The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is such a part of our lives that it’s hard to image it not existing. But on July 29, 1958, Congress and the President moved to make NASA a reality.
It’s also hard to imagine in today’s world of partisan gridlock that the executive and legislative branches created by the Founders could create a major government agency in little less than one year’s time.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the act to “provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.” Congress had already passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which became a priority after one shocking event in 1957.
“The enactment of this legislation is a historic step,” Eisenhower said. “I want to commend the Congress for the promptness with which it has created the organization.”
On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. The launch and subsequent Soviet successes started the “Space Race,” a battle of will and technology between the United States and the U.S.S.R.
Congress immediately addressed the issue when Senate Majority Leader (and future President) Lyndon Johnson chaired hearings on American space and missile activities.
The United States had been involved in serious research and development activities about rocket technology for some time. The Department of Defense had been involved in rocketry and upper atmospheric sciences since World War II. And a separate agency, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), had considerable resources.
The NACA had about 8,000 employees, a $100 million budget and three research labs. About half of the NACA’s work involved aeronautics.
President Eisenhower spearheaded the legislation effort on the executive side. Nelson Rockefeller was also involved in an advisory role. An important decision was the creation of a new civilian agency, instead of revamping the NACA or leaving space decisions solely in military hands.
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By April 1958, Congress was already holding final hearings about the act. Johnson was credited as the driving force behind the legislation within Congress, working with John McCormick.
When NASA officially started operations in October 1958, about a year after the Sputnik launch, NASA combined all the assets of the NACA with space science group of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (managed by the California Institute of Technology for the Army), and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama.
The addition Huntsville facility was important , because it included Wernher von Braun and his team of rocket engineers.
By 1959, NASA started Project Mercury, continuing a program that originated with the Air Force. NASA’s successes over the following decade culminated in the first moon landing in July 1969, and its later successes included Skylab, the Space Shuttle Program and International Space Station.