Posted: October 01, 2008
NASA's 50th anniversary logo. The agency celebrated its golden anniversary with an early birthday party on 24 Sept, at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, where legendary astronauts Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Jim Lovell joined NASA Administrator Michael Griffin and other dignitaries in the gala, celebrating the power of innovation and discovery, and recognising the agency's challenges and achievements over the past five decades.
Although the US satellite program began in 1954 to put a satellite into orbit during the International Geophysical Year, which saw the launch of Explorer 1 in February 1958 in response to the launch of the world’s first man-made satellite Sputnik 1 by the Soviets the previous October, NASA was not officially established until 29 July 1958. Operations were opened on 1 October, with Pioneer 1 blasting off from Cape Canaveral just 11 days later.
In the first decade of operations, NASA heavily researched human spaceflight via the Mercury and Gemini projects, which saw the first American, Alan Shepherd, take a 15 minute sub-orbital flight above the Earth. The journey of human spaceflight culminated in the Apollo Program, which saw 12 men walk on the surface of the Moon between 1969 and 1972.
Probably one of the most well-known and loved NASA image, the view of Earth rising above the lunar horizon which greeted Apollo 8 astronauts.
The 1970s saw the focus change to space stations, such as the American built Skylab, and then to the first shuttle launch in 1981. Since NASA’s inception, a whole army of unmanned space explorers have also explored our Solar System, from the Voyager probes that now are at the edge of the Solar System, and every planet in between. None so much explored, mapped and probed is the red planet, which saw Mariner flybys in the 1970s, the Viking Landers in the mid 1970s, the Pathfinder rover and of course the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity that are still in action nearly five years after arriving, as well as the current and highly successful Phoenix lander. Numerous orbiters - Mars Odyssesy, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Express and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to name a few - have changed our view of the red planet forever, and Mars remains in NASA’s vision as a future target for a manned mission.
NASA has also broadened our view of the Universe, from WMAP that produced the first full sky map of the microwave sky, revealing the radiation left over from the big bang 13.7 million years ago, to the Hubble Space Telescope that has continued to produce stunning images of galaxies, stars and planets for the last 18 years.
NASA’s itinerary for the future covers ongoing in depth surveys of the planets including interactions between the Earth and Sun. The Space Shuttle will soon be retired and replaced by the Orion crew exploration vehicles. Even bigger plans are in place for a permanent lunar outpost by the 2020s.