In this article, we will discuss on how and why NASA was created. The push was given by an outsider!

A replica of Sputnik 1
A replica of Sputnik 1

Sputnik Crisis

NASA was created in response to the Soviet Union’s October 4, 1957 launch of its first satellite, Sputnik I. The 183-pound, basketball-sized satellite orbited the earth in 98 minutes. The Sputnik launch caught Americans by surprise and sparked fears that the Soviets might also be capable of sending missiles with nuclear weapons from Europe to America. The United States prided itself on being at the forefront of technology, and, embarrassed, immediately began developing a response, signaling the start of the U.S.-Soviet space race.

The U.S. Congress urged immediate and swift action; President Dwight D. Eisenhower counseled more deliberate measures. The result was a consensus that the White House forged among key interest groups, including scientists committed to basic research; the Pentagon which had to match the Soviet military achievement; corporate America looking for new business; and a strong new trend in public opinion looking up to space exploration.

 Eisenhower declared three “stark facts” the United States needed to confront:

  • The Soviets had surpassed America and the rest of the free world in scientific and technological advancements in outer space.
  • If the Soviets maintained that superiority, they might use it as a means to undermine America’s prestige and leadership.
  • If the Soviets became the first to achieve significantly superior military capability in outer space and created an imbalance of power, they could pose a direct military threat to the US.
The front page of The New York Times on Oct. 5, 1957.
The front page of The New York Times on Oct. 5, 1957.

July 29, 1958: NASA created

On January 12, 1958, NACA organized a “Special Committee on Space Technology,” headed by Guyford Stever. On January 14, 1958, NACA Director Hugh Dryden published “A National Research Program for Space Technology,” stating,

It is of great urgency and importance to our country both from consideration of our prestige as a nation as well as military necessity that this challenge [Sputnik] be met by an energetic program of research and development for the conquest of space … It is accordingly proposed that the scientific research be the responsibility of a national civilian agency … NACA is capable, by rapid extension and expansion of its effort, of providing leadership in space technology.

While this new federal agency would conduct all non-military space activity, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created in February 1958 to develop space technology for military application.

On July 29, 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing NASA. When it began operations on October 1, 1958, NASA absorbed the 43-year-old NACA intact; its 8,000 employees, an annual budget of US$100 million, three major research laboratories (Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory), and two small test facilities. Elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the United States Naval Research Laboratory were incorporated into NASA.

NASA's top management from 1958-1960 was T. Keith Glennan, Administrator (center), Hugh L. Dryden, Deputy Administrator (left), and Richard E. Horner, Associate Administrator (right). This photo, dated March 1, 1960 and probably taken at NASA’s first Headquarters at the Dolley Madison House, also shows the new seal of NASA above Glennan.
NASA’s top management from 1958-1960 was T. Keith Glennan, Administrator (center), Hugh L. Dryden, Deputy Administrator (left), and Richard E. Horner, Associate Administrator (right). This photo, dated March 1, 1960, and probably taken at NASA’s first Headquarters at the Dolley Madison House, also shows the new seal of NASA above Glennan.

Objectives of NASA

It is instructive to recall the objectives for NASA that emerged in section 102 of the final Space Act:

  1. The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;
  2. The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;
  3. The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space;
  4. The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes;
  5. The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;
  6. The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defense of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;
  7. Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results thereof;
  8. The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities and equipment

The Space Act has been amended many times since 1958, but these goals have been little changed.


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