How NASA Was Born

A direct result of the Sputnik crisis, NASA began operations on October 1, 1958, absorbing into itself the earlier National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics intact: its 8,000 employees, an annual budget of $100 million, three major research laboratories-Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory-and two smaller test facilities. It quickly incorporated other organizations into the new agency, notably the space science group of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed by the California Institute of Technology for the Army, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, where Wernher von Braun's team of engineers were engaged in the development of large rockets. Eventually NASA created other Centers and today it has ten located around the country.

NASA began to conduct space missions within months of its creation, and during its first twenty years NASA conducted several major programs:

  • Human space flight initiatives-Mercury's single astronaut program (flights during 1961-1963) to ascertain if a human could survive in space; Project Gemini (flights during 1965-1966) with two astronauts to practice space operations, especially rendezvous and docking of spacecraft and extravehicular activity (EVA); and Project Apollo (flights during 1968-1972) to explore the Moon.

  • Robotic missions to the Moon Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter), Venus (Pioneer Venus), Mars (Mariner 4, Viking 1 and 2), and the outer planets (Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2).

  • Aeronautics research to enhance air transport safety, reliability, efficiency, and speed (X-15 hypersonic flight, lifting body flight research, avionics and electronics studies, propulsion technologies, structures research, aerodynamics investigations).

  • Remote-sensing Earth satellites for information gathering (Landsat satellites for environmental monitoring).

  • Applications satellites for communications (Echo 1, TIROS, and Telstra) and weather monitoring.

  • An orbital workshop for astronauts, Skylab.

  • A reusable spacecraft for traveling to and from Earth orbit, the Space Shuttle.

Early Spaceflights: Mercury and Gemini

NASA's first high-profile program involving human spaceflight was Project Mercury, an effort to learn if humans could survive the rigors of spaceflight. On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American to fly into space, when he rode his Mercury capsule on a 15-minute suborbital mission. John H. Glenn Jr. became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962. With six flights, Project Mercury achieved its goal of putting piloted spacecraft into Earth orbit and retrieving the astronauts safely.

Project Gemini built on Mercury's achievements and extended NASA's human spaceflight program to spacecraft built for two astronauts. Gemini's 10 flights also provided NASA scientists and engineers with more data on weightlessness, perfected reentry and splashdown procedures, and demonstrated rendezvous and docking in space. One of the highlights of the program occurred during Gemini 4, on June 3, 1965, when Edward H. White, Jr., became the first U.S. astronaut to conduct a spacewalk.

Alexander Kartveli was an integral part of the design effort for both the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and for NASA.  Here is a letter Kartveli received from JH Doolittle, NACA Chairman, thanking Kartveli for his contributions to "scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution."  Later, as part of NASA's Advanced Propulsion Concepts design effort, Kartveli worked on early space shuttle concepts including the Aerospaceplane, a large single-stage-to-orbit vehicle powered by scramjets.



X-15 Extending the Frontiers of Flight