Today is NASA's 50th birthday. A Cold War baby spurred by the October 4, 1957 launch of the Russian Sputnik satellites and their progressively heavier siblings, it spurred congressional hearings and the rapid consolidation of a coalition of scientific, military, and political leaders for the establishment of an agency to coordinate space activities in the United States.
On October 1, 1958 the agency opened for business after the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act by Congress and it being signed into law by President Eisenhower on July 29, 1958.
Section 102 of the Space Act laid out the goals for the nascent organization:
1. The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;
2. The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;
3. The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space;
4. The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes;
5. The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;
6. The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defense of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;
7. Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results thereof;
8. The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid
NASA has not only fulfilled those objectives, it has done so in sometimes spectacular fashion. Only 11 years after NASA's birth Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the Moon.
If there's one consistent thread in my life, it's NASA. Being born in Houston, I'm a rabid space junkie because the space program has always been a presence in my life on one level or another.
Alan Shepard's May 5, 1961 suborbital flight happened 364 days before I was born. The Mercury and Gemini missions happened during my infant and toddler years. Thanks to the Apollo program I was an excited soon to be third grader watching on July 20, 1969 with the rest of the planet Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the Moon and had a few Saturday morning cartoon watching sessions interrupted by subsequent moon missions. I can't count how many field trips I took or times we took out of town relatives with regularity to the Johnson Space Center down in Clear Lake.
Skylab was the thrust of the program during my teen years and after writing and being one of my junior high school's winners of a NASA sponsored essay contest, I had the pleasure of meeting the first group of African-American shuttle astronauts.
I've watched the ups and downs of the shuttle program during my college and young adult years from the tragedy of two shuttles being lost in 1986 and 2003 to the launch of various space probes, the Hubble Space Telescope and the building and expansion of the International Space Station.
It's interesting that as NASA turns 50, we have another Communist nation aggressively pushing to establish itself in space. The Chinese launched their first manned mission in 2003 and have a goal of building a space station by 2012 and putting a man on the moon by 2020. They just recently completed a three man mission that featured a taikonaut emerging from their space capsule to do their first spacewalk.
In the meantime, the Space Shuttle will be retired in 2010 and its successor won't even be flight tested until 2015. NASA is considering building a moon base, but the question is will the anti-science Luddites in the GOP even allow funding for it?
Maybe competition from the Chinese will be just the tonic NASA and elements of the American public need to remind us that we didn't become the preeminent scientific power by being timid about space exploration, and that much of the technology, improved satellites, scientific knowledge and medical advances that we enjoy now came out of NASA research and the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle programs.
Competition is always healthy, and if it gets NASA off the sidelines and back in the game of manned spaceflight pushing for manned mission to Mars and beyond, then that's all good too.
For the human race to survive and thrive, we will have to start exploring and establishing habitats on other worlds, and the sooner we do it, the better.