Happy Anniversary NASA! 40 Years of Accomplishments in Space


by Marcia Freeman

Printed in the American Almanac, October, 1998


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On Oct. 1, 1958, a new organization in Washington, D.C. opened for business, becoming the first civilian space agency in the world. The mandate of the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), written into the bipartisan legislation that created it, was to include as its first objective ``the expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.''

In that law, Congress declared ``that it is the policy of the United States that activitites in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind,'' and that ``the general welfare and security of the United States require that adequate provision be made for aeronautical and space activities.''

Under the guidance of President John F. Kennedy, three years after its formation, the space program was to become the greatest peacetime mobilization of science and technology in history, the Apollo program to bring man to the Moon. The vantage point hundreds of miles above the Earth's surface opened the possibility of exploring the Earth itself with new tools, and created the techniques to be able to observe for the first time, the entire planet and its biosphere as it changes.

This ability to perch where entire continents are in view, also made possible the development of technologies to allow the communication of ideas, data, and images to and from anywhere in the world. The potential to bring education, culture, and current history to even the most remote and underdeveloped parts of the Earth was demonstrated early in the new space program.

With the advent of President Kennedy's announcement on May 25, 1961, that the United States would, before the decade is out, ``land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth,'' the fledgling manned space program jolted into high gear. The technologies required to safely launch a man into space, to safely return him from space, and to make sure that he was healthy throughout the entire ordeal, created another American industrial revolution, from which today we still reap the benefits--every day.

But there were places to see and explore to which man could not easily travel, and which were too dangerous for man to endure. So NASA sent representatives of man's intelligence to do the exploring, and report back what was discovered.

Man has been to the Moon, but mankind's representatives have visited every regular planet in the Solar System, and examined up close the Sun and other bodies, such as asteroids and comets, that populate our neighborhood. And our instruments have gazed beyond our Solar System and beyond our Milky Way galaxy, to look for other solar systems.

There, we hope to find answers to the most profound questions, those that have puzzled mankind since the beginning of his existence: How did the Universe and our Solar System form? How have they developed over time? Is the Earth unique as a host for life? How are the anti-entropic processes of life mirrored in the inorganic processes of the Universe?

There is hardly a citizen of any nation in the world who has not been uplifted and thrilled by the discoveries and adventure the space program has created over the past 40 years. The criticism most often heard of NASA, not by political skeptics but by the people who look to the future, is that the space agency is not doing enough, that there are new challenges, and opportunities for man to explore.

Over 40 years, the vision of the space program has depended upon the vision and policies of the chief executive in the White House, who directs the affairs of the nation, and for his elected term, is the quintessential representative of the interests of the nation.

After President Kennedy's death, the space program competed with the misbegotten war in Vietnam for the funding to ensure there was a future in space after the completion of the Apollo Moon landings. During the Nixon years, the capitulation of the President to the financial circles who advised ditching the Bretton Woods financial system, left the space program crippled.

President Carter's one term in office can be characterized by the statement of his Science Adviser that there would be no new ``big'' projects for the space program, and while President Reagan was moved by the accomplishments of NASA, and initiated the space station program now underway during his first term in 1984, his deregulation and ``free market'' economic policies could only undermine the public and industrial resources for aerospace development.

President George Bush perpetrated a cruel hoax on an American people, who hoped that the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the first lunar landing would be the occasion for a renewed vision for space.

Standing on the steps of the Air & Space Museum in Washington, which houses the artifacts of flight and space, President Bush asserted in July 1989 that the U.S. would return to the Moon, ``This time to stay,'' and then go on to send people to Mars. Neither the money nor the political support ever came from the White House to turn that speech into a reality.

It now falls to President Clinton to live up to the comparison he is fond of making between himself and the youthful President Kennedy, and to place the space program where it belongs--in the center of the industrial, cultural, and overall economic reconstruction of this nation, and the rest of the world.

This is the legacy that NASA has created over the past 40 years.


Seeing a New Earth From Space

The first objective that had to be met to embark on a program of exploring from space was to be able to get there, reliably and safely. In the early days of the space program, what sat on top of the rocket was secondary to the successful functioning of the rocket itself.

This point was made vivdly clear when the world watched in disappointment in 1957 as the first American satellite launched on a Navy Vanguard rocket fell back to Earth after a short trip--not into space, but barely to the top of the launch tower.

On Jan. 31, 1958, before the establishment of NASA, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency's Development Operations divison, under the leadership of Wernher von Braun, did succeed in launching the Explorer I satellite, which revealed for the first time that there are bands of charged particles circling the Earth, (known thereafter as the Van Allen radiation belts, after the scientist who discovered them, with Explorer's help).

Two months after NASA opened its doors, the first communication was heard from space. On Dec. 18, 1958, an Air Force Atlas booster placed a small relay satellite, Project Score, into orbit. The 150-pound satellite relayed the voice of President Eisenhower to people on Earth, delivering a Christmas message on Dec. 19.

More than 10 years earlier, writer Arthur C. Clarke had proposed that a satellite placed in a 22,300-mile-high geosynchronous orbit, which would circle the Earth at the same speed as the Earth's surface and therefore stay ``parked'' above the same spot below on the planet, could be used to relay or transmit signals from one part of the globe to another. The first step was to place a satellite into a low-Earth orbit, and develop the communications technology.

In 1962, NASA launched the first privately built communications satellite, Telstar 1, for AT&T. It provided the first telephone and television signals carried via satellite.

Today, the satellite communications business is a multibillion-dollar industry, allowing every nation in the world to have access to data, telephone connections, and images from anywhere in the world.

On April 1, 1960, a new application of space technology made its debut, when the Tiros 1 (Television Infra-Red Observation Satellite) was launched. This first successful meteorological observing satellite would become the first in a long line of space-based weather stations, upon which the world would come to depend for long-range forecasting and disaster warning.

Less than two weeks later, space would become a vantage point for triangulating a given position on the Earth from a known point in space. The Transit 1B satellite was the first experimental navigation system, which laid the basis for the extremely high-precision Global Positioning System that is available today, and is being used by ships at sea, the military, mountain climbers, and even farmers.

A major advance in our ability to more scientifically develop our environment, agriculture, mining, and industry came with the launch of the first Landsat satellite on July 23, 1972. The multi-spectral instruments aboard Landsat, and today's more advanced generations of Earth remote sensing satellites, allow for the monitoring of the health of agricultural crops by observing the moisture of the soil, insect infestations, lack of fertilizers, and overall crop growth.

Landsat images have been used to estimate snow cover in the winter, to help predict runoff in the spring to warn of floods, to provide indications of concentrations of raw materials for commercial exploitation, to assist in water management and the siting of new power plants, and overall to plan of land use, all over the world. Remote sensing images that can distinguish between types of crops, have been used in the international war on drugs.

In 1978, Seasat-A extended our view of the Earth from the land to the oceans. The satellite carried five microwave instruments and their antennae, and the use of active as well as passive microwave sensors achieved the first all-weather remote sensing capability in space.

Most recently, monitoring of another independent variable affecting the Earth's weather has been added to the tools as the service of the meteorologist. Starting at the end of 1997, real-time data from NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer satellite were incorporated into the daily weather forecasting system. It is positioned between the Sun and the Earth, and intercepts the solar wind and measures geomagnetic activity, allowing forecasters to warn in advance those who might be affected by geomagnetic storms, such as satellite users and electric power grid control centers, of increased solar activity that could be a threat to their systems.

With the ability to observe and monitor changes in the atmosphere, land, sea, and near-Earth space, we will be better able to understand and develop the planet we now call home.


Footsteps on the Moon

Less than one year after the establishment of NASA, the space agency unveiled the names of the seven Mercury astronauts who would be the first Americans in space. While they were in training, monkeys Able and Baker made their preparatory suborbital space flights, which demonstrated a successful launch and recovery of the primates, plus their ability to function during a high-gravity liftoff, and the weightlessness of orbit.

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to venture into space, making one orbit of the Earth. Less than a month later, on May 5, Mercury astronaut Alan B. Shepard successfully completed a 15-minute suborbital flight, becoming the first American in space.

On the basis of that short flight, and expressing great confidence in the young space agency, on May 25, President Kennedy announced before a joint session of Congress that he was asking NASA, within a decade, ``to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth.'' NASA's Project Apollo had the go-ahead from the chief executive.

On Feb. 20, 1962, Mercury astronaut John Glenn made the first Earth orbit by an American. Later that year, astronaut Wally Schirra flew six orbits of the Earth, and the record was set by Mercury astronaut L. Gordon Cooper, who circled the Earth 22 times, over a period of 34 hours.

One critical milestone that had to be met before man could venture to the Moon, was the ability to work outside the confinement and safety of an orbiting spacecraft. Gemini astronaut Ed White demonstrated this Extravehicular Activity (EVA) capability during the second Gemini flight in June 1965.

As the two-man Gemini program came to a close, astronauts had performed rendezvous and docking operations in space, and had set an endurance record of 14 days in orbit. The next step was Apollo, to culminate in a manned landing on the Moon.

But before those footsteps were to be made, the space program would suffer its first catastrophic failure. During a ground simulation for the first Apollo mission, a flash fire broke out in the space capsule, and astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died of asphyxiation before they could be extricated from the spacecraft.

But neither NASA nor President Lyndon Johnson had any intention of cancelling the lunar program. One and a half years later, after the spacecraft had been redesigned, astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisle, and Walt Cunninghman flew the Apollo 7 spacecraft to test the new lunar hardware in Earth orbit.

Apollo 8 followed, with the bold decision to allow Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders to leave the orbit of the Earth for the first time, and perform a circumlunar flight. Arriving at the Moon on Christmas Eve, the astronauts looked back at the Earth and read from the Book of Genesis--fitting since what they saw could only be observed from the firmament of heaven.

When Apollo 11 lifted off from Cape Canaveral on July 16, 1969 the hopes and prayers of mankind went with them. Four days later, Neil Armstrong would place his boot firmly on the surface of the Moon and declare: ``That's one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.'' Mankind has not, as yet, surpassed that achievement.

In all, the six Apollo flights that landed on the Moon, and the 12 astronauts who walked there, brought back 840 pounds of rock and soil that would be analyzed over years by scientists in 54 different nations. These samples would forever change scientists' understanding of the formation and history of the Moon, and the Solar System.

More important than what the Apollo program produced, in terms of a scientific cornucopia, was the demonstration that the human mind and the human spirit could tackle any challenge and overcome any adversity.

By the time Apollo 17 left the Moon in 1972, it was clear there would be no more lunar landings before the next century. In the foreseeable future, man's activities in space would be limited to Earth orbit.


A Magnificent Flying Machine

Within weeks of the Apollo 11 mission, a report of the Space Task Group headed by Vice President Spiro Agnew, encompassing the contributions of the best minds in space planning, released its report on the post-Apollo space program. It recommended the development of a space station in Earth orbit, a reusable Space Shuttle, a Moon base for permanent occupation, and a manned mission to Mars. All that would survive the budget-cutting that resulted from the early 1970s' economic crisis was the reusable Shuttle.

But, to quote the first Space Shuttle commander, John Young, what a ``magnificent flying machine'' that was!

On April 12, 1981, John Young and Captain Bob Crippen, watched by over 3,000 reporters on-site from around the world, lifted off for the maiden flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The ship had been named for three famous sea vessels, including one of the first U.S. Navy ships to circumnavigate the globe.

While every manned flight is high-risk and dangerous, the Space Shuttle was the first vehicle to be test flown for the first time with a crew. It was also the first manned vehicle to be comprised of both solid- and liquid-fuelled propulsion systems.

The Space Shuttle opened the era of reusable spacecraft, and of the ability for men to stay aloft in space long enough, and with enough room, to perform scientific and technology experiments for more than a week at a time.

Over the course of the Shuttle program, astronauts have launched spacecraft from orbit, repaired damaged satellites that would have been rendered useless, studied the response of the human body to microgravity, providing a new window into disabling diseases that affect people on Earth, produced new materials and more perfect crystals for industry and medicine, peered out into the Universe and back at Earth with new generations of scientific instruments, and opened up participation in manned space flight to dozens of nations which do not have the capability to launch astronauts into space themselves.

One of the lasting images in space exploration is that of the first untethered flight of a human being from the Space Shuttle, in February 1984, wearing the Manned Maneuvering Unit. Now, man himself was a small satellite, in orbit around the Earth, accompanied nearby by the finest technology yet created for space flight.

But on Jan. 28, 1986, the U.S. space program was to suffer its second catastrophic failure, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch from Cape Canaveral, killing the crew of seven. As billions of people around the world watched replays of the accident, President Ronald Reagan made one of the most important and long-lasting decisions in the history of space flight. On Aug. 15, NASA secured Presidential and Congressional support for the acquisition of a replacement orbiter.

Endeavour was named after the 18th-century vessel captained by British explorer Captain James Cook, who, with a team of scientists, in 1768 embarked on a voyage of exploration and scientific investigation in New Zealand and New Holland (Australia). Over 2,600 new species of plants were discovered on his voyages, and Cook was the first sea captain to calculate his longitudinal position with accuracy.

In 1994, two years after the Shuttle Endeavour's maiden voyage, a replica of Captain Cook's vessel sailed from Australia, carrying onboard a wooden peg imbedded in its bow which had been carried on the Space Shuttle orbiter named after Cook's original ship.

On Dec. 2, 1993, the Space Shuttle crew aboard Endeavour performed a record five space walks, or EVAs, to repair the optics on the Hubble Space Telescope. As millions of people watched throughout the night on television, the astronauts completed 11 planned servicing tasks, including installing a set of corrective optices, installing a new camera, replacing faulty solar arrays, replacing gyroscopes, magnetometers, and electrical components, and bringing the priceless space observatory up to full operation.

The Shuttle flight on Discovery during Feburary 1994, opened a new era in space exploration, when the first Russian cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev, flew on the first U.S. space mission. Agreements signed by NASA and the Russian Space Agency the previous year had combined the world's only two manned space programs into a joint effort that would immediately take advantage of the 20 years of Soviet Russian experience with long-duration space stations, and the leading-edge transportation and space technology accomplishments of the American space program.

Although it is not often remembered today, the United States did have a space station in Earth orbit, after the end of the Apollo program. On May 14, 1973, Skylab was launched, unmanned, into orbit to provide facilities for a three-man crew to perform experiments in space.

During the three missions to work on the space laboratory, the crew did the first in-orbit repair work on the laboratory itself, conducted solar astronomy observations that revolutionized our understanding of our neighboring star, performed medical studies on the human adaptation to midrogravity, and carried out five experiments that had been suggested by students.

In February 1995, the Space Shuttle made its first close encounter with the Russian Mir station, and 20 years after the first Soviet-U.S. link-up in space during the Apollo-Soyuz mission in the summer of 1975, the Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the Mir station.

What followed, over the past three years, was long-duration stays aboard Mir for seven NASA astronauts, laying the basis for the teamwork that will create the International Space Station (ISS), beginning this Nov. 20.

The new space station, which is being built by over 20 nations, is the largest and most complex international project that has ever been attempted. It will lay the basis for not only learning to live and work in space, but for further exploration of the Solar System when the decision is made to pick up where Apollo left off.


Seeing The Planets for The First Time

Throughout its 40 years, NASA has pushed the space frontier back, opening a new window on the Universe for mankind.

The first mission that was launched by the new space agency, on Oct. 11, 1958, when it was less than two weeks old, was the Pioneer 1 spacecraft. Although it was designed to fly by the Moon, the second and third stages of the launch vehicle did not separate evenly, and the probe did not reach the velocity required to boost it free of the gravitational pull of the Earth.

Pioneer 3, launched on Dec. 6 of that year, also did not reach an Earth-escape velocity to send it to the Moon, but it did ascend to an altitute of 63,580 miles before it came back to Earth, and from its two passes through near-Earth space, it detected two, rather than just one, radiation belts around the planet.

The next in the series, Pioneer 4, launched on March 3, 1959, finally escaped Earth's orbit and flew by the Moon, but at a distance too great to make use of its onboard instruments.

In August 1961, with a new urgency for mapping the Moon's surface--namely, preparation for the manned landing later in the decade--NASA launched the first in a new generation of spacecraft, Ranger. Some were to fly by the Moon, others were designed to impact the surface, and the last three, to orbit the Moon.

The first two Rangers suffered launch vehicle failures, and never left Earth orbit. Throughout 1962, there were five more Ranger failures. Finally, on July 28, 1964, Ranger 7 arrived at the Moon, and sent back to Earth 4.300 close-up images before it hit the lunar surface. In all, Rangers 7, 8, and 9 would return over 17,000 high-quality images of the lunar surface, which were studied by the specialists trying to locate suitable landing sites for the Apollo astronauts.

After the Ranger program, Surveyor spacecraft took over, and on June 2, 1966, Surveyor 1 landed on the lunar surface, and transmitted more than 10,000 high-quality photographs back to Earth. It was the first American spacecraft to achieve a soft landing on the Moon.

Over the following year, NASA launched five Lunar Orbiter satellites to map the surface of the Moon. In addition to a powerful camera, the Lunar Orbiters also carried instruments to measure radiation, and to detail the selenodesy (the lunar equivalent of geodesy). With these data from the fleet of unmanned science satellites, scientists and engineers were confident in choosing the landing sites for Apollo.

But the Moon was not the only object of NASA's attention.

Mariner 2 made the first successful flyby of Venus on Dec. 14, 1962, and in mid-1965, Mariner 4 flew within 6,118 miles of Mars after an eight-month journey. Its close-up images revealed a heavily cratered planet--and no evidence of the famous canals that for years had held out the hope that there was, or at least had been, intelligent life on Mars. From the ``eyes'' of Mariner, Mars looked more like the Moon than the Earth.

Another Mariner, number 9, was the first U.S. mission to orbit another planet, but it had the bad luck of arriving in the midst of a planet-wide Martian dust storm, which largely obscured the planet from view.

Our view and understanding of Mars was revolutionized with the arrival in the summer of 1976 of the two Viking orbiters, and the touchdown of the two Viking landers. Now, we saw a planet with the largest volcano in the Solar System, a canyon that stretched 3,000 miles, polar caps with frozen water and carbon dioxide that leave ridges or rills as they wax and wane, and rocks, boulders, and frost on the ground.

Mars would lie dormant to human exploration for 20 years, due to the failure of the Mars Observer mission in 1993, until July 4, 1997, when the Mars Pathfinder arrived at the red planet. More than 10,000 stunning photographs from the lander and Sojourner rover were returned to Earth, with many posted on the Internet, along with daily weather forecasts and compositional data from the rover.

NASA is planning the launch of spacecraft to Mars at every 26-month launch opportunity for the next decade.

But beyond Mars, astronomers knew there were the giant gas planets, made up of material which, in composition, is similar to the primordial stuff of the Solar System.

During the late 1960s, scientists discovered that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Every 176 years, the Earth and the giant outer plants of the Solar System gather on the same side of the Sun. This geometric line-up would make it possible to observe all of the regular outer planets with a single spacecraft, in what became known as the ``Grand Tour'' of the Solar System. That moment would come in the late 1970s.

In order to perform such a feat, the gravitational ``pull'' of each giant planet would be used to sling-shot the small spacecraft on to its next object of observation. In preparation, and to gain the experience needed for such an ambitious mission, NASA launched the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft to Jupiter in 1972 and 1973.

These two Pioneers ventured through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter for the first time, and swung by Jupiter, providing the first data of its temperature, radiation environment, and magnetic field, and spectacular images of the planet and some of its moons. In order to put the gravity assist theory to the test, Pioneer 11 passed perilously close to Jupiter, at a distance of 26,000 miles, and then picked up enough speed to head to Saturn.

In 1979, Pioneer 10 provided the first up-close view of the beautiful planet, its magnificent rings, and its planet-sized moon, Titan. By then, the two Voyager spacecraft were already on their way to start their Grand Tour.

Voyagers 1 and 2 lifted off from Cape Canaveral in August and September of 1977. Over a period of 12 years, the Voyager spacecraft visited all of the gas giants--Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, the latter two for the first time. New rings around the planets were discovered. In all, 48 moons were explored. For the first time, these huge, distant bodies became more than dots of light in the sky, or seen through a telescope.

After this Grand Tour made up of tantalizing fly-bys of the giant planets, the next step was to go back to the most interesting places, go into orbit, and study them more intensely.

With that goal in mind, NASA launched the Galileo spacecraft from the Space Shuttle on Oct. 18, 1989. In 1995, Galileo deployed a probe into the atmosphere of Jupiter, and began its mission to study the planet and its moons.

In the summer of 1996 came the first indications from Galileo that beneath the surface of the moon Europa may lie liquid water, a prerequisite for life. And early last year, there came the discovery of icebergs on this moon in Jupiter's miniature solar system.

The Cassini mission was launched one year ago, to orbit Saturn and drop the European-built Huyghens probe into the atmopshere of the planet when it arrives there on July 1, 2004.

More recently, the Lunar Prospector has confirmed the earlier data returned from the Clementine spacecraft, indicating there is a large cache of water ice at the poles of the Moon, mixed in with the lunar soil.

During its first 40 years, NASA opened up the heavens to mankind. We learned that we can conquer the extreme environment of space, both to see and travel to other worlds, and to develop the Earth.

And that was only the beginning.


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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac


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