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The Birth of NASA

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, center, oversees the installation of deputy NASA administrator Dr. Hugh Dryden, left, and NASA administrator Dr. T. Keith Glennan.

By Charles Apple

It was 65 years ago today that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was given an enormous promotion and officially became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Oversight of research and development of airplanes during the early and mid-20th century became an effort to put an American into space — and then to put an American on the moon before the end of the 1960s.

A Wish For A Civilian Space Agency

NASA expansion, second photo.

Within a six-month period, American efforts in space space went from this May 1958 meeting of NACA's Special Committee on Space Technology to a Space Task Group at NASA's Langley Center in Hampton, Va. — shown here shortly after it was formed on Nov. 5, 1958 — dedicated to putting an American into space via Project Mercury.

NASA expansion, second photo.

When the Soviet Union took the world by surprise by launching the world's first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957, the U.S. was already in the process of building pathways into space.

The U.S. Navy was far enough along with its Vanguard rocket project that it was seen as the most likely to launch an American satellite. The Army begged to differ - famed German V-2 rocket creator Wernher von Braun, leader of the Army's Redstone rocket project, had been saying for months it could put a satellite into orbit.

The Navy was given a chance. Its rocket blew up on the launch pad. Von Braun would save the day for the U.S. by putting Explorer 1 into orbit in January 1958

While the scientists raced to put hardware into the air, Washington worked on formalizing its commitment to space exploration. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was clear: He wanted a space effort led by a civilian agency, not the military. The most likely candidate was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which had been established in 1915 to promote aeronautical research.

On July 16, 1958, Congress passed legislation to transform NACA into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On Oct. 1 of that year, NASA came into existence, absorbing its 8,000 employees, three major research facilities and its annual budget of more than $100 million.

The new agency leaped into a myriad of tasks. Orbiting satellites meant enormous advances possible in communications and weather forecasting. Job One, however, was to put an American into orbit. NASA incorporated elements of the Naval Research Laboratory, Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and von Braun's Army Ballistic Missile Agency.

When Alan Shepard became the first U.S. astronaut in space in May 1961, it was one of von Braun's Redstone rockets that put him there.

But NASA wouldn't have long to celebrate. Less than three weeks later, President John F. Kennedy set the clock running on NASA's next big task: The U.S., he said, “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

Space Flight Ain't Cheap

NASA's budget over the years

NASA's annual budget

NASA comes under fire, from time to time — and most notably during Project Apollo moonshot effort in the 1960s — for the enormous cost of developing cutting-edge technology on multiple fronts.

But, in fact, even at its peak in 1966, NASA represented just 4.4% of the entire U.S. budget.

In 2011, estimated that an American family with the median household income that year — $49,777 — paid $6,629 in federal taxes that year. About $33 of that went to NASA.

NASA's goal of returning to the moon in the 2020s might require a large budgetary increase, officials have said.

Nasa Projects

Astronauts upon the moon

Putting Astronauts into Space

NASA put an astronaut into space in 1961, one into orbit in 1962 and landed two on the moon in July 1969. NASA plans more moon landings this decade.

Astronauts upon the moon

Development of Satellites

Satellite technology has made for enormous leaps in weather forecasting, atmospheric research, environmental monitoring, communications and even national defense.

Astronauts upon the moon

Robotic Exploration of the Solar System

While orbiters and landers have been sent to some worlds, rovers have been sent to Mars to look for possible signs of water — or, even more remotely, signs of life.

Astronauts upon the moon


Placing telescopes into space has increased mankind's understanding of the nature and size of the universe and how it has changed over time.

Astronauts upon the moon

The Space Station

Fifteen nations — mostly notably, Russia — have worked with NASA in some capacity to build or maintain the International Space Station.


This edition of Further Review was adapted for the web by Zak Curley.