Science 7 min read

When 59 Year-old NASA was Just a Twinkle in Eisenhower's Eye

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NASA, which has expanded our human knowledge of the universe, is celebrating its 59th birthday–just in time to lead the space charge once again.

Merely ten months after the launch of Sputnik, the U.S., led by then-President Dwight Eisenhower, took up the space challenge by regrouping all of its military departments and research bodies working on extraterrestrial projects into one single organization: NASA.

Eisenhower realized that to put a man in space he would need to create a government-backed program with high-paying, exciting jobs to attract the brightest minds the world had to offer.

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The new agency, which was born in a context of political crisis, will again soon lead the charge in the newest Space Race 2.0.

During its 59 years of existence, NASA has been through ups and downs. Although it has many inspiring projects up its sleeve, it has been over 40 years since it made its last “concrete step” into uncharted territory.

NASA’s last crewed mission to the moon (Apollo 17) goes back to 1972.

First, we’ll lay out some history. Then we’ll show you how NASA will again lead space-age development.

Space Conquest, the Collateral Good of the Cold War

In the aftermath of WWII, the United States and the USSR were the only two countries with enough financial resources to invest heavily in propulsion technology.

After the fall of the Third Reich, large stocks of German missiles had fallen into the hands of the allied armies, including the famous Red Army of the Soviet Union.

The Soviets and Americans recruited the German scientists who developed the famous missiles V1 and V2.

Wernher von Braun, German engineer and inventor of the V2 missile, chose the United States. He went on to lead the team that, in 1953, developed the PGM-11 Redstone, the first American ballistic missile.

Both countries embarked on the development of ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile), destined to follow a parabolic flight before plunging into enemy targets. It was here that they discovered that if a missile went fast enough, it would exit the Earth’s atmosphere and begin orbiting the planet.

After building rockets with adequate propulsion, the ultimate goal was to conquer space. In 1955, both the U.S. and the USSR, just 4 days apart, announced their intention to launch an artificial satellite. What followed was a true “Space Race” between the two countries.

Sputnik, the Spark That Started it all

On August 21st, 1957, the USSR’s, and the world’s, first ICBM, R-7, successfully flew for about 3,700 mi.

Meanwhile, Sputnik was designed by Sergei Korolev, a Russian engineer and survivor of the Gulag, based on the German missile plans.

Then, on October 4, 1957, the USSR used a modified version of the R7 to put in orbit the first artificial satellite in history, Sputnik 1 (meaning traveling companion in Russian).

The launch of Sputnik 1–a sphere the size of a basketball with the sole function of emitting a radio beep–had major repercussions for the U.S.

For the United States, accustomed to being at the forefront of the world stage since the WWI, the Soviet stunt was a direct blow to its pride.

Americans wondered what would prevent the USSR from targeting American soil.

The following November 3rd, the Soviets were back at it again with Sputnik 2, which took the first living being in space, Laïka, the dog cosmonaut.

NASA was Just a Twinkle in Eisenhower’s Eye

On the American side, after the failure of the Vanguard rocket on December 6th, 1957, Werner von Braun’s old “Jupiter Project” was resumed, and on January 31st, 1958, managed to launch the first satellite “Made in the U.S.” , Explorer 1, weighing 14 kg.

But on May 15th, the USSR put Sputnik 3 into orbit, the first heavy satellite (1327 kg) that dwarfed Explorer 1.

In an attempt to catch up, President Eisenhower decided to increase the resources allocated to space research. He then signed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act on July 29th, 1958.

NASA was created to oversee all U.S. space activities, in a context of rivalry with the USSR, succeeding the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and taking over its human and material resources.

The Moon: Small Step for NASA, Giant Leap for Humanity

Say what you want about the Cold War or the former USSR, but competition has always a healthy aspect in that it helps avoid complacency. It boosts creativity and innovation. There’s a strong case to be made that without the USSR rivalry, the U.S. space program at least wouldn’t have developed as fast as it did.

The project that truly established American space supremacy is Apollo Program, again triggered in response to the successes of the Soviet space program.

A speech U.S. President, this time John F. Kennedy on May 25th, 1961, set the Moon as the next goal for NASA.

It was a battle of ideologies. And the communist side had many victories, including putting the first human into space. Yuri Gagarin successfully orbited the planet a little over a month before JFK’s famous speech.

NASA then carried out the Apollo program that allowed the U.S. to send astronauts for the first time to the Moon. After the launch of Apollo 11 on July 21, 1969, six other Moon missions were launched between 1969 and 1972 (Apollo 12 to 17).

Competition Turns to Collaboration

Budget cutbacks forced NASA to cancel remaining missions scheduled in the Apollo program and to drop the Saturn V rocket project altogether.

Having officially lost the lunar race, the USSR changed its approach to competing with NASA. Collaboration became key–something that will be integral to Space Race 2.0.

On July 17th, 1975, Apollo 18 docked to the Soviet ship Soyuz 19, in what’s called the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Although the Cold War continued through the 1990s, the Apollo-Soyuz mission marked an important moment in the international and domestic space collaboration that is commonplace today.

The most prominent example of this international cooperation is the International Space Station (ISS), which is an unprecedented political and technological success.

Built and continually developed between 1998 and 2011, ISS is expected to remain operational until 2020.

After 112 successful launches of NASA’s shuttle program, the 2003 Columbia disaster led NASA to rely on Russian vehicles to transport its astronauts to the ISS.

The Road to Mars, and Musk

Before getting to expand into the solar system and beyond, everyone seems to agree that humanity’s first destination in space should be Mars, the dubious feasibility of the project notwithstanding.

Before even the Apollo 11 landed on the Moon surface in 1969, NASA had already begun exploring Mars with robotic probes; and the most significant space adventure in recent memory is the Mars Pathfinder mission.

NASA also plans to send astronauts to Mars by 2030 at the very best, and only to orbit the planet. Landing a large spacecraft on its surface capable of then escaping the planet and returning to Earth would be an incredibly challenging task.

This has led some to consider a one-way trip.

In its road to Mars, NASA will collaborate, and this time not with its one-time foe, but with SpaceX, a private company.

By now, it’s a well-known fact that Elon Musk has a thing for the Red Planet, and he’s made it very clear that he wants to die there–just not on impact.

What’s Needed for NASA to Lead Space Race 2.0?

In the 20th century, NASA was able to galvanize the patriotic spirit of the United States. This force was enough to keep the agency on top of the world (no pun intended) for several decades.

Since NASA has faced a decreased budget over the past few years, many highly-specialized engineers have gone back to working closer to home. Sometimes engineers leave because a job pays just as well–or because it is even more ambitious than space exploration.

There was also a growing industry that allowed former NASA engineers to use their advanced degrees they spent so much time and money acquiring: the Petrochemical industry.

What will it take to bring this talent back?

Is collaboration enough? Can reasoned objectives inspire us to cross immense planetary distances, or do we need a catalyst–something like intense nationalism? 

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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