NASA is turning 60. 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.
It’s also now 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.
There’s a lot to keep track of. Here’s a handy cheat sheet to get you started, with more to come.
How did NASA get its start?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration officially opened its doors on Oct. 1, 1958, two months after it was established through a law signed by President Dwight Eisenhower. The US government had been spurred into action by the Soviet Union’s launch a year earlier of Sputnik, the first satellite to go into orbit around the Earth. The space race with America’s Cold War foe was on. But even though there was a subtext of military posturing, NASA was founded with a nonmartial mission. ‘It is the policy of the United States,’ the law said, ‘that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.’
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.
Hasn’t President Trump given NASA a new set of goals?
Sort of. Before the Trump administration took office, NASA was already working toward a goal of sending astronauts to Mars sometime in the mid-2030s. The new White House has since issued a trio of space policy directives that lay out priorities for parts of the federal government that operate in space, including NASA. The first of these directives made it clear that NASA is still to aim for Mars, but will also plan to return to the moon first.
In recent months, Vice President Mike Pence, who’s also chair of the National Space Council, and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine have reiterated the plan to first construct a space station in orbit around the moon that will support a new, permanent presence on our natural satellite. After setting up shop on the moon, it’s on to the red planet.
Will it be NASA or private companies like SpaceX sending astronauts to the moon and Mars?
It isn’t entirely clear right now, but the early answer seems to be ‘both.’ Space Policy Directive 2 aims to increase the role of commercial companies in the space program, and NASA’s return to the moon is explicitly described as a potential partnership with private companies like Moon Express.
NASA is also preparing for a big milestone when it turns transportation of astronauts to the International Space Station over to commercial companies, namely SpaceX and Boeing. Currently, Russian rockets carry US astronauts to the station, taking over after NASA shut down the space shuttle program. SpaceX has already been delivering cargo to the ISS for NASA for a few years now.
Where does NASA hope to be in another 60 years?
NASA already struggles with planning one decade ahead, given the scientific complexities of its missions and political uncertainties of its budgets. But it’s pretty clear the vision is to have a presence on Mars within a few decades, and to continue exploring deeper into the solar system. A mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa is being planned with lots of support. There’s also a push for a series of next-generation telescopes that will bring our view of the universe ever more in focus and hopefully answer the question of whether there’s life anywhere else.
How is NASA celebrating 60 years?
A few NASA facilities will be holding events and celebrations to commemorate the occasion. The Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, one of the original NASA facilities, will host an anniversary celebration at its Great Lakes Science Center on Sept. 29. The event will be open to the public and feature appearances by NASA astronauts and science demonstrations. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida will also host a birthday event on Sept. 22.
And of course, NASA’s 60th birthday is part of a long windup to another big celebration coming in the summer of 2019, when the agency celebrates 50 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing.