The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, was founded in July 1958. It was officially opened for business and had its first day of operations on 1 October 1958 – 64 years ago this Saturday.
NASA is widely considered as one of the most transformational organisations in America’s – and the world’s – history. It is what took the first humans to the Moon, landed on Mars, and sent spacecraft beyond the edge of the solar system. It also spurred hundreds of technological advancements closer to home, including CAT scans, scratch-resistant lenses, and household insulation. Sixty four years on from its founding, NASA now plans to return humans to the Moon for the first time in 50 years, and is hoping to do so via partnering with commercial organisations through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (CLPS). This is a strong signal that innovation in the private sector is ripe and that the commercial opportunity for space is now bigger than ever. The Space Foundation estimates that the global space economy’s value reached over $400bn in 2020, and Citigroup say it is likely to more than double over the next two decades.
NASA was one of the original and pioneering organisations in space so we wanted to take this opportunity to highlight what we see as NASA’s top 10 achievements.
Following the 1957 launch of the first satellites ever in space, Sputnik 1 and 2, NASA’s JPL built and launched the first US satellite in 1958. The primary instrument on board was a cosmic ray detector designed to measure the radiation environment in Earth Orbit. This led to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts around Earth.
From 1968 to 1972, NASA operated the Apollo program which took humans to the Moon for the first time. There were a mix of crewed and uncrewed flights, orbiting and landing on the Moon (including a fair share of failures, which NASA were quick to learn from). The astronauts that landed on the surface brought back rock samples which scientists are still studying to this day.
Twin spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2 were launched in 1977, with the aim of reaching the furthest corners of the Solar System. August 2012 marked a historic date when Voyager 1 crossed the boundary between the Solar System and interstellar space, with Voyager 2 following 6 years later.
Space Shuttle program:
The Space Shuttle program operated 135 missions between 1977 and 2011. It was the first reusable crewed space vehicle that made multiple flights to orbit and was instrumental in getting the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station into orbit. Which brings us to the next two points…
Hubble Space Telescope:
Launched in 1990, the HST is responsible for peering in to the deep, early universe – up to 13.4 billion lightyears away. It is perhaps most famous for the Hubble (Ultra) Deep Field images, showing thousands of galaxies visible in the tiniest patch of sky.
The ISS is one of the best examples of multiple countries cooperating in space to achieve something tremendous. When finally de-orbited in 2030, it will have been orbiting Earth for 32 years. It has helped advance various scientific experiments and study the effects of microgravity on humans. Earlier in 2022 it welcomed its first all-private astronaut crew.
Cassini and Juno:
These were two missions to Saturn and Jupiter respectively, collecting massive amounts of data on the two largest planets in our solar system. Cassini discovered water ice on the moon Europa, while Juno mapped water and ammonia present in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
Opportunity Rover on Mars:
Most famous for its final words “My battery is low and it’s getting dark”, the Opportunity rover achieved infinitely more on the surface of Mars than it was designed to. Operating 61 times longer than planned from 2004 to 2018, it sent us a plethora of images of the Martian surface and detected various signs of water.
Launched in 2009, this telescope was launched to discover Earth-sized planets orbiting other stars’ habitable zones. In the end, it was able to discover more than 5000 exoplanet candidates.
James Webb Space Telescope:
After many years of delay, the JWST finally launched on Christmas Day 2021 and has been sending astonishingly high-res images to us ever since. It will be able to peer to the “beginning of time” when the most earliest galaxies were formed.
Looking forwards, Artemis is NASA’s second program to get humans back to the moon, including the first woman and person of colour. The first flight of the Space Launch System, which is the most powerful rocket ever built and instrumental in getting us back to the Moon, is expected later this year. Space technologies now address everything from carbon emissions to agriculture, from global security to cybersecurity and from mobile communications to rural internet connectivity. With rather good timing, 1 October 2022 is also International Observe the Moon Night, and we hope that as you gaze up at the night sky on Saturday evening, you will be reminded of the huge role that space plays in our lives today.