Six decades since the space agency opened its doors. Where it’s been and what’s next.

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Here’s a look back and forward.

NASA is turning 60 on Monday, October 1. Over six decades, it’s had a remarkable run of rocketeering and exploratory achievements, from the moon landings to the space shuttles, from the surface of Mars to destinations far beyond our solar system. And as space becomes just another place to do business, NASA looks to keep its edge as it is facing an identity crisis. 

Blame people like SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in part for that. They’re in the vanguard of a new wave of commercial activity that’s launching into what had for so long been the exclusive domain of government agencies, both in the US and abroad.

NASA’s 60th anniversary is an occasion, then, to look both back to a settled past and ahead to an uncertain future. The agency long-associated with America’s scientific prowess and can-do spirit got its start in one space race. Its next challenges lie in a new race to return humans to the moon and to push onward to Mars.

 

How it all began. Click video below.

Preview YouTube video NASA 60th: How It All Began

NASA wasn’t started from scratch, however. It took over from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, which had been created during World War I and which had already begun experimenting with rockets.

What were some of NASA’s first achievements?

On Oct. 11, 1958, NASA launched its first spacecraft, the Pioneer I. Five months later, Pioneer 4 made the first lunar flyby, and in April 1960 it recorded the first TV images of Earth from space, thanks to the TIROS meteorological satellite. But the really big early moments came from putting humans into space (again, after the Soviet Union got there first) through the Mercury space program. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut, making a 15-minute suborbital flight, and on Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

What are some of NASA’s other most memorable moments?

There’s one that stands out from all others: Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” on the surface of the moon. That achievement in July 1969 probably remains NASA’s most iconic moment after almost half a century. But there have been others. 

For three decades, launches of the US space shuttles — with their airplane-like design, they were the first reusable spacecraft  — made regular headlines, including numerous trips to the International Space Station, where astronaut Scott Kelley set a record by living in orbit for an entire year. Let’s not forget the landing of multiple rovers on Mars, sending the Voyager spacecraft beyond the edge of the solar system and all the many discoveries and breathtaking images sent back by spacecraft including Cassini, Hubble and Kepler. 

Hasn’t NASA also had quite a few notable problems?

Yes. Almost from the start, NASA discovered that failure is a part of space exploration, sometimes at the cost of human lives. Apollo 1, the first manned mission of the Apollo program, ended in tragedy in January 1967 when a fire during a test killed all three crew members. Tragic accidents also led to fatalities aboard space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. 

NASA also has a history of missed deadlines and budget overruns that are a constant source of criticism. One of the agency’s most notorious self-inflicted wounds came with the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which cost over 10 times the original estimates and which at first returned blurry images because of a flawed mirror. The flaw was eventually corrected, and the space telescope is still sending back remarkable images today.

But NASA’s reputation is well-earned: Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is mired in delays and cost overruns. 

What has NASA been doing lately?  

At any given time, NASA has myriad projects, missions and research under way or in various stages of development. Right now the Juno spacecraft is surveying Jupiter, Curiosity is still roving around Mars, the newly launched Parker Solar Probe is on its way to the sun, OSIRIS-REx is approaching the asteroid Bennu, new low-boom supersonic aircraft are being developed and on Sept. 15, a NASA satellite to observe Earth’s sea ice and ice sheets will be launched. 

There are also the ongoing expeditions aboard the International Space Station, next-generation rockets under development and other big plans for the future. (content credit: BY ERIC MACK 

 


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