This day in space history: NASA opens its doors for the first time

On this day 61 years ago, NASA opened its doors for the first time.

It was the beginning of new age of exploration, one that would take humans on one of the greatest voyages ever imaginable, from landing on the Moon to the very edges of our solar system. What was born out of intense rivalry with the Soviets soon became a commitment to furthering humanity’s knowledge and understanding of the universe.

Today, we celebrate the first day of operations for NASA.

How did NASA get its start?

According to NASA, the organization’s birth was, “directly related to the pressures of national defense.” During the Cold War era, a “space race” developed between America and the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Sputnik satellite successfully launched and orbited the Earth, President Dwight Eisenhower acted to keep the U.S. apace of the Russians. The race was on, and Eisenhower needed to create a space agency that could deliver the U.S. into a new frontier.

Prior to NASA, there was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (read more on NACA here), which researched missiles during the Cold War and, toward its final years, focused on crewed spaceflight.

On July 29, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, a direct response to Sputnik. Less than a month later, Eisenhower’s appointees for NASA’s first Administrator and Deputy Administrator were sworn in. NACA, which included 8,000 employees, a $100 million annual budget, and its research facilities, were absorbed into the newly created National Aeronautics Space Administration.

NASA was a go.

Who was the first administrator?

On Aug. 19, 1958, Eisenhower swore in T. Keith Glennan as NASA’s first ever Administrator and Hugh Dryden (the former head of NACA) as the first Deputy Administrator. 

Glennan worked hard to impress the importance of NASA upon the federal government. Not long after NASA’s opening, Glennan incorporated many Department of Defense organizations and efforts centered around space exploration into NASA. This included moving part of the Naval Research Laboratory to Greenbelt, Maryland, where he created Goddard Space Flight Center for continuation of their scientific research and study.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was acquired by Glennan later that year, and in 1960, he took control of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) and bestowed upon it a new name, the Marshall Space Flight Center. Today, NASA has ten centers located around the U.S.

Glennan was instrumental in securing many of the research facilities NASA now operates. He retired from the organization in 1961.

What were some of NASA’s guiding principles as they began operations in 1958?

According to NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 lays out the purpose of the new space agency in the preamble:

“An Act to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.”

Eight main objectives were outlined in the Act to guide NASA. These included the expansion of human knowledge and the development of new space vehicles. A primary objective sought to preserve America’s lead role in space exploration through technological advancements, while keeping the peace here on Earth and off-planet. The Act has since been amended and a 9th objective added, but the guiding principles have remained the same. 

Simply put, NASA seeks to explain the unexplained, to establish a prominent U.S. presence in space while working with international partners peacefully in orbit and out. NASA works to continually develop cutting-edge space exploration technology and spacecraft designed to go further and farther than those before us have.

What has NASA accomplished since it first opened 61 years ago?

Since the doors opened, NASA has spearheaded many exploratory projects. These efforts range from crewed missions to robotic exploration of our solar system and beyond. In fact, just 10 days after NASA’s grand opening, they conducted their first launch with Pioneer 1

The organization has observed some major milestones in its time, such as the first crewed lunar landing with Apollo 11, the creation of a reusable spacecraft with the Space Shuttle Program, and extended space stays made possible by the assembly of the International Space Station. Robotic exploration via probes, rovers, and uncrewed spacecrafts have also contributed to our understanding of Earth and its closest neighbors. These missions have also yielded invaluable insights into our solar system and those far from home.

NASA continues to evolve as newer missions require different strategies, technologies, and partners. The organization continues to reach for the stars with new programs and initiatives, such as Commercial Crew.

We can’t wait to see what’s next!

For more information on the launch of NASA, click here.

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