s creation came less than one year after the Soviet Union had gotten an early lead on the U.S. in the Space Race by successfully launching the first satellite to orbit Earth in an effort to give America’s space program a chance to catch up.
Why was it needed?
In a word, Sputnik. On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union launched the tiny satellite into space on the back of a ballistic missile, thus becoming the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth during its 92-day mission. While Sputnik (which means “traveler” in Russian) itself seemed harmless enough — a two foot, 185-pound metal ball with radio antennas isn’t that intimidating — the Soviet’s achievement was deeply concerning to American policymakers who believed they would be the first into space.
And they had good reason to feel that way, as November 3, 1957 saw the Soviets launch Sputnik 2, and in December a U.S. Vanguard satellite exploded spectacularly just after taking off. America finally got a satellite of its own into orbit on January 31, 1958 when Explorer 1 orbited our planet for 111 days. The success of Explorer 1 didn’t persuade policymakers that all was all was well with the U.S. space program, however. They looked to reorganize a sprawling organization that included the Naval Research Laboratory — which had been in charge of the Vanguard program — and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency which oversaw the Explorer program.
What did it do?
The Eisenhower administration and Congress recognized the need to consolidate the various U.S. space programs into one entity, and they wasted no time in doing so. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was introduced on May 24, 1958 and it passed Congress on July 16 before being signed into law by President Eisenhower on July 29.
One of the primary things the Eisenhower administration did was dissolve NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and transferred its 7,500 employees and facilities worth $300 million to NASA’s control. This gave the fledgling space agency the resources it would need to begin overseeing space operations.
The legislation also created eight core objectives for NASA, which included:
- The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space, plus the improvement or development of space vehicles;
- Conducting long-range studies of the benefits from space exploration for peaceful and scientific purposes;
- Preserving the role of the U.S. as a leader in aeronautical and space technology;
- Opening the lines of communication between aerospace agencies and the military, so that both sides can use information gained by the other;
- Cooperating with other nations to peacefully apply the results of research into aeronautical and space exploration;
- Using the scientific and engineering resources of the U.S. in the most effective manner to avoid duplication between federal agencies.
As he signed the bill into law, President Eisenhower called it a “historic step, further equipping the United States for leadership in the space age” while also commending Congress for promptly creating NASA to coordinate the nation’s space program.
What impact has it had?
By the conclusion of the Eisenhower administration, NASA had embarked on a plan to carry out the America’s first human spaceflight. Project Mercury had been under the supervision of the Air Force prior to NASA’s formation, and on May 5, 1961 it successfully sent astronaut Alan Shepard on a 15 minute spaceflight only a few weeks after the Soviets had beaten the U.S. to putting a man in space.
NASA got another boost shortly after Eisenhower’s presidency concluded with the election of John F. Kennedy, who laid out a bold vision of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the end of the 1960s. This spawned the Apollo Program, which got off to a tragic start when Apollo I caught fire during a rehearsal launch, killing all three astronauts aboard. A little over two years later Apollo 11 — crewed by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins — reached the Moon. While Collins orbited the Moon in the command module, Armstrong and Aldrin took the lunar module down to its surface, allowing Armstrong to become the first human to walk on the Moon.
Since then, NASA has continued to reach impressive heights, but it hasn’t been immune from further tragedies. One of NASA’s lowest points came in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly just after it was launched in front of a watching nation, killing all seven of its astronauts on board. But that hasn’t deterred further exploration, as unmanned missions have been carried out to many of the planets in this galaxy, while NASA has played a critical role in the operation of the International Space Station (ISS) since it launched in 1998.
NASA’s future also appears bright, as the emergence of the private space industry allows NASA to refocus its resources from sending shuttles to supply the ISS to other endeavors. Among the ideas that NASA is considering pursuing in the future are redirecting an asteroid that’s near Earth to study it, and eventually sending a manned mission to Mars.
– Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: NASA / Public Domain)
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