Since 1958, NASA has operated as one of the world’s leading space agencies. For over 60 years, it’s made incredible achievements in space exploration and innovation in the quest to understand the cosmos.
On July 29, 1958, NASA opened its doors under the Eisenhower administration. The agency was a direct response to aggressive progress made by the Soviet Union in the late ’50s. The USSR launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. With Sputnik’s launch, the Soviet Union was the only country to have an operational satellite in space. This achievement was lauded in the USSR, but leaders in the US felt blindsided by this Soviet-led advancement, giving rise to national security concerns.
In the years following NASA’s founding, the space agency made incredible advancements in science and technology thanks to its efforts to explore the universe. The agency would experience its most formative years during the ’60s during the presidencies of JFK, LBJ, and Nixon. Long after these influential leaders’ time in office, the agency has continued making incredible discoveries and advancements in space exploration.
10. Explorer 1 Satellite
Kicking off NASA’s impressive track record of reaching the stars is the Explorer 1 satellite. When the agency formed in 1958, there was a need for speed to showcase America’s potential in space, hoping to give the Soviets a run for their money. At a moment where the USSR had successfully shown their early dominance in space, Eisenhower wanted to send a powerful message that America wouldn’t sit back and allow their rival superpower the opportunity to be the gatekeepers to space.
The Explorer 1 predates NASA’s very existence and acted as the means to kick of the US Space Age and make their mark on the global Space Race. Thankfully, the mission was a success, launching on January 31, 1958.
Explorer 1 wasn’t just designed to show the Soviets that America could also launch satellites; it had a scientific purpose to it, and that was to orbit the Earth while studying cosmic rays. Explorer 1 orbited the Earth 12 and a half times a day, and its efforts helped provide a new key understanding of Earth’s atmosphere. This monumental achievement launched the agency and made a pathway for a series of Explorer satellites to be launched throughout 1958. While the federal government was more concerned with showing the Soviet Union its might, scientists knew this would change their understanding of the universe with every satellite, mission, telescope, and more launched into space; they simply weren’t aware how much they’d achieve in the coming decade.
The early ’70s saw NASA riding the high of its achievements of the late ’60s. The agency was making progress on countless fronts and showing the world just how seriously the US commitment to space exploration and understanding should be taken. Regardless of NASA’s achievements, the Soviets weren’t letting up and were still making tremendous efforts to one-up their rival superpower in a race to dominate space. However, space overall was with filled with unknowns. With burning questions still left unanswered, and multiplying by the day, the Soviet Union launched Salyut 1 on April 19, 1971 becoming the first space station in low Earth orbit. The US wouldn’t leave this unanswered, and thus Skylab was born.
Skylab was the US first space station and was launched May 14, 1973. The mission was to investigate the effects space had on the human body and how it adapted to an intensely foreign environment. Skylab also attempted to observe and study the sun in excruciating detail, and observations of Earth’s resources. Three successive crews visited Skylab during its operation between 1973 and 1974.
By 1979, the Skylab had deteriorated much quicker than anyone expected and on July 11 it reentered the atmosphere, burning up on reentry. It broke into pieces and scattered in populated areas in Western Australia, while bulkier pieces went into the southeastern Indian Ocean. Thankfully, nobody was injured.
The Voyager missions were NASA’s attempts at sending satellites far beyond where anything from Earth had gone before. Launched in August and September 1977, the twin spacecrafts are on a 40-year journey across space to provide insight into what lies in the furthest regions of our galaxy.
In August 2012, Voyager 1 made history as it entered interstellar space. In November 2018, Voyager 2 exited the heliosphere and joined Voyager 1 in interstellar space. This wasn’t the original intention of the Voyager’s mission. After successfully completing its initial mission of exploring Jupiter and Saturn and making historic discoveries of the two gas planets, NASA extended the Voyager missions to explore Uranus and Neptune, and now the interstellar region.
The Voyager 1 satellite also carries a message for alien life, in the event it encounters life beyond our solar system. The message comes as a gold-plated record filled with a message to intelligent life forms. It contains a greeting in over 55 languages, pictures of Earth, pictures of people, knowledge, music, and Earth sounds.
7. Freedom 7
Freedom 7, also known as Mercury-Redstone 3, is historic for two reasons. For starters, it carried the first American successfully launched into space following the success of the Soviets launching the first ever human into space, Yuri Gagarin. Second, it acted as a catalyst for John F. Kennedy to announce the United States’ intentions to land on the moon.
On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr., a US Navy Commander, was launched in a Mercury Space Capsule – which would be formally known as the Freedom 7 – from Cape Canaveral. Shepard remained in space for 15 and a half minutes, making him the first American in space.
Three weeks after Freedom 7 safely returned to Earth, landing in the Atlantic Ocean, JFK announced the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
In one of the most historic speeches in presidential history, JFK said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
6. Apollo 13
Apollo 13 launched on April 11, 1970 with Astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise at the helm. It intended to land on Fra Mauro, a crater on the moon; however, it would instead never make it to its destination. This mission, as any 1990s movie buff now knows, became one of survival.
55 hours and 46 minutes into the mission, the crew had just finished a 49-minute address to the nation, letting them know everything was going to plan. The astronauts had just pressurized the lunar module, and while Lovell moved through the connecting tunnel on the way back to the command module, a loud explosion could be heard from the Aquarius lunar module.
The explosion was the result of the astronauts needing to stir the cold oxygen by turning on internal fans periodically. The routine task caused the explosion. All three returned to the command module, and Lovell immediately reported to mission control, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Electricity was lost in the command module, and at 200,000 miles from Earth, they now faced a crisis of depleting oxygen, water, destroyed fuel tanks, and limited control.
For a while, the severity of the situation hadn’t been fully realized. They knew the cryogenic oxygen tanks’ pressure levels were dropping, so they fed supplies to the three fuel cells to keep everything running. Eventually, they abandoned the planned objective to land on the moon. The mission was now about getting the Apollo 13 crew home safely. Mission control determined that using the lunar module’s engine and gravity from the moon was the safest course of action meaning the Apollo 13 was no longer landing but instead swinging around the moon.
The crew was forced to work out their navigation by hand, in coordination with ground control. The idea of using the lunar module to make its way around the moon was a point of concern, considering it was not what the module was designed to do. On April 14, they executed a five minute engine burn putting them on a safe return trajectory. The journey was far from over, but now there was renewed hope that they’d return home.
For three days, Apollo 13 traveled through space in freezing conditions. Finally, on April 17, they reentered Earth’s atmosphere in a touch-and-go mission from the moment the explosion occurred. After four minutes of radio silence, mission control feared the worst, only for the parachutes to be spotted moments later, resulting in the astronauts safely landing in the Pacific Ocean. While one might say the mission was a failure, NASA might argue differently.
5. The Perseverance Rover
Since the dawn of the space age, Mars has been of particular interest to scientists. The reason behind this intense interest is because of Mars’ position as the most similar planet to our own. Since 1997, NASA has had a presence on Mars thanks to a series of rovers. The first rover to touch down on the red planet was Pathfinder, launched in 1996.
Before rovers became the primary tool of Mars exploration, the Viking mission in 1976 resulted in lander modules reaching the surface of Mars to investigate signs of life.
Since 1996, five rovers have been sent to Mars to study the planet: Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and perhaps most impressive of them all, Perseverance. The Perseverance rover – the most recent of the bunch – is specifically designed to examine Mars for future human-led missions. One of the leading science experiments on board the Perseverance rover aims to showcase the ability to produce oxygen on the surface of Mars. Perseverance also contains a drone, which has since become the first object to fly on Mars.
With humans closer than ever to exploring the red planet, the Perseverance rover is equipped to examine the climate, weather, dust, and collect samples for future study, to better understand the geological history and potential of Mars.
4. James Webb Space Telescope
Less than a decade after the launch of the Hubble Telescope (we’ll get to that in a minute), work had already begun on a successor telescope. It would become known as the James Webb Space Telescope. Named after NASA’s second administrator, the James Webb Space Telescope has been in development since 1996, and in construction since 2004, with it finally launching on December 24, 2021.
The road to launch was a long and rocky one, and the threat of the project being scrapped came up many times during its lengthy development. Regardless of the tiresome journey to launch, the power of the James Webb Space Telescope is undeniable. A collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian satellite observatory, it’s a technical marvel.
The hope of the James Webb telescope is to discover the first stars and galaxies formed in the earliest iterations of the universe. The telescope detects light in infrared, allowing it to see inside dusty clouds, as well as stars forming planetary systems.
This mission is far from over, but the sheer magnitude of its very existence is an achievement. It took a considerable effort to get the James Webb telescope from concept to launch. If successful, the telescope will hopefully observe the farthest reaches of the galaxy, helping scientist find exoplanets and potentially even signs of life.
On April 24, 1990, the Discovery space shuttle launched from the Kennedy Space Center and, with it, took what would become one of NASA’s most significant efforts to answer the mysteries of space for decades to come: the Hubble Telescope.
Before the Hubble’s existence, scientists relied on ground-based light telescopes to help provide a view into space. However, considering the limitations of ground-based telescopes, the images often lacked defined representations of space.
In 1979, work began on the Hubble Telescope in collaboration with the ESA. It was named after Edwin P. Hubble, an early 20th-century astronomer credited with discovering the expanding universe. Initially, the telescope was intended to launch in the ’80s, but setbacks, the Challenger disaster of 1986, and political fallout delayed the project into the ’90s.
Throughout its three-decade existence, the Hubble Telescope has provided unprecedented access into the universe. Since launching in 1990, it’s made over 1.5 million observations. It’s provided scientists and space enthusiasts around the world with new ways of understanding this vast solar system we inhabit.
2. The ISS
In 1980, President Ronald Reagan approved the development of the International Space Station, which at the time was a domestic attempt at a space station named Freedom. NASA was given 10 years to build and launch the station. In 1989, with the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States dying down before formally ending in 1990 with the dissolution of the USSR, plans were adapted to make Freedom the International Space Station.
This reformation, and complete redesign of the space station, was part of an effort to reduce the costs and promote global cooperation in the advancement of science. 1993 saw two former rivals joining forces when Russia agreed to merge their independent space station module to the ISS. Russia joined a growing list of countries in contributing to the ISS.
On November 20, 1998, Russia launched the first segment of the ISS. The United States launched their first module called Unity 15 days later. The ISS would host its first residents on November 2, 2000, with astronaut Bill Shepherd being joined by cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev, and Yuri Gidzenko.
Over the course of the decade, further additions have been made to the ISS, including a Russian-built habitat and control center, a NASA microgravity lab, a European lab, and a Japanese lab. This pivotal player in science has the involvement of many countries from around the world, including the US, Russia, Canada, Brazil, 11 members of the EU, and Japan.
251 astronauts have stayed in the ISS for varying periods of time. The ISS has played a role in groundbreaking discoveries in diseases, medicine, water purification, and the effects space has on the human body.
1. Apollo 11
One can’t talk about NASA’s greatest achievements without mentioning the historic success that was Apollo 11 in 1969. JFK made it clear after the success of Freedom 7 that the United States fully intended to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade. Sadly, he didn’t live to see Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the lunar surface, as he was assassinated in 1963.
Despite his death, his successors Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon didn’t take the nation’s foot off the gas. Thanks to the longstanding rivalry between the two superpowers during the Cold War, once JFK set the goal of getting a man on the moon, nothing could derail what would become a defining moment in history. It became not just a means of prestige, but also national security. LBJ had the words of Eisenhower in his head and feared that if Russia achieved dominance in space, the potential for a nuclear attack from beyond the Earth’s surface was imminent. He famously said on March 1, 1968 at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, “We will not abandon our dream. We will never evacuate the frontiers of space to any other nation.”
The Apollo 11 rocket launched on the July 16, 1969 from Cape Canaveral. Three astronauts were chosen to be a part of history: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. It traveled for four days before landing on the moon on July 20.
It was estimated that an astounding 650 million people watched Armstrong’s televised descent to the lunar surface and heard him say the first words ever uttered on the moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”