An agency born out of the Cold War may one day save our lives.
This is the incredible story of NASA, an agency that has revolutionized our understanding of Earth and our place in the galaxy. It embodies the trait that has made us the most advanced species on record: the desire to explore, connect and find answers to mankind's greatest riddles.
The story of NASA is, in many ways, a deeply human one. Over five and a half decades, the agency has put Americans on the moon, suffered setbacks and explosions, helped launch the largest space station in world history and landed rovers on Mars, testing the limits of what humans can do and even where we can live. As our own planet degrades, its legion of astronauts, engineers, developers and technicians may be the ones to bridge our world with whatever lies beyond.
NASA's story begins on Oct. 4, 1957, the day the Russians launched Sputnik. As its satellite orbited the planet, Americans grew restless, worried about what it would portend, worried that America had just fallen behind in the arms race, worried that nations in Asia and Africa would see the technological superiority of the communists and forge common cause with our enemies.
That fear functioned just like a rocket ship. Democrats scorched then-President Eisenhower for allowing the U.S. to fall behind in the space race. The slow wheels of bureaucracy began to spin faster. As we planned our next step, the government launched Explorer 1, our first satellite, on Jan. 31, 1958. Later that year, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, formally consolidating existing government agencies under the banner of NASA and giving it its mission: to explore space and develop next-century innovations.
The race was on.
When NASA announced that it was looking for astronauts, there was a ringing response. Applications poured in from members of the Marines, Navy and Air Force, which NASA whittled down to a group of 110.
The recruits underwent four intense phases of evaluation. In the final phase, the candidates experienced pressure suit tests, acceleration tests, vibration tests, heat tests and more. They had to prove their physical health on treadmills, tilt tables and by blowing up balloons. The psychiatric evaluations were frequent and demanding. How candidates answered questions like "Who am I?" allowed team psychologists to evaluate their sense of identity and social roles. Left standing were 18 potential astronauts, all in peak mental and physical shape.
Of the 18, seven were chosen and introduced to the world on April 10, 1959. They would become known as the Mercury Seven, or Astronaut Group 1.
To prepare for the first manned space flight, NASA took Mercury Seven astronauts on parabolic flights on a C-131 Samaritan, briefly escaping the Earth's gravity, to get used to weightlessness. These flights were known among them as a ride on the "Vomit Comet" because of the nausea they induced.
The first real space flight was still several years away, and in the meantime...
The launch of the Television Infrared Observation Satellite (Tiros) Program was NASA's first experiment with mapping the weather.
Meteorologists around the world began relying on Tiros. The cold and warm fronts that get tracked on local news programs, the simulations for hurricanes and tornadoes, they're all made possible by NASA's early efforts to have an eye (way, way up) in the sky.
Project Echo came from an idea that predated Sputnik: to test the density of air in the upper atmosphere. Then scientists realized the "balloons" could be used as a communications relay for radar and radio signals, and a much bigger goal came into view: to use them for a communications network.
However, the initiative wasn't without its false starts. While the first "balloon" was successfully launched in 1960, a year earlier there was a serious mishap. A test balloon being inflated on the ground exploded and sent shimmering aluminium into the sky that caused massive confusion. The press was clamoring for answers. NASA held back the full truth and instead portrayed it as an early success.
Meet Ham, the West African space chimp from French Cameroons, who marked a major milestone: the first primate ever to fly into space. His craft reached speeds of 5,857 mph and an altitude of 157 miles, achieving 6.6 minutes of weightlessness, before it splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. Ham was fatigued and a little dehydrated, but it was a success.
Alan Shepard would be next.
Alan Shepard, a member of the Mercury Seven, was the first American in space. The journey peaked at 115 miles high, before his capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. It was a major accomplishment for NASA and the nation.
Three weeks later, President John F. Kennedy made an announcement: Astronauts would be on the moon by the end of the decade. Yet at the time, it was still anything but inevitable.
Astronaut Ed White, on the Gemini 4 mission, became the first American to walk in space. He opened the hatch and used an oxygen jet-gun to maneuver out into the great void somewhere far above Hawaii. Twenty-three minutes later his trip was over, just as Gemini 4 was passing over the Gulf of Mexico.
Gemini was our stepping stone to the moon, bridging the gap between the Mercury and Apollo programs.
It was meant to be a routine test of the command module. Three astronauts, Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom (L–R above), bundled in for a full-day test just weeks before the planned launch.
As the hours rolled by, communication became a problem. The astronauts were having trouble talking with mission control as Grissom grew increasingly frustrated. At around 6:31 p.m., the astronauts reported a fire. By the time mission control could decipher the message, they rushed to open the hatch, but it was an inward-facing design and neither they nor the astronauts could open it. Mission control was forced to watch the live feed as Chaffee, White and Grissom lost their lives.
But the grim failure wouldn't last for long.
At 10:56 p.m. EST, Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder and planted the first foot on the moon, while half a billion people watched on Earth. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," he proclaimed.
Above, Buzz Aldrin joins Armstrong on the lunar surface and takes his first steps. Armstrong is reflected in his visor, snapping Aldrin's photo.
The crew of Apollo 13 and their craft experienced multiple problems before and shortly after launch that would come back to haunt them, from a measles outbreak that grounded a crew member to issues with the oxygen tanks.
Fifty-five hours and 46 minutes into the flight, the crew was just finishing up a televised broadcast with the words, "This is the crew of Apollo 13 wishing everybody there a nice evening, and we're just about ready to close out our inspection of Aquarius and get back for a pleasant evening in Odyssey. Good night," when minutes later, things went terribly wrong.
The oxygen tanks began to fail, and they were 200,000 miles from Earth. They were no longer going to the moon — they were battling for their lives. Through ingenuity and mettle, the astronauts were able to pull off numerous technical maneuvers and make it back alive, while the nation watched transfixed.
The launch of the Landsat program allowed us to deploy satellites that would give us a window into our changing Earth. The images they beam back, utilizing infrared and near-infrared signals, can be used to study climate change, agriculture, forestry, urban planning and more.
Above is a recent image of Tassili n'Ajjer National Park in Algeria, taken with a Landsat satellite. The yellow and tan areas are sand, granite rocks appear in brick red and the blue areas are likely salts, displaying the power of the satellites.
The Pioneer Program was designed to send unmanned craft into deep space. It began with Pioneer 6 in 1965, and with every trip, scientists learned how to build better probes that could withstand the intense conditions in space, especially around other planets.
Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972, carrying a gold plaque with the image of a man and woman. For decades it probed further into the darkness, only losing contact with mission control in 2003.
It was the first craft to leave the asteroid belt and obtain close-up images of Jupiter (above).
The Viking 1 landed on Mars in 1976 and would shape our understanding of the Red Planet for decades. It sent back the first-ever high-resolution images of the planet.
They allowed us to see volcanoes, lava plains, giant canyons, craters and wind-formed features on its surface, features that provided dramatic insights into its history. The voyage also sparked another debate that eventually went unanswered: Was there life on Mars? The rover found organic compounds, but they were dismissed as contamination from Earth.
It's a question we're getting closer to answering today.
The Voyager 1 was built off the success of the Pioneer program and designed for exploring the outer solar system.
It too carried a message for other intelligent life: a gold-plated audio-visual disc carrying photos of Earth and its life forms and sounds, like a whale song or a baby crying. It still sends back data and images, including those of Saturn. (Above, the Sun is striking the planet, casting a shadow behind it).
Today it is the furthest man-made object from Earth, having already passed into interstellar space.
NASA's Space Shuttle flight program employed the first reusable space craft, designed to return to Earth like a giant glider — a craft that's now a NASA icon. The program kicked off with Columbia in 1981, and was followed by Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour.
It sparked a new era at NASA, and each shuttle would have its own place in history.
It took years, but finally the all-male cast of astronauts began to look more like America. Ride, an astrophysicist, beat out 1,000 applicants to gain her spot on the team.
It wasn't until she died that she disclosed to the public, in her obituary, her 27-year relationship with her partner. It turns out she was more than the first woman in space, but possibly the first LGBT American to escape Earth's gravity as well.
With a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and a minor in laser physics, Guion "Guy" Bluford became the first African-American in space after a career as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force.
"People came from all over to watch this launch because I was flying," said Bluford of the day he launched aboard the Challenger. "I wanted to set the standard."
A few short years later, a different Challenger flight would end in tragedy.
Moments after this photo was taken, the Challenger shuttle burst into a fireball. Engineers had warned their supervisors there could be a problem with the o-rings (which separate sections of the rocket booster) because of the cold that morning, but their warnings went unheeded. The nation was in shock.
President Reagan ordered a review, which found that the o-rings were the cause of the problem. Following the disaster, NASA suspended all shuttle missions for two years as it redesigned a number of the shuttle's features.
Seven people died in the explosion, including Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old high school teacher, who was chosen by NASA as part of its Teacher in Space program.
Never has something changed our view more than the Hubble Space Telescope. Whirling around Earth at 17,500 mph, it has returned images that have sparked new discoveries and changed our understanding of space. It is one of the most productive scientific instruments ever built, as scientists have published scores of findings based off its images.
Above, stars explode in the Carina Nebula, somewhere between 6,500 and 10,000 light years from Earth.
The Endeavour, one of the last shuttles built, set several records in '92. It was the first time three astronauts did a simultaneous spacewalk and that an African-American woman, Dr. Mae Jemison, was part of the shuttle team.
Above, captured by a crew member on the International Space Station, the Endeavour prepares to dock as Earth's horizon waits in the distance.
The SOHO program (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) was launched as an effort to study the sun from its deep core to the outer corona. For the first time, we got an up-close view of its chaotic surface. SOHO's spectacular data has fascinated scientists and the public and has shaped our understanding of our solar system's only star.
It holds almost unquantifiable power. The possible effects of a major solar flare on Earth — disrupting communications, short-circuiting electricity grids and more — make observations from the SOHO program all the more critical.
The Pathfinder program has further changed our understanding of Mars, building off the success of the Viking 1 and other rovers that followed. Each trip generates new insights into this once warm and wet planet that, at one point, had the conditions for life.
Among other things, the rover trips have turned the question of "Are there aliens?" into more of a question of when and how NASA will find them.
The International Space Station (ISS) is possibly the closest thing we have to a Deathstar. It acts as an intermediate base station for exploring the moon and other planets and conducting research. Its construction was the largest joint initiative ever undertaken in space; it's about the size of a football field.
The initial conceptual design dates back to 1982. Shortly after, the U.S. began reaching out to Canada and European allies for support in developing it. The director of NASA brought in Japan's science agency, and quickly a coalition had formed, each contributing to its development.
"Our next large target is to develop a new frontier based on the pioneer spirit," proclaimed President Reagan in his 1984 State of the Union speech. "I command our nation to construct a permanent manned space station within ten years." In time, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland would all join this international coalition, helping to develop one of the greatest structures ever created.
Sometimes — oftentimes — we can't appreciate things fully until they're gone. Above, a NASA spectrometer detects that the massive "hole" above Antarctica has grown to be three times larger than the entire land mass of the United States, or 11 million square miles.
The discovery further exposed the frailty of Earth's ozone layer and helped spur governments to act. New agreements to reduce greenhouse gases were put in place, and if we continue to control emissions, the "hole" in the ozone could heal by 2070.
Space Shuttle Columbia had a problem just after launch when a piece of debris came loose and struck the left wing. The seven-member crew conducted experiments 24 hours a day in shifts, while over the course of 16 days back on Earth, NASA scientists investigated the foam strike on takeoff.
As the shuttle re-entered Earth's atmosphere far above Dallas, travelling at 18 times the speed of sound, Mission Control made several attempts to contact the astronauts, with no success. Twelve minutes later the mission control center received a call from someone saying they watched the Challenger shuttle break up in midday on television. NASA sent search and rescue teams, but nothing but scraps could be found.
These Robonauts deserve their own movie. Unlike other automated machines employed by NASA, Robonauts are designed to work much like a human does and use the same tools, requiring a similar level of dexterity. They can be controlled remotely, but were desiged to one day operate autonomously.
Today a Robonaut 2 is being employed on the ISS as a general cleaner, admittedly a mundane task.
"The robot has to earn its stripes," says Robonaut project leader Ron Diftler. However, as the technology develops, the sky's the limit.
In recent years NASA has furthered its work identifying new planets that could theoretically function as frontier outposts or "Earth 2." In 2014 NASA made 715 such discoveries through the Kepler program. Above is a rendering of Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star.
As Earth's climate changes and environmental degradation continues unabated, we already see one possible future coming into view: one with robots, rovers and even new planets to inhabit. Future generations might one day be aboard a NASA aircraft heading for a new home.
As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to say, we're all children of the stars. Put another way, humans are actually 93% stardust.
Space may be the home we were always meant to return to, and with NASA, we might just make it safely into the great beyond.