Did You Know? – NASA – Part 1

Joann Wolwowicz

This summer, Americans were able to witness the ending of an era. After 30 years of discovery, the final space shuttle mission ended on July 21, 2011 when the space shuttle Atlantis landed for the final time at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. With the end of the Space Shuttle Program, it seems only fair to look back into the history of this amazing program that had its first launch on April 12, 1981 and has proved to be a program of achievement and records.


NASA or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was established in 1958 as an independent United States government agency. Its purpose was for the research and development of vehicles and activities for the exploration of space. These goals extended to both the space within and outside of Earth’s atmosphere. NASA was created largely in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957. The organization was well underway by the early years of the Kennedy administration. President John F. Kennedy even proposed that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s.


NASA is composed of five programs. The first program, Aeronautics and Space Technology, was established for the development of equipment. The second program was labeled Space Science and Applications, and its purpose was to deal with programs for understanding the origin, structure, and evolution of the universe, the solar system, and the Earth. Space Flight was the program concerned with manned and unmanned space transportation and all matters to do with the space shuttles. Space Tracking and Data involved tracking and data acquisition. Lastly, the Space Station was the program which had a long-term goal of establishing a manned space station. Additionally, after Kennedy proposed his goal for the American Space Program, the Apollo program was designed. In 1969, U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man on the Moon.


However, Armstrong’s mission was not the initial U.S. effort to launch a human into space. The first project was known as Project Mercury. NASA engineers, led by Robert Gilruth and Maxime Faget, designed a small cone-shaped capsule for the mission. NASA planned several suborbital test flights in which an astronaut would be in space for only a few minutes of his 15-minute up-and-down ride. Only after the Mercury equipment was checked and the effects of suborbital flight on the human body were measured would the United States commit to an orbital flight attempt. The Mercury capsule would parachute with its passenger all the way back to Earth’s surface, to land in the ocean and be recovered by navy ships. John H. Glenn, Jr., became the first American astronaut to orbit Earth in his three-orbit mission on February 20, 1962.


On July 16, 1969, astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins set off on the Apollo 11 mission, the first lunar landing attempt. The Lunar Module, nicknamed Eagle, landed on a flat lava plain called the Sea of Tranquility at 4:18 p.m. U.S. Eastern Daylight Time on July 20. The successful Apollo 12 mission followed in November 1969. However, the Apollo 13 mission, launched in April 1970, experienced an explosion of an oxygen tank. Thankfully, the crew survived this accident. Four more Apollo missions followed. The final mission, Apollo 17, which was conducted in December 1972, included geologist Harrison Schmitt, the only trained scientist to set foot on the Moon. An Apollo spacecraft was used for the last time in 1975.


The United States had won the race to the Moon, but that many believe that the race had been motivated primarily by political considerations. Consequentially, after the early 1970s, there was no interest within the U.S. government for the next three decades in additional lunar exploration or in sending people to Mars.


Stay tuned next week for Did You Know – NASA – Part 2.