What is NASA?
NASA is the commonly used acronym for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It is a federal agency that oversees government initiatives in solar system exploration and outer space exploration (including both robot and human exploration), as well as human spaceflight, aerospace and aeronautics research and earth science and space science. It’s also responsible for the International Space Station (ISS).
Headquartered in Washington, DC, the agency maintains a notable presence at NASA centers around the country. These include the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida; the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas; the John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi; and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
A Brief History of NASA
NASA was created by the National Aeronautics and Space Act, signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. The new agency absorbed several existing research labs, including the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory. Congress partially co-opted the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the United States Naval Research Laboratory to assist the fledgling space agency.
NASA was born during a time of urgency in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. In October 1957, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite from Earth. With the understanding that space technology could be appropriated for missiles and even nuclear weapons, the US government considered NASA’s success to be a national security priority.
Early NASA initiatives included Project Mercury, during which NASA astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and Project Gemini, which sent a two-man team into space for the first time. Yet it was the Apollo Program, which began in 1960, which produced the United States’s most significant space triumphs. In 1969, Apollo 11 placed a man on the moon for the first time in human history, as NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on Earth’s rocky satellite. Project Apollo would produce five additional moon landings, and in total 12 Americans walked on the moon between 1969 and 1972.
NASA’s Collaborations and Ongoing Work
Over the last 50 years, NASA has partnered with other countries to amplify its space exploration efforts.
- The United States and the Soviet Union: By the 1970s, the Cold War had shifted course, and the United States and the Soviet Union began regarding one another as international partners in the study of space, even if their political rivalry continued on Earth. The Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975 transported both NASA astronauts and Soviet Union cosmonauts and would set the stage for future collaborations.
- Focus on the Space Shuttle program: From 1972 to 2011, NASA directed much of its focus to the Space Shuttle program, which transported astronauts into low-Earth orbit, much like a commercial airplane might ferry passengers.
- Collaboration with international partners: From 1993 onward, the agency has contributed to the International Space Station (ISS), a modular spacecraft collaboratively built by NASA and other countries, such as Russia, Europe, and Japan.
- Machine-operated technologies: The Space Shuttle program paused its operations after 2011, and since that time, NASA has focused on new technology that machines can operate. It has sent numerous landers to Mars and sent spacecraft to observe Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and eventually deep space.
What Are NASA’s Responsibilities?
As the federal government’s agency in charge of space travel and exploration, NASA’s current portfolio includes:
- Planetary science: NASA studies the planets and moons of our solar system. Its scientists look for signs of life (both current and past) and plan for future manned missions to some of these bodies.
- Space Launch System (SLS): NASA’s Space Launch System initiative aims to produce a super heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle that will enable deep space exploration with high-mass spacecraft.
- Orion program: The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is a reusable space capsule designed for low-Earth orbit. An international, NASA-led coalition is developing the capsule. Like many present-day NASA projects, the Orion program uses private partners, including Lockheed Martin and Airbus. The spacecraft is partially modeled on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
- Return to the moon: NASA’s Artemis program aims to land Americans on the south pole of the moon in the near future. As part of its mission statement, the Artemis program will include at least one female astronaut, making her the first woman to set foot on the moon.
- Mars exploration: Through the Mars rovers Sojourner, Opportunity, Spirit, Curiosity, and Perseverance, NASA has led the exploration of Earth’s neighbor. The agency aims to send humans to Mars, although a firm date for the mission has not yet been proposed.
As of 2020, NASA operates on an annual budget of $22.6 billion, representing a tiny fraction of the $4.79 trillion federal budget in that fiscal year. This number is significantly lower than the agency’s budget during the era of Project Mercury, the Apollo program, the Voyager space missions, and the space shuttle program.
To fill the void, private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have begun testing rockets for both commercial and scientific use. The United States also relies on the Russian space program to send American astronauts to the International Space Station.