NASA Turns 100 Today — Here's How the Space Agency Got Its Start

Source: AP
Source: AP

Get your candles and space-themed cakes ready: NASA is celebrating its 100th birthday.

Well, not exactly. But March 3, 1915, does mark the birthday of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the federal agency founded to institutionalize aeronautical research, which later went on to become NASA in 1958. According to NASA, President Woodrow Wilson and Congress charged the new agency "to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution." The original committee was made up of 12 volunteers and allocated a budget of $5,000.

Despite its modest origins, NACA went on to play a prominent role in World War II, where the agency led the development of new aeronautic technologies that ultimately helped America prevail in the conflict, according to an in-depth report by ABC News.

In a message posted online, NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden praised those early pioneers:

"We continue to see the NACA's influence in many areas of our work — the shapes of aircraft, retractable landing gear, guidelines for achieving stability and control in flight, landing and recovery operations for aircraft and spacecraft and even seaplane and floatplane designs."

To infinity and beyond: With the dawn of the space age, NACA was reorganized into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The rest is history: Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961, followed by the extraordinary Apollo missions that culminated in Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's moonwalk in 1969.

But NASA is responsible for more than just the space race. The space agency's missions helped lead to the invention of hundreds of items that fill American homes, including memory foam and water filters. During the boom years, when competition with the Soviet Union made space exploration a matter of national security, NASA's operating budget peaked at 4.41% of all U.S. spending in 1966.

With the passage of time and, later, the ending of the Cold War, resources and priorities shifted. NASA's budget declined sharply after the 1960s. Efforts by President Barack Obama to increase the agency's 2016 operations allowance have not stalled a continuing trend toward the privatization of the space industry. Today, new players like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk's SpaceX have brought the final frontier closer than ever. Space entrepreneur Peter Diamandis told Business Insider that he expected the first "trillionaire" to be made in space.

And it all started with NACA and NASA, 100 years ago.

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Jon Levine

Jon Levine is a staff writer at Mic, covering politics and people. He is based in New York and can be reached at JLevine@mic.com.

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