Spotlight on Langley Research Center

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History in the Making

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) celebrates forty years of seminal progress. Established in 1958, NASA is steeped in four decades of historical achievement--a twentieth century civilian agency headed to even more impressive accomplishments in the twenty-first century.

Today, the vibrant nature of American aeronautical and space expertise is evident in the air, above the Earth, and outward to distant locales throughout the solar system. New technologies are transforming civil aviation, making air travel safer, more affordable, and less harmful to the environment. The Hubble Space Telescope has become an active, on-duty orbiting observatory that allows astronomers to capture glimpses of new galaxies, view the formation of faraway solar systems, and seek answers as to how the Universe itself began.

Spacecraft are now en route to Saturn and reaching out to asteroid Eros. The moon is being resource mapped, pole to pole, by Lunar Prospector. Mars Global Surveyor circuits the red planet armed with a host of scientific sensors. Meanwhile, the Galileo spacecraft continues on an extended mission to scrutinize Jupiter's ice-covered moon Europa, and that Jovian hot spot of a world, volcanic Io. Lastly, preparations are moving forward to launch the first segments of the International Space Station, an initiative that truly gives humanity a foothold on the future.

These are exciting times. NASA's three-part mission encompasses the embracing of scientific research, space exploration, and technology development and transfer. This effort is built upon a past history of remarkable achievement, but with full knowledge that still more ambitious goals await.

Cold War Winds

NASA was born as a response to Cold War rivalries between the United States and the former Soviet Union, now Russia. The United States suffered a technological slap in the face on October 4, 1957, the result of Russia's launching of the 184-pound Sputnik 1 satellite. As the first artificial object to orbit the Earth, Sputnik 1 ushered in the dawn of what soon became labeled the "space race." The "beep-beep" transmissions from the Earth-circuiting Russian satellite signaled more than an astronautical history-making event. It underscored a battle of ideologies within a world community of nations. Russian intentions in space became even more obvious by the launching of Sputnik 2 just a month later. This satellite was five times heavier than the first Sputnik and carried the first living creature into orbit, a dog named Laika. It became obvious that Russia's space agenda also listed the eventual launching of humans into orbit.

Astronaut, Edwin Aldrin, Jr. appears in a space suit next to the U.S. flag on the moons surface during Apollo 11
Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., Lunar Module pilot, poses for a photo beside the deployed United States flag during Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the lunar surface.

 

Sparked by the Russian space launchings, America swung into response mode. Congress passed and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, establishing a new agency with a broad mandate to explore and use space for the benefit "of all mankind." On October 1, 1958, a little less than one year after Russia's Sputnik 1 was hurled spaceward, NASA began its formal work.

In the beginning, the nation's civilian space program was directed by a small cadre of just 170 employees. To add muscle to the newly formed space agency, NASA inherited three major research laboratories from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA): The Langley Aeronautical Laboratory established in Virginia in 1918, the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory set up near San Francisco in 1940, and the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, built in 1941. Additionally, two small test facilities from the NACA were merged into the new NASA, one for high-speed flight research at Muroc Dry Lake in the high desert of California, and one for sounding rockets at Wallops Island, Virginia. Other elements to build NASA were soon added. In December 1958, NASA acquired control of the Pasadena, California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a contractor facility operated for the Army by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The first actual NASA installation was the Goddard Space Flight Center, located outside Washington, D.C., in suburban Maryland, staffed by personnel and projects transferred from the Naval Research Laboratory.

Within a short period of time, NASA Headquarters started to orchestrate the country's short-and long-term space agenda. NASA's action plan for shaping both its robotic missions and human space endeavors would rely on establishing solid partnerships between the federal space agency, academia, and the private industry. Under NASA's aegis, numbers of Explorer and Pioneer series spacecraft began charting the space environment, relaying scientific data as to radiation, micro-meteoroid, and solar flare hazards. Information gleaned from these satellites helped in understanding the extent and intensity of radiation belts that were found to surround the Earth.

 

Hubble of image of a pink and green planetary nebula, which is the youngest known.
In this Hubble image of the youngest known planetary nebula, the colors shown are actual colors emitted by nitrogen (red), oxygen (green), and hydrogen (blue).

 

Significant strides during NASA's early years were made in the satellite applications arena. For example, a 100-foot inflatable satellite, dubbed Echo, was used to reflect radio signals from one point on Earth to another. These experiments and other investigations were forerunners to an explosive growth of satellite telecommunications. Telstar, Early Bird, Relay, and Syncom satellites made possible the commercial satellite operations we routinely enjoy today. These satellites demonstrated the unique attributes of having spacecraft handle telephone, television, and data transmissions around the globe. Along similar avenues, NASA's work in the 1960s with meteorological satellites, specifically Project TIROS (Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite), proved the utility of watching the world's weather from space. Such images are now considered invaluable for weather forecasting, providing advance warning of violent hurricanes, and El Niño-related events. Likewise, the NASA Landsat satellites, the first of the series lofted in 1972, illustrated how spaceborne sensors could assist in assessing and managing the Earth's precious resources.

Going the Lunar Distance

Nothing helped define NASA's mettle more than human space flight. In April 1959, after a two-month selection process, the space agency introduced to the world seven test pilots as the Mercury astronaut corps. The single-seat Mercury capsule opened the door to U.S.-piloted space exploration.

For NASA to stretch beyond Earth orbit and reach for the Moon, rockets far larger and more powerful were required. In July 1960, NASA's George C. Marshall Space Flight Center was established and charged with rocket booster development. Led by the renowned Wernher von Braun, the giant Saturn V launcher was designed to hurl Americans over cislunar space to land on the crater-pocked Moon.

Providing focus to NASA's technological wherewithal, President John F. Kennedy placed the nation on a lunar trajectory May 5, 1961, asking Congress to support Project Apollo. "I believe this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space...and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish." This visionary call was embraced by the country.

In September 1961, the site of the NASA center dedicated to human space flight would be Houston, Texas. First named the Manned Spacecraft Center, it would later be renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in 1973. To test the mammoth Saturn boosters, NASA established in October 1961 the Mississippi Test Facility, an installation later renamed the John C. Stennis Space Center in 1988.

From 1961 into mid-1963, Mercury capsules took astronauts first on suborbital flights, followed by globe-circling orbiting missions. Two-seater Gemini spacecraft flew in 1965 through 1966, giving U.S. astronauts time in orbit to hone skills of rendezvous and docking, procedures necessary to fulfill the objectives of Project Apollo. From data provided by robotic lunar explorers--the Ranger, Lunar Orbiter, and Surveyor moon landers--NASA's Project Apollo led to the first human footprints on the aeon-aged lunar surface on July 20, 1969. In all, a dozen Apollo astronauts would walk across the moon's terrain before the close of 1972. To realize the goal of Apollo, the agency's civil service rolls had grown to 36,000 people. Outside researchers, technicians, and contractor employees that were mobilized to complete Apollo peaked to nearly 377,000 by the mid-1960s. Beyond the technical attributes needed, organizational and managerial competence was marshaled across the country to transform Project Apollo from rhetoric to realization. In a very real sense, footprints embedded in the moon's dust represent NASA's technological high-water mark for human space exploration beyond Earth orbit.

 

artistic rendering of the Galileo spacecraft approaching Jupiter
Artist concept shows Galileo spacecraft, while still approaching Jupiter. Galileo is flying about 544 miles above Io's volcano-torn surface, twenty times closer than the closest flyby altitude of Voyager in 1979.

 

Defining Events

The momentum of Apollo manifested itself throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with several defining events accomplished by NASA. America's first experimental space station, Skylab, served as a 100-ton home-away-from-home habitat for astronauts. From May 1973 into February 1974, on three separate visits, a trio of astronauts lived aboard Skylab for 28, 59, and 84 days, respectively.

At the height of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union, American and Russian spacecraft linked together as an expression of international space cooperation. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project brought astronauts and cosmonauts together for the first time, a joint mission that lasted from July 15-24, 1975.

Numbers of NASA interplanetary probes were also launched, such as Mariner spacecraft that studied Mars and Venus on the flyby. Pioneer craft explored giant Jupiter, as well as Venus. Robotic exploration of Mars was capped by the touchdown of Viking landers in 1976. The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft were dispatched in 1977 on trajectories that would yield well over 100,000 up close and personal views of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Planetary exploration has continued, as evermore capable spacecraft arrive at their destinations. For instance, in 1993, the highly successful Magellan mission to Venus completed three years of mapping nearly all the planet's surface with cloud-piercing radar. The Galileo spacecraft began orbiting Jupiter in December 1995, sending a probe into the murky and complex atmosphere of the gaseous globe. Over the course of the 1990s, the Hubble Space Telescope has relayed striking images of galaxies and other celestial objects, providing a critical new tool to explore the surrounding Universe and all its mysteries. Mars once again has moved center stage in NASA's planetary exploration plans, heralded by the arrival of the Mars Pathfinder in July 1997. Bouncing across Martian terrain on airbags, then coming to rest, the lander unleashed the tiny Sojourner mini-rover. In all, the Pathfinder mission returned more than 1.2 billion bits of computer data and over 10,000 stunning pictures of Mars' surface.

NASA's space shuttle fleet has permitted human access to space since 1981. Scores of missions have given astronaut crews the ability to explore and exploit the microgravity environment of space, then wing their way back to Earth. Versatile in capability, the Space Shuttle program has also enabled flights to Russia's Mir space station--cooperative ventures to gain experience in the building of an international space station. Follow-on space transportation work between NASA and industry is already underway, embodied in such vehicles as the X-33 and X-34 programs and the single-stage-to-orbit VentureStar.

artistic rendering of Skylab
As America's first experimental space station designed for long duration mission, Skylab program objectives were twofold: To prove that humans could live and work in space for extended periods, and to expand our knowledge of solar astronomy well beyond Earth-based observations.

 

NASA: Future in the Making

Looking forward to the next century, the NASA Strategic Plan for 1998 carries this vision statement: "NASA is an investment in America's future. As explorers, pioneers, and innovators, we boldly expand frontiers in air and space to inspire and serve America and to benefit the quality of life on Earth."

The Plan defines four Strategic Enterprises:

  • Space Science Enterprise is to solve mysteries of the universe, explore the solar system, discover planets around other stars, search for life beyond Earth; from origins to destiny, chart the evolution of the universe and understand its galaxies, stars, planets, and life;

  • Earth Science Enterprise is to expand scientific knowledge of the Earth system using NASA's unique vantage points of space, aircraft, and in-situ platforms, creating an international capability to forecast and assess the health of the Earth system; disseminate information about the Earth system; and enable the productive use of Mission to Planet Earth science and technology in the public and private sectors;

  • Human Exploration and Development of Space Enterprise (HEDS) is to prepare for the conduct of human missions of exploration to planetary and other bodies in the solar system; use the environment of space to expand scientific knowledge; provide safe and affordable human access to space, establish a human presence in space, and share the human experience of being in space; and to enable the commercial development of space and share HEDS knowledge, technologies, and assets that promise to enhance the quality of life on Earth; and the

  • Aeronautics and Space Transportation Technology Enterprise which has three major technology goals supported by a set of enabling technology objectives. In global civil aviation, a technology goal is to enable U.S. leadership through safer, cleaner, quieter, and more affordable air travel. Another technology goal is to revolutionize air travel and the way in which aircraft are designed, built, and operated. A third technology goal is to enable the full commercial potential of space, and expansion of space research and exploration. This Enterprise also carries a service goal to enable, and as appropriate, provide, on a national basis, world-class aerospace research and development services,
    including facilities and expertise, and proactively transfer cutting-edge technologies in support of industry and U.S. Government research and development.

    Viking Lander, used to explore Mars, is pictured against a painted Mars backdrop
    By 1975, scientific evidence strongly suggested that Mars had once been a planet with flowing rivers and a denser atmosphere. The first robotic spacecraft to explore Marsthe Viking Landerswere sent to sample the soil and atmosphere to formulate an explanation for its evolutionary past and present state.

 

With the close of this decade and the turn of the century, the International Space Station is slated to begin operations. Assembly of this huge space facility is an undertaking that involves fifteen countries, led by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada. This complex can serve as a world-class research laboratory. It promises to provide a permanent presence in space and bolsters the prospect that human space travel back to the moon, onward to Mars and other destinations, may occur in the 21st century.

Exploration of the unknown, in aeronautics and space, has been an ongoing assignment of NASA since its creation forty years ago. That quest is to continue in the decades to come. Despite the profound nature and scope of its research, NASA's budget has represented less than one percent of the Federal budget since 1977. For over four decades, NASA's major scientific and technical achievements have contributed not only to an understanding of the origin and development of the Universe, and humanity's place in it--space technologies have been a boon to research in education, transportation, pollution control, rain forest protection, health care, and a host of other practical applications of benefit to all Americans.