NASA Is Born

November 1st, 2018

NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh L. Dryden, at left, and NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan, second from right, being sworn in as President Eisenhower, second from left, looks on. Image: NASA

On Oct. 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration officially opened for business. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Act the previous July, creating NASA to lead America’s civilian space program in response to Soviet advances in space exploration.

The new agency incorporated elements of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, founded in 1915 to advance aeronautics research in the United States. NASA also absorbed three NACA research laboratories — Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Va., Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in Mountain View, Calif. and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio – as well as elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Ala., and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

In December 1958, NASA gained control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., a contractor facility operated by the California Institute of Technology. Over time, the agency established or incorporated additional centers and facilities to meet the growing needs of the nation’s space program. Today, 10 field centers across the nation work together to accomplish NASA’s varied missions.

President Eisenhower nominated T. Keith Glennan, president of Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio, and Hugh L. Dryden, director of NACA, to be NASA administrator and deputy administrator, respectively. Glennan served until 1961, Dryden until 1965. The Dolley Madison House on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., served as the first headquarters of the new space agency (until 1961).

In April 1959, NASA introduced the seven Mercury astronauts to the world at an event in the house’s ballroom. As the agency grew, its headquarters relocated to more spacious accommodations in the nation’s capital.

Just 10 days after opening its doors, NASA launched its first spacecraft. Part of a program of lunar orbiters inherited from the U.S. Air Force, Pioneer 1 blasted off aboard a Thor-Able rocket from a fledgling launch facility at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Although it did not achieve its intended mission to orbit the Moon due to a rocket malfunction, Pioneer 1 did reach a then record altitude of about 70,000 miles. The probe returned scientific data confirming the existence of the Van Allen radiation belts until it burned up on reentry in the Earth’s atmosphere 43 hours after launch.

In the subsequent 60 years, NASA has launched spacecraft to unlock the mysteries of the universe, dispatched probes to make close up observations of every planet in the solar system, sent men on voyages to the Moon, and built a space station to maintain a permanent human presence in space.

Although NASA is best known for 60 years of engineering and scientific achievements, it originally came into being as a matter of national security. After the Soviets flew the first two Sputniks in 1957 and Sputnik 3 in 1958, the U.S. government saw space as an important new political, if not military, battlefield and began to lay the course for a long-term space plan.

“It was almost as if a bomb had fallen” on Capitol Hill, congressional staffer Eilene Galloway said in a 2000 oral history interview, “because we were so surprised that the Soviet Union was first. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had space projects in the International Geophysical Year, but our project was very small. It was a satellite that weighed a little more than three pounds, and the Soviet satellite [weighed 184 pounds and] really opened up outer space as the new environment, added to land, sea and air.”

Scientists pushed President Eisenhower to make any new agency charged with overseeing space exploration a civilian agency, fearing military control would mean research only into military priorities.

Congressional hearings on the matter, chaired by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX), began in November 1957 and continued for six weeks. Johnson asked Galloway, a defense analyst with the Legislative Reference Service, to summarize the congressional testimony. Her report, titled “The Problems of Congress in Formulating Outer Space Legislation,” recommended several options including creation of a new civilian agency to lead America’s space efforts.

On April 2, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a draft law to Congress that called for a civilian National Aeronautics and Space Agency, based on the existing National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to oversee the U.S. space program. Twelve days later both the Senate and the House introduced versions of a bill to establish such an organization, with hearings beginning the next day. Galloway successfully lobbied to designate the new organization an administration rather than an agency to give it broader authority to coordinate with many other government agencies.

Apollo 7: The race heats up

November 1st, 2018

The Apollo 7 prime crew, from left to right, are astronauts Donn F. Eisele, command module pilot, Walter M. Schirra Jr., commander; and Walter Cunningham, lunar module pilot. Photo: NASA

By Bob Granath
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

On Oct. 11, 1968, three American astronauts launched to Earth orbit aboard Apollo 7. It was the first piloted mission of the spacecraft designed to meet President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land on the lunar surface.

The 11-day flight took place as the race to the Moon was heating up between the United States and the Soviet Union. A month earlier, the Soviets launched the unpiloted Zond 5, a simplified version of their Soyuz spacecraft designed for cosmonauts. The capsule became the first to circle around the Moon and return safely to Earth.

Both nations also were recovering from tragic losses. Three Apollo 1 astronauts perished in a launch pad fire on Jan. 27, 1967. That same year, the lone cosmonaut aboard Soyuz 1 died when the spacecraft crashed on April 24.

Following almost two years of Apollo spacecraft redesign and testing, Paul Donnelly, Launch Operations manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, expressed confidence in the men and women who worked tirelessly to prepare for the flight.

“We have a great group of specialists from government and industry trained to work as a team,” he said. “Just as the astronauts are ready to fly to orbit, we are ready to get them there.”

COMMANDER
Serving as commander of Apollo 7 was NASA veteran Wally Schirra, a U.S. Navy aviator and captain. He flew Mercury 8 on Oct. 3, 1962, and commanded Gemini VI on Dec. 15-16, 1965.

Schirra was joined by two members of the third astronaut class, both making their first spaceflight.

Command module pilot Donn Eisele was a U.S. Air Force colonel and test pilot. Walt Cunningham had been a colonel and fighter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Although there was no lunar module on this flight, as the third member of the crew, Cunningham was designated LM pilot.

Following a flawless liftoff atop a Saturn 1B rocket from Launch Complex 34 at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) Air Force Station, the command-service module (CSM) separated from the second stage. Eisele then practiced a simulated LM docking. During launch with a LM, it would have been housed inside the adapter between the second stage and the CSM.

KEY OBJECTIVE
A key objective of Apollo 7 was testing spacecraft systems, especially the crucial service propulsion system (SPS) engine at the base of the spacecraft. On lunar missions, the SPS would be used to place the spacecraft in lunar orbit and later, fire the crew on a trajectory back home. On Earth orbital flights, the SPS would be fired to slow Apollo for reentry.

The first test of the powerful SPS took place on flight day two. When it fired with 20,500 pounds of thrust, Schirra radioed that it was a real kick.
“Yabbadabbadoo,” he exclaimed in a favorite saying of the television cartoon character Fred Flintstone. “That’s like a ride and a half!”

George Low, manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston, later noted that all eight firings of the SPS went extremely well.

“We had a tremendous workout of the service propulsion system,” he said. “I believe that is more than any space propulsion system has ever been used in any one flight”

WORLD WATCHES
Another goal was broadcasting live television from the spacecraft. Three days after liftoff, the Apollo 7 camera was turned on, allowing Mission Control and viewers around the world to watch the crew in orbit.

“I can see Eisele there,” said spacecraft communicator Tom Stafford, a fellow astronaut. “He’s holding a sign and it says, ‘From the lovely Apollo room, high atop everything.’ “

The crew fired the SPS engine on Oct. 22, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean eight miles from the recovery aircraft carrier, the USS Essex.
After the flight, Schirra described the Apollo CSM as “a magnificent flying machine.”

Lt. Gen. Samuel Phillips, director of NASA’s Apollo Program Office, considered Apollo 7 a perfect mission.

“We were able to accomplish a major step in our progress toward the lunar landing,” he said. “I have every confidence that the progress of this mission will let us accomplish that by the end of next year.”