Congress passed a law that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on July 29, 1958. NASA was created to be a civilian agency with the job of coordinating America’s activities in space. Since this time, NASA has been in charge of many different expeditions into space. Some of these expeditions involved human astronauts, while others were performed with computers and machines. Thanks to NASA’s work, satellites have been sent into space that help us to explore the solar system, forecast the weather, and communicate in faster ways.
The Cold War and the Space Race
During the 1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union were military rivals. At the same time, the two countries engaged in a competition that has become known as the space race. Each country tried to outdo the other in many ways, and when it came to science, space exploration was the focus.
On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, which was the first satellite to be sent into space. This satellite weighed a little more than 183 pounds, and it went around the Earth in a space trip that took 98 minutes. The United States was surprised by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I, and the world was excited about this event. Less than a month later, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik II, this time sending a dog into space. The Soviets knew that they had no way of returning the dog to Earth, and their plan was to keep it comfortable with food and water until it ran out of oxygen after about 10 days. But temperatures inside the aircraft were higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the dog only survived for about two days.
NASA launched the first American satellite on Jan. 31, 1958, called Explorer I. Explorer I’s main job in space was to measure the radiation present in Earth’s orbit. Explorer I orbited around the Earth one time every 114.8 minutes, making more than 12 orbits a day. After it finished its work, it returned to Earth’s atmosphere on March 31, 1970, burning up as it fell.
Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. Pilot Buzz Aldrin landed the lunar module, called the Eagle, and Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. Aldrin and Armstrong spent about a day exploring the moon.
In 1975, scientists began working on a special telescope that would be able to get a clear view of space, unobstructed by the water and gases that surround Earth. This telescope is named after Edwin Hubble, an astronomer. After 15 years, scientists finally launched the telescope. Through the Hubble Space Telescope, people can see parts of the universe that are billions of light years away.
Pioneer 10 was a spacecraft that left Earth in 1972, bound for Jupiter. Pioneer 10 made it to Jupiter, recording data about the planet, and then it kept going. It left the solar system in 1983 and traveled into interstellar space.
Designing and inhabiting the International Space Station has also been an extraordinary accomplishment, not only for the United States but also for Russia and other countries. Astronauts have spent hundreds of days aboard the International Space Station, studying space and how humans respond to extended periods without gravity.
Initially, the spacecrafts designed by NASA were built to be used just one time, since scientists had not yet figured out how to get them back down to Earth without destroying them. Designing reusable spacecrafts was an important achievement. The goal was to make some kind of heat shield that would protect the vessels from the high temperatures that come with re-entering the atmosphere. Then, there was also the problem of getting the spacecraft back down to Earth and landing it in one piece. In 1981, the space shuttle Columbia flew a successful mission as the first reusable spacecraft.
Using satellites that NASA has put into orbit around the Earth, scientists can get real-time images that help predict the weather. Satellites have also revolutionized the way people communicate around the world. An intricate web of telephone circuits has enabled people to communicate easily and relatively inexpensively. Satellites also make it possible for TV and radio channels to broadcast worldwide. Newer types of satellites enable cell phone service.