Shooting for the stars for the past 60 years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Better known as NASA, this independent agency has been overseeing the civilian space program and conducting research in aeronautics and aerospace since 1958. Use #ArchivesInSpace to be part of the NASA and the National Archives #ArchivesHashtagParty. Today’s post comes from Paige Weaver of the National Archives History Office.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29, 1958, establishing NASA as the replacement for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
On October 1, 1958, NASA officially opened its doors for business—to infinity and beyond!
President Eisenhower wanted NASA to be a strictly civilian agency, as opposed to having a predominantly military nature. The President, along with many leading scientists and advisers, were convinced that if the Defense Department was given control of the space program, research would be restricted to the military’s agenda, which would consequently generate an overly militaristic and aggressive tone.
The creation of NASA, spurred by the need for an official Federal agency tasked with advancing space exploration, was largely the result of the Cold War. The ideological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union did not involve physical battles, but it did foster hostile relations and propel tense competition—perhaps most notable was the space race.
Initially, the Soviets took the lead, launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth, on October 4, 1957. While the U.S. formally congratulated the Soviets on this accomplishment, it was obvious that many Americans feared this was a national embarrassment and a major victory for communism.
Compelled to take action to alleviate widespread public fear and anxiety, the U.S. government began implementing initiatives designed to bolster American prestige and confidence. These programs ranged from defense and education to science and technology, with the creation of NASA being one of the most memorable outcomes.
On August 19, 1958, not long after President Eisenhower signed NASA into existence, T. Keith Glennan was sworn in as the agency’s first administrator. During his tenure, which lasted until January 20, 1961, Glennan oversaw many important developments, which included ensuring that NASA was given priority for all space-related activity in the government, with a few exceptions that related to military and defense.
Glennan and NASA wasted no time in planning ambitious projects that would give the U.S. an edge over the Soviets in the space race. By October 7, a program had already been designed to put the first man in space, which was officially named Project Mercury on November 26. The launch of the space probe Pioneer 1 on October 11 signaled the U.S. commitment to reach the Moon. On January 2, 1959, NASA launched Luna 1, which performed the first lunar flyby and became the first artificial object in solar orbit.
Despite these major feats in aeronautical exploration, the Soviet Union continued to best the United States at every major juncture in the space race. The American response to Soviet successes was less panicked in comparison to the success of Sputnik 1 because a professional space agency was already established and ready to meet the challenge.
When John F. Kennedy assumed the Presidency in 1961, the organizational structure and technological programs that made up the heart of NASA were firmly established. That year, in a speech before Congress, Kennedy set a national goal of landing a man on the Moon before the decade ended.
On July 20, 1969, NASA accomplished arguably its most significant and famous achievement through the Apollo program: landing two brave astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on the surface of the Moon, while Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit. Kennedy’s goal had been accomplished.
Due to the tireless dedication of NASA, the United States succeeded in triumphing over the Soviet Union in the space race. Armstrong himself best summed up the incredible accomplishments of NASA when he famously remarked, “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
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