On Oct. 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, officially began operations. Its formation, signed into law a little over two months earlier by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was in direct response to the Soviet Union's successful launch of an artificial satellite called Sputnik. The "space race" was officially on, and Eisenhower was committed to having the United States play a leading role.
"(There are) many aspects of space and space technology ... which can be helpful to all people as the United States proceeds with its peaceful program in space science and exploration," he wrote. "Every person has the opportunity to share through understanding in the adventures which lie ahead."
These days — more than six decades after NASA began the first step of what would become an unimaginable array of new adventures — the administration is celebrating its accomplishments, remembering its losses, and looking forward to what bold pursuits in exploration lie ahead. To mark the occasion, we've gathered several photos highlighting a few of the incredible moments that dot NASA's short timeline.
Less than a year after astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in flight during a 15-minute sub-orbital flight, John Glenn surpassed that feat by becoming the first to be launched into orbit. Over the course of nearly five hours, Glenn completed three orbits of Earth.
In an interview with CNET in 2012, Glenn recounted how the early astronauts who flew aboard the Atlas rockets didn't exactly receive the best first impression of their ride to space.
"The Atlas, you know, I think the first 18 or 20 Atlases that fired, I think they had a 45 percent failure rate, that's the figure I remember. ... The first time they took us (the Mercury 7 astronauts) down there to see a booster launch, we'd never seen a launch, and they took us down for a night launch and the thing blew at high Q at 27,000 feet right over our heads," he recalled. "It looked like an atomic bomb going off. Anyway, they came back and improved the whole thing and had several straight successes and had the problems worked out before I got on the thing. But it was something we were very concerned about at the time."
On June 3, 1965, astronaut Ed White became the first American to walk in space. Though his daring venture far above the Earth lasted less than 30 minutes, he was nonetheless ecstatic about the experience.
"I feel like a million dollars," he said. "This is the greatest experience; it’s just tremendous."
White so enjoyed the view that he had to be ordered by ground control to stop and return to the spacecraft. "I'm coming back in," he responded, "and it's the saddest moment of my life."
On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 spacecraft was launched by a Saturn V rocket from Kennedy Space Center. On board were astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. Five days later, Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, with Aldrin joining him some 20 minutes later.
Over the course of 21.5 hours on the lunar surface, the pair carried out scientific instruments, recorded footage, and collected over 47 pounds of surface material. Interestingly, the astronauts only managed to explore about 100 yards from their lander. The reason? Conditions on the moon are actually quite hot during the day and NASA wasn't exactly sure how the cooling properties of the spacesuits would respond.
"We were operating in a near perfect vacuum with the temperature well above 200 degrees Fahrenheit with the local gravity only one sixth that of Earth," Armstrong wrote in 2010. "That combination cannot be duplicated here on Earth, but we tried as best we could to test our equipment for those conditions. For example, because normal air conditioning is inadequate for lunar conditions, we were required to use cold water to cool the interior of our suits. We did not have any data to tell us how long the small water tank in our backpacks would suffice. NASA officials limited our surface working time to 2 and 3/4 hours on that first surface exploration to assure that we would not expire of hyperthermia."
While Armstrong and Aldrin were busy exploring the surface of the moon, astronaut Michael Collins remained behind in the Command and Service Module (CSM) "Columbia" in lunar orbit. Needless to say, he managed to capture some impressive views of the Earth rising over the lunar surface.
When Armstrong and Aldrin departed Columbia in the Eagle lunar lander, Collins wrote the following in his journal"
"This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two. I don't mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side."
Apollo 13, the seventh manned mission to the moon, went from routine to near-tragic after an oxygen tank exploded two days into the mission. The three astronauts on board, James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise, were forced to endure limited cabin power, loss of cabin heat, and conduct makeshift repairs under NASA guidance to filter dangerous carbon dioxide levels.
Despite these challenges, the crew still managed to glide over the moon, using the lunar gravity as an assist to return to Earth. Because the moon was nearly at apogee (the farthest point in its orbit from Earth), the Apollo 13 mission also holds the distinction as the farthest humans have ever traveled from Earth, reaching a distance of 248,655 miles at 7:21 p.m. EST on April 14, 1970.
During the last three missions of the Apollo space program (15, 16 and 17), astronauts landing on the moon brought with them a battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). Capable of carrying two astronauts and various equipment, the LRVs weighed 460 pounds (80 pounds on the moon) and were packed in such a way that allowed them to be unfolded once on the lunar surface.
Despite having an impressive range of 57 miles, NASA intentionally restricted how far each LRV could travel so that astronauts could easily walk back to the lunar modules. Over the course of three missions, the LRVs logged just over 56 miles of moon mileage. Like other remnants of the Apollo missions, they are still present on the lunar surface.
In an effort to reduce the cost of space flight and improve the frequency of launches, President Richard Nixon announced to the nation on Jan. 5, 1972, the beginning of NASA's shuttle program.
"This system will center on a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from Earth to orbit and back," he wrote. "It will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics. In short, it will go a long way toward delivering the rich benefits of practical space utilization and the valuable spinoffs from space efforts into the daily lives of Americans and all people."
While NASA was busy developing its reusable shuttle program, it was also forging ahead on launching state-of-the-art satellites towards the farthest corners of our solar system.
In 1977, the space agency launched two robotic probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, with an original mission to study only the planetary systems of Jupiter and Saturn. Instead, Voyager 2 went on to also reveal unprecedented details about both Uranus and Neptune. Today, more than 40 years after they were first launched, the probes continue to transmit useful scientific data daily via the Deep Space Network.
Voyager 1 is presently over 13 billion miles from Earth, with Voyager 2 not far behind. From these distances, it takes Voyager 1 data about 19 hours to reach Earth, and signals from Voyager 2 about 16 hours. Both spacecraft, humanity’s farthest and longest-lived ambassadors, are expected to remain viable until at least 2025.
After nearly a decade of development and testing, NASA's space shuttle program officially launched a new era of space exploration with Columbia on April 12, 1981.
At the time the most complex spacecraft every built, NASA reported no less than 70 anomalies observed during and after the flight. According to Rowland White, author of "Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Men Who Flew Her," an alarming 16 thermal tiles were blown off during launch.
"Amazingly, it was sound — albeit sound at a volume that would have been capable of killing anyone standing within 800 feet of it," he told AirSpaceMag. "For all the testing, modeling, and simulation prior to the first flight, much remained unknown. And when the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters fired, a sonic shock wave rebounded off the pad and struck 'Columbia' with a force 10 times greater than what had been expected based on 1/15-scale tests."
On June 18, 1983, as part of the Space Shuttle Challenger STS-7 mission, astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. A Stanford-educated physicist and engineer, Ride helped to develop the shuttle program's "Canadarm" robot arm. She subsequently also became the first person to use the arm to retrieve a satellite in space. Over the course of two missions, she spent more than 343 hours in space.
"It means a lot to me that my participation in that flight has meant so much to so many people," she told Florida Today in 2008. "And I hadn't appreciated how much it did really mean to people, how much it touched particularly women, until after my flight. The first few months after my flight I was really struck by the way that women of all ages — from college students to 60-year-old, 70-year-old, 80-year-old women — reacted to me. It was just something that they never thought they would see. And it made quite an impression on me."
On May 20, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope sent its first image back to Earth of stars in the Carina cluster. That shot, despite being flawed due to a problem with Hubble's mirror (which would later be corrected by astronauts in 1993) was the start of what has since become more than 1 million observations of our heavens.
"What Hubble has essentially given us is the size of the universe," NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn told "60 Minutes." "Hubble has taught us that the universe is filled with hundreds of billions of other galaxies."
Hubble's eye on the universe has been so transformative that its data reveals that there are likely more stars in the visible universe than grains of sand on all of Earth's beaches — an estimated 200 sextillion stars contained within 2 trillion galaxies.
While Hubble is expected to remain operational until 2030-2040, it won't be alone. The James Webb Space Telescope, equipped with a 21-foot-wide mirror, is expected to launch in March 2021 and provide humanity with an even clearer view of the cosmos.
"This is the largest and most complex telescope that NASA has ever built," Straughn told Space.com. "We will look back in time over 13 and a half billion years to see some of the first galaxies that were born, we will be able to peer through dust clouds to see the sights of star formation within our own Milky Way Galaxy. We're really set to, I think, revolutionize astronomy again with this telescope."
Kicking off the era of robotic rovers on the red planet, the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft landed on the Martian surface on July 4, 1997. It was the first successful lander to visit Mars since NASA's two Viking missions in 1976.
While Pathfinder contained numerous scientific instruments for conducting experiments on the surface, it was the spacecraft's rover, named Sojourner, that captivated people back on Earth. Powered by solar panels, the little rover (about 25 inches long) managed to explore about 330 feet of the Martian surface before losing contact with Earth on on Sept. 27, 1997.
Its first component launched into orbit in 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) today is the largest human-made body in low Earth orbit. The massive research laboratory is composed of 16 pressurized modules: eight from the U.S., five from Russia, two from Japan, and one from Europe. An additional five are schedule to be added through 2019.
On July 21, 2011, after safely delivering supplies to the ISS, the Space Shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth and officially marked the end of NASA's shuttle program. The remaining shuttles were all retired to museums and visitor's centers around the country. Endeavour (top) and Discovery were both transported atop NASA's Shuttle Carrier Aircraft to the California Science Center and the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum respectively. Enterprise can be seen at New York City's Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, while Atlantis resides at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Exploring the surface of Mars since Aug. 6, 2012, the car-sized Curiosity rover has covered a distance of nearly 13 miles within Gale Crater –– a region encompassing the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Unlike previous Mars rovers, Curiosity is akin to a moving laboratory, with a full complement of scientific instruments ranging from a full gas chromatograph mass spectrometer to super high-resolution cameras, a radiation detector and a robotic arm loaded with tools for drilling and analyzing Martian soil.
After the planet-wide dust storm that recently abated, Curiosity may also suddenly find itself alone. Opportunity, the Mars rover with the distinction of holding the off-Earth roving distance record of over 25 miles, has yet to awaken from hibernation due to the storm. Unlike Opportunity, Curiosity doesn't draw energy from dust-prone solar panels and instead contains a radioisotope thermoelectric generator to heat and power its systems.
According to NASA, the next rover to land on Mars in 2021, will be based on Curiosity's (so far) enduring engineering.
Over the course of its 13 years in orbit around Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft captured over 450,000 images. The above was one of its most spectacular, a color photo of Earth and the moon from a distance of 900 million miles.
"We can't see individual continents or people in this portrait of Earth, but this pale blue dot is a succinct summary of who we were on July 19," Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. "Cassini's picture reminds us how tiny our home planet is in the vastness of space, and also testifies to the ingenuity of the citizens of this tiny planet to send a robotic spacecraft so far away from home to study Saturn and take a look-back photo of Earth."
In an effort to prevent contamination of moons orbiting Saturn that may harbor life, Cassini plunged itself into Saturn's atmosphere and ended its over 20 years in space on Sept. 15, 2017.
On July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons flew 7,800 miles above the surface of Pluto, making it the first spacecraft to explore the dwarf planet. As the data from over 3.7 billion miles away began to trickle in, researchers were stunned by how complex Pluto was in both geology and atmosphere.
"It's not comet-like, and it's not planet-like. It's in-between," said lead author David J. McComas, who manages the Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument aboard New Horizons. "We've now visited all nine of the classical planets and examined all their solar wind interactions, and we've never seen anything like this."
In the years since, New Horizons has continued to explore the outer solar system, with its next target –– a Kuiper Belt object known as Ultima Thule — scheduled to rendezvous with the probe on New Year's Day 2019.
After a five-year, 540-million-mile journey, NASA's Juno spacecraft achieved orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. In the process, it also delivered a punchline more than 400 years in the making. Since then, the probe has made unprecedented discoveries about the gas giant's composition, gravity field, magnetic field and polar magnetosphere.
As shown above, some of its most visually spectacular findings have come from simply looking down at Jupiter's colorful, stormy atmosphere.
"We’re very excited about what we’ve seen so far, and every time we fly by the planet it’s like Christmas time," Juno project manager Rick Nybakken told SpaceFlight Now. "The data is stunning."
Juno is presently scheduled to conduct mission operations around Jupiter until July 30, 2021.
While NASA has scoured the heavens for alien worlds, it's still never found something quite as fascinating or complex as our own Earth. In 2014, the space agency compiled an updated "Blue Marble" of Earth's eastern hemisphere using images gathered over eight orbits by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite.
"After having the privilege of flying shuttle missions and seeing Earth from the vantage point of space, I’ll never forget observing our fragile planet from above with no visible political borders, only those established by the oceans and mountains and other geography," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote in 2014. "It's a reminder that our planet belongs to everyone, and we each have a responsibility to help protect it. For NASA, that means making Earth science a priority investment. It's one of the cornerstones of our work."