Wednesday, August 13, 2008

NASA at 50

Minnesota public radio is one of the many media currently celebrating this year’s fiftieth anniversary of NASA with a program yesterday on its history. The BBC also collected a series of videos of many of the space agency’s memorable moments, while Wired had an article about NASA’s half century of “towering achievements”. Kansas City Infozine interviewed several NASA veterans to talk about its accomplishments. The first of several 50th anniversary moments was last month with the signing of the act that brought NASA into existence.

The birth of NASA was the necessity of catching up with the Russians. On 4 October 1957, the Soviet news agency Tass announced to the world that the USSR had successfully placed Elementary Satellite 1 into an elliptical orbit about 900km above Earth. Elementary Satellite 1 became better known by its diminutive "Sputnik". It circled the globe every hour and a half and flew over America seven times a day, in almost taunting fashion. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had taken a giant technological leap ahead of the US.

When the general American public read about Sputnik, there was much predictable shock and surprise. The Space Age had begun, and it had nothing to do with American might. Many others felt that the oceans could no longer protect the mainland and the Russians had intercontinental warhead capability. The Eisenhower administration rushed to reassure the American people, but also offered their congratulations to Moscow for its achievement. US scientists were simply excited knowing that Sputnik was just the incentive needed to get their satellite program up and running.

Public opinion was now massive in favour of the creation of an aggressive exploration of space. And so, on 29 July 1958 US President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act. The act would lead to the birth of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on 1 October that year. The act provided for “research into problems of flight within and outside the earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes.” It declared that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind and would require “adequate provision”. The act’s eight objectives were to expand knowledge of space, improve the quality of space vehicles, develop space travel for humans, establish long-range scientific studies, preserve the US role as leader in space, using military discoveries for civilian purposes, co-operation with other nations, and effective utilisation of US scientific and engineering know-how.

Since 1915, the field of aeronautic research had been the province of the National Advisory Commission for Aeronautics (NACA). NASA absorbed the NACA and kept the “Aeronautics” in its name. It also took NACA’s 8,000 employees, its $100 million annual budget, its three major research laboratories (Langley and Ames aeronautical laboratories and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory) as well as two smaller test facilities.

The new organisation launched into space exploration programs with Project Mercury. With a well-honed media instinct, NASA decided from the outset its space program would need to be manned in order to keep the public onside. In 1961, Mercury began to pay dividends. In May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, with a 15-minute suborbital mission. Eight months later, John Glenn became the first true US astronaut when he orbited the Earth. Project Mercury’s six flights achieved the goal of putting piloted spacecraft into Earth orbit and retrieving the astronauts safely.

Project Gemini built on the carefully-planned success of Mercury. Gemini had two-person missions, re-entry rockets within the capsule and the ability to alter its orbit. But on 25 May 1961, President Kennedy raised the stakes again with his “special message to the Congress on urgent national needs”. Given just a month after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, This famous speech called for America to take “longer strides” and take a leading role in space achievement. He committed the US to landing a man safely on the moon by the end of the 1960s and ten billion dollars to fund it.

Kennedy's speech was pure gold to NASA. His estimate as to the cost of the Apollo program was grossly inadequate and it had ballooned out to $25.4 billion by the time it ended. The program overcame the setback of the fire to the Apollo 1 capsule on the ground that killed three astronauts. For all future missions, most flammable items were replaced with self-extinguishing materials, pure oxygen was replaced by a nitrogen-oxygen mixture at launch and the hatch was redesigned to open outward and to be removed quickly.

NASA’s crowning moment came when Neil Armstrong carried out Kennedy’s goal, on time (though over budget) on 20 July 1969. The 17th mission brought an end to the Apollo program in 1972 and NASA looked to new challenges. In 1975, they docked in space with a Russia Soyuz craft in the world’s first international manned space flight. When US astronaut Thomas Stafford shook hands with Soviet Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in the docking ring of joined Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft, it was an act that seemed to mark the end of the Space Race.

In the eighties, NASA returned to human spaceflight with the Space Shuttle program. The first flight of STS-1 (named “Columbia”) in 1981 demonstrated that it could take off vertically and glide to an unpowered airplane-like landing. But the 1986 Challenger disaster on take-off and the 2003 Columbia disaster on landing, seriously damaged NASA’s credibility and made it look for less awe-inspiring challenges. President Bush’s subsequent 25 year plan to return to the Moon and land on Mars has not met with the same enthusiasm as Kennedy’s earlier call.

But there have been many other successes in NASA’s unmanned program. The Hubble Space Telescope has greatly advanced cosmology and returned thousands of astonishing images after its mirror was fixed in 1993. NASA's scientific probes have explored the Moon and all the planets of the solar system except Pluto. Voyager 1 is now the further man-made object in space and is now in the heliosheath on the edge of interstellar space some 16 billion kms away from its home planet. And a new expanded space race is at hand with Japan, China and the EU joining the traditional players. American scientists now say they need the support of private enterprise to succeed in space. But despite concerns about its middle-aged spread, it is hard to imagine the future colonisation of space without some role for NASA.

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