NASA: the Complete History

NASA emblem at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

NASA: the Complete History

In 2017, NASA announced the Artemis Program, a mission to send astronauts back to the moon. The announcement was the organization’s attempt to revive the past excitement around space exploration. What was the result?

Companies and countries worldwide are building some of the most powerful rockets ever.

NASA’s announcement proceeds a long and storied history of space exploration. From lunar achievements to explosive catastrophes, no organization is more synonymous with studying the stars. Continue reading for everything you need to know about the history of NASA.

The History of NASA: What to Know

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is a government agency in the United States that focuses on space exploration. Founded in 1958, it works to develop the tools and equipment needed for scientific research. These include launch vehicles, radio satellites, materials, and more.

NASA’s headquarters is located in Washington, D.C. and has affiliations with research centers in Maryland, California, Texas, and Virginia. The organization employs nearly 18,000 government agents and has an annual budget of about $24 billion.

NASA has seen several accomplishments in its 64 years of service. Among these include: 

Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, not much has come out of NASA. However, the organization hopes to reignite passions for space exploration in the coming years.

With the launch of a new space telescope, the construction of their next super-heavy rocket, and the announcement of the Artemis Program, NASA is making big moves. 


A rocket must obtain thrust from a rocket engine in order to launch.

The Founding of NASA: How it Happened?

In 1957, the United States and the USSR found themselves 10 years into the Cold War. Tensions were high to prove the geopolitical dominance between the two superpower countries when the USSR launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, into orbit. 

This was a major victory for the communist regime, but the United States wasn’t ready to accept defeat. Within months, members of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics came together to form NASA, with all resources pivoting toward spaceflight. The organization was officially established in July 1958.

The organization made quick progress and launched its own satellite (Pioneer I) that same year. By 1961, it was the United State’s turn to make a move. On May 25, President John F. Kennedy made a declaration that the US would not only launch missiles into space but that it would send a man to the moon. The world’s first space race had begun.

NASA Through the Decades

1958-1969: We Choose the Moon

Astronaut on moon's surface
Neil Armstrong was the the first human to step on the moon in 1969.

NASA has seen some incredible years in its time, but none were as exciting as its beginning. In a little over a decade, the organization sent humans in geocentric orbit, built the most powerful rocket in history and launched a team of three astronauts to the moon. This decade cemented the United States’ dominance in spaceflight over the USSR.

1970-1979: Space Transportation

Following the massive success of the Apollo missions, which ended in 1972, the United States continued to pursue human space missions. There was support for NASA to establish a space station in orbit, allowing for ongoing research. Testing began for efficient transportation methods, including the first signs of reusable space parts.

1980-1989: Space Shuttles and Telescopes

Efforts in the 70s resulted in the Space Shuttle program, a series of fully reusable spacecraft that would carry personnel and materials into orbit. While the program saw tragedy in 1986 with the loss of the Challenger and its crew, the spacecraft enabled the first laboratory tests in space.

The 1980s also saw the development of the Hubble Space Telescope, the first optical telescope in geocentric (around the earth) orbit. With an 8-foot diameter primary mirror and an ability to read ultraviolet waves, the telescope could look far into the history of our universe.

The Hubble launched on a Space Shuttle mission at the start of the next decade.

1990-1999: International Space Station

International space station on Earth's orbit
Launched in 1998, the International Space Station is 240 miles from Earth and moves across the sky.

With space transportation underway with the Space Shuttle program, the United States teamed up with Russia at the end of the USSR to build the International Space Station (ISS). The joint project took an entire decade to build and was the primary focus of the United States.

The station launched in parts from several locations worldwide and was assembled in space near the turn of the century.

2000-2009: A Decade of Troubleshooting

The 2000s were quiet times for NASA; with the ISS completed, most of the organization’s efforts went into research and supplies. But NASA might have wished for the rest of the decade to be quiet.

In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated, killing seven astronauts. After the disaster, the program was suspended in 2003 and ultimately retired in 2011.

The United States would effectively stop launching manned missions, but it didn’t stop them from exciting the public. In 2004, NASA sent two rovers, the Spirit and Opportunity, to the surface of Mars for exploration. The rovers returned a plethora of exciting discoveries, including signs of water, space rocks, and incredible photos of the planet’s surface.

2010-Today: Mars and Beyond

Interest pivoted from the Space Shuttle to interplanetary colonization; the private spaceflight company SpaceX started developing reusable space parts and innovative launch technology.

With the price of spaceflight dropping considerably and several private companies contributing to progress, NASA officially announced the Artemis Program, a reignition of the United State’s manned missions and the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars.

What are the most important inventions from NASA

One of NASA’s guiding principles is that its innovations will have practical use for US citizens. So while the organization is renowned for historic space launches, its most important inventions have been used in more than just spaceflight.

Automatic implantable cardioverter defibrillator

Originally designed to monitor astronauts’ heart activity in training and space, the automatic implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (AICD) found lifesaving uses in the healthcare industry.

The device prevents arrhythmia in people with abnormal heart rhythms. This drastically reduces the chance of recurring heart attacks in survivors.

Enriched baby formula

NASA scientists discovered microalgae that could benefit a life-support system during long-distance space travel. Microalgae became the prominent ingredient in nutritional supplements and provided exclusive ingredients previously only found in human breast milk.

The research from this nutritional enrichment has made a difference in healthy development in babies.

Portable Breathing Systems

The research on manned space flight in the 1960s resulted in lightweight breathing equipment such as facemasks, harnesses, and tanks. NASA used this research to improve the old systems used by firefighters. The updated systems allowed for greater mobility and line of sight, as well as sophisticated warnings and alerts.

How Does NASA Make Money?

Because NASA is a government agency, it does not receive money for products or services sold. Instead, it receives a portion of the annual federal budget. 

In years past, NASA had a considerable budget. In 1966, the government agency received nearly 5% of all federal spending for the development of the Apollo program. Since then, their budget dropped substantially; In 2020, NASA only received 0.48%. For an organization that has developed incredible life-saving technology, it seems that NASA can do a lot with very little.

NASA Notable Controversies

The Value of the Space Shuttle

Despite its contributions to American society, NASA has not always achieved what it promised. One of the major failures of the spaceflight organization is the hefty price tag of the Space Shuttle Program.

Behind flashy wings of a futuristic space bus, NASA spent billions of dollars while promising to drop the cost of space travel with reusable technology. On average, each Space Shuttle launch costs the organization 1.5 billion dollars, while expendable alternatives cost a 10th of the price.

But its failure to drop spending wasn’t the biggest implication; the Space Shuttle program saw two catastrophic failures in its lifetime, with two vehicle explosions killing 14 crew members. The losses stained NASA’s reputation and crippled its backing for manned space missions for decades.

NASA’s History of Discrimination

Behind the scenes, the organization’s relations are even more critical. Since its inception, NASA has found ways to exclude diversity.

The organization took 25 years to send its first female astronaut to space, despite several attempts to prove that they were just as capable as male astronauts. Even after Sally Ride was accepted in 1983, NASA tried to send her with 100 tampons for a one-week mission.

Their actions get darker with sexual discrimination. In the 1950s, NASA administrator James Webb was amid high-ranking government officials condoning an anti-LGBT movement. The Lavender Scare was a massive moral panic in which many gay and lesbian government employees were fired, and more were denied roles in federal positions.

Today, these past actions permeate NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, which kept its name despite moral dissent within its organization.  

NASA Company Specs

Year founded1958
FoundersPresident Dwight D. Eisenhower
IndustrySpace and aeronautics
HeadquartersWashington, D.C.
Key peopleBill Nelson
Notable inventionsWater filters, memory foam, breathing systems, automatic defibrillators, insulin pumps

NASA: Further Reading

With ups and downs, NASA has brought benefits and inspiration to the American people for over 60 years. With the announcement of the Artemis Program, the spaceflight organization attempts to let its past failures go and reignite space exploration in the people’s hearts. For more on what NASA is doing, check out the articles below.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is NASA and why was it created?

NASA is a United States government organization with the purpose of researching aeronautics and space exploration. It was established in response to USSR satellite launches in 1957.

Who created NASA?

President Dwight D Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in July of 1958.

What was NASA’s first mission?

NASA’s first mission was the Mercury program, a crewed launch to send US astronauts into space. The program started in 1958 and lasted five years.

Is NASA part of the military?

NASA is an independent organization that does not have a military focus. However, it frequently works with the Department of Defense on joint projects.

How many missions has NASA failed?

While NASA has several categories of missions (with failures in each), it has three major launch failures that resulted in fatalities. These include the Apollo 1 fire (3 dead), the Challenger explosion (7 dead), and the Columbia failure upon reentry (7 dead).

Who was the first to space?

Russia was the first country to send a human to space. Yuri Gagarin rode aboard Vostok 1 in 1961 to orbit the Earth. The mission lasted just under two hours.

Is the flag still on the Moon?

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has determined that five flags from the Apollo missions still stand on the Moon. Unfortunately, the flag planted by Neal Armstrong in the Apollo 11 mission was knocked over by engine exhaust during takeoff.

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