NASA History Overview

November 1st, 2018

A new era in space flight began on April 12, 1981, when Space Shuttle Columbia, or STS-1, soared into orbit from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is responsible for unique scientific and technological achievements in human spaceflight, aeronautics, space science, and space applications that have had widespread impacts on our nation and the world.

Forged in response to early Soviet space achievements, NASA was built on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and other government organizations, as the locus of U.S. civil aerospace research and development.

When NASA opened for business on Oct. 1, 1958, it accelerated the work already started on human and robotic spaceflight. NASA’s first high profile program was Project Mercury, an effort to learn if humans could survive in space. This was followed by Project Gemini, which used spacecraft built for two astronauts to perfect the capabilities needed for the national objective of a human trip to the Moon by the end of the 1960s.

Project Apollo achieved that objective in July 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission and expanded on it with five more successful lunar landing missions through 1972. After the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz Test Projects of the mid-1970s, NASA’s human spaceflight efforts again resumed in 1981 with the Space Shuttle program that continued for 30 years. The shuttle was not only a breakthrough technology, but was essential to our next major step in space, the construction of the International Space Station.

Over the last 60 years NASA has continued to push the boundaries with cutting edge aeronautics research that has dramatically changed the way we build and fly airplanes. NASA has also completed the reconnaissance of our solar system, with intense investigation of all the planets. Using orbital spacecraft like the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA has also dramatically changed our understanding of the universe around us, as well as our own planet.

NASA’s early work on launch vehicles, communication satellites, and weather satellites has fundamentally changed daily life and created whole new industries. As a catalyst for international cooperation, NASA has also changed how and why humanity conducts space exploration. Now, NASA is preparing to take humankind farther than ever before, as it helps to foster a robust commercial space economy near Earth, and pioneers further human and robotic exploration as we venture into deep space.

The NASA History Office Program publishes a quarterly newsletter, as well as an array of books (print and digital), hosts social media, provides fellowships, and runs the Historical Reference Collection (our version of an archive) to assist the public in finding more information on aeronautical and space history. In addition, the staff produces the Aeronautics and Space Report of the President.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 directs NASA to produce an annual report that includes a “comprehensive description of the programmed activities and the accomplishments of all agencies of the United States in the field of aeronautics and space activities” during the preceding year.

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.”

One Giant Leap For Mankind

November 1st, 2018

Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong working at an equipment storage area on the lunar module.

Official crew photo of the Apollo 11 Prime Crew

July, 1969.

It’s a little over eight years since the flights of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard, followed quickly by President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon before the decade is out.

It is only seven months since NASA’s made a bold decision to send Apollo 8 all the way to the moon on the first manned flight of the massive Saturn V rocket.

Now, on the morning of July 16, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins sit atop another Saturn V at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The three-stage 363-foot rocket will use its 7.5 million pounds of thrust to propel them into space and into history.

OFF TO THE MOON
At 9:32 a.m. EDT, the engines fire and Apollo 11 clears the tower. About 12 minutes later, the crew is in Earth orbit. After one and a half orbits, Apollo 11 gets a “go” for what mission controllers call “Translunar Injection” — in other words, it’s time to head for the moon. Three days later the crew is in lunar orbit. A day after that, Armstrong and Aldrin climb into the lunar module Eagle and begin the descent, while Collins orbits in the command module Columbia. Collins later writes that Eagle is “the weirdest looking contraption I have ever seen in the sky,” but it will prove its worth.

ALARMS SOUND
When it comes time to set Eagle down in the Sea of Tranquility, Armstrong improvises, manually piloting the ship past an area littered with boulders. During the final seconds of descent, Eagle’s computer is sounding alarms.

It turns out to be a simple case of the computer trying to do too many things at once, but as Aldrin will later point out, “unfortunately it came up when we did not want to be trying to solve these particular problems.”

When the lunar module lands at 4:18 p.m EDT, only 30 seconds of fuel remain. Armstrong radios “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Mission control erupts in celebration as the tension breaks, and a controller tells the crew “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we’re breathing again.” Armstrong will later confirm that landing was his biggest concern, saying “the unknowns were rampant,” and “there were just a thousand things to worry about.”

FIRST STEP
At 10:56 p.m. EDT Armstrong is ready to plant the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbs down the ladder and proclaims: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin joins him shortly, and offers a simple but powerful description of the lunar surface: “magnificent desolation.” They explore the surface for two and a half hours, collecting samples and taking photographs.

They leave behind an American flag, a patch honoring the fallen Apollo 1 crew, and a plaque on one of Eagle’s legs. It reads, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

HEADING HOME
Armstrong and Aldrin blast off and dock with Collins in Columbia. Collins later says that “for the first time,” he “really felt that we were going to carry this thing off.”

The crew splashes down off Hawaii on July 24. Kennedy’s challenge has been met. Men from Earth have walked on the moon and returned safely home.

In an interview years later, Armstrong praises the “hundreds of thousands” of people behind the project. “Every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman, ‘If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault.’”

In a post-flight press conference, Armstrong calls the flight “a beginning of a new age,” while Collins talks about future journeys to Mars.

Over the next three and a half years, 10 astronauts will follow in their footsteps. Gene Cernan, commander of the last Apollo mission leaves the lunar surface with these words: “We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace, and hope for all mankind.”

Pence has high praise for JSC

August 28th, 2018

“The Johnson Space Center is a national treasure, and all the men and women who work here are a national asset,” Vice President Mike Pence said as he addressed the standing room only crowd in JSC’s Teague Auditorium.

By Mary Alys Cherry

“America will lead mankind to the stars once again,” Vice President Mike Pence told a standing room only crowd in Johnson Space Center’s Teague Auditorium, “and,” he continued, “there are plans to send man back to the moon for the first time in nearly 50 years.

“We’re not content with leaving behind footprints or even to leave it all. This time has come, we believe, for the United States of America to take what we’ve learned over so many decades, put your ingenuity and creativity to work and establish a permanent presence around and on the moon.”

Welcome words for a group of hard-working engineers and space scientists, after a decade of nearly being ignored by government officials.

LAST STOP

“The vice president was at JSC after a stop in the hard-hit city of Rockport, where Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25, 2017 and where he and Gov. Greg Abbott made a helicopter tour to survey the recovery. Then it was on to Houston for several events before ending his Texas journey at the place he said “has been at the forefront of America’s journey to the stars,” bringing smiles to the faces of JSC Director Mark Geyer and Deputy Director Vanessa Wyche and the hundreds of other employees looking on.

It was his second visit to NASA’s lead space center. Earlier, he was here to introduce NASA’s newest astronauts. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who introduced Pence, also was back for his second visit in three weeks, much to the delight of the audience, most of whom couldn’t recall this much attention from Washington in years.

Pence, who serves as chairman of the National Space Council, admitted to being a space geek. In fact, he said he was like a kid in a candy store while touring JSC with Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt, one of the last two men to walk on the moon. Together, they visited NASA’s big swimming pool – also known as the Neutral Buoyancy Lab – and JSC’s eye-popping collection of moon rocks. Schmitt flew on the nation's last mission to the moon 46 years ago in 1972.

MANTLE OF GREATNESS

For more than 50 years, this storied center has been at the forefront of America's journey to the stars,” Pence continued. This is the ‘home of the Astronaut Corps.’ And, here, from the Mission Control Center, you have guided every American-crewed space expedition since 1965. The names and the voyages that you directed from this place adorn the mantle of American greatness. In Project Gemini, you steered some of our earliest astronauts high above what they called the “Blue Marble”, into low Earth orbit.

“In the Apollo Program, you navigated the first members of the human family to the moon and back.

“At this very hour, you walk with our astronauts through their duties as they walk 200 miles above us, orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes, on the International Space Station.

NATIONAL TREASURE

“The Johnson Space Center is a national treasure, and all the men and women who work here are a national asset,” he continued to great applause. “I have to tell you, I’m just speaking as a small-town guy from southern Indiana, but I know the American people admire — they admire the work done here — past, present — and they look for even greater things in the future here at Johnson Space Center. And let me to say to all of you, and all of those that might be looking on: The most important work and the best days for the Johnson Space Center are yet to come.  Count on it.”

He went on to talk about the work of the National Space Council and the proposed U.S Space Force and how it may be needed in the future, noting that “the need is real,” as the Pentagon has just released a report that China and Russia are weaponizing, “developing and testing new and dangerous weapons and technologies to counter America space capabilities.”

Then, looking to the future, he added, “Sadly, for more than seven years we’ve been forced to hitch a ride to space. Those days are over. Soon – and very soon – American astronauts will return to space on American rockets launched from American soil.”

Fans witness historic handoff at Creek-Lake football game

December 1st, 2017

Former JSC Director Mike Coats, in black, and NASA astronaut Col. Shane Kimbrough, at left, assist Lorna Onizuka during the Historic Handoff of the soccer ball that was aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it went down and was found and taken to the space station before the presentation to Clear Lake High Principal Karen Engle at CCISD Challenger Columbia Stadium. At right are Cheryl McNair, widow of Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair (immediately to Lorna’s left), and JSC Acting Deputy Center Director Vanessa Wyche.

By Eva deCardenas

Nov. 3, 2017 marked the poignant end of a 31-year journey for a soccer ball, a family and a school.

During halftime of that Nov. 3 Clear Lake High versus Clear Creek High Friday football game, a special reunion took place bringing people bound together by a soccer ball that was intended to fly on the Space Shuttle Challenger 51L mission in 1986.

Challenger Astronaut Col. Ellison Onizuka had originally intended to take the ball on his journey into space on the ill-fated flight. His daughter, Janelle Onizuka, was a member of the Clear Lake High soccer team in 1986. She and her teammates had signed the soccer ball before giving it to her father before the flight.

Soon after the Challenger accident, the soccer ball was discovered in the accident debris and eventually returned to Clear Lake High School. Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough offered to take the soccer ball with him on his recent mission to the International Space Station, allowing the ball to complete its journey into space.

The Nov. 3 game was the backdrop for the very special return of the soccer ball to its original owners. After the Clear Lake High marching band set the stage with their halftime performance, Space Odyssey, Col. Kimbrough presented the soccer ball to Janelle Onizuka.

“This ball has been on quite a journey,” Col. Kimbrough said. “Over 73 million miles, it’s orbited our planet 2,768 times, it’s been in every module of the International Space Station and now it’s my distinct honor to present it back to the Onizuka family.”
The Onizuka family in turn handed over the space artifact to the principal, Dr. Karen Engle, and Clear Lake High, where the ball may continue to signify a journey of many miles, and perseverance, to all who view it.

Lorna Onizuka also presented a signed photograph of the Space Shuttle Challenger crew to Dr. Engle. “It is very special because there are not very many of them. But I would like very much for Clear Lake High School to have this,” Onizuka said.

Also on field for the special presentation were several members of the 1986 soccer team and their coach, Amy Woolsey; Cheryl McNair, widow of Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair; former astronaut and former Johnson Space Center Director Mike Coats; former astronauts Loren Shriver, Jim Buchli and Mike Fincke; JSC Acting Deputy Center Director Vanessa Wyche; Clear Creek ISD Superintendent Dr. Greg Smith, Dr. Engle and Clear Lake High School Soccer Coach Jered Shriver.