CBS News reports on October 6, 1957 about the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1 launch.
What if NASA didn't exist?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was born out of unique historical circumstances.
In the 1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a Cold War. Both sides were developing rockets, not for space exploration but to launch bombs at each other.
The International Council of Scientific Unions in 1952 proposed an event to coincide with the climax of a period of increased solar activity. Called the International Geophysical Year, the event would run from July 1957 to December 1958. It would help bridge political divides between East and West, as scientists from 67 nations eventually participated.
Both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. agreed to participate by launching the world's first artificial satellites.
The American project was called Vanguard. It was to be launched on a nominally civilian rocket, because it was feared that using a military rocket would give the Soviets an excuse to militarize space. Vanguard was not considered a priority compared to military weapons research at Cape Canaveral; so long as it launched by December 1958, the U.S. would have done its part for the IGY.
The Russian satellite became known to the West as Sputnik. Its name in Russian was простейший спутник — “simplest satellite.” It was just a ball about the size of a beach ball that went “beep, beep” to prove it was in space.
It shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone. The U.S.S.R. said they were going to launch an IGY satellite. Their scientific team presented to their U.S. counterparts a 24-page document three months before the launch outlining the program. No one, apparently, took them seriously.
After the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, the U.S. accelerated the pace of Vanguard. A test flight on December 6, 1957 exploded just after the launch, live on national television, and was considered a national embarrassment.
A Universal newsreel report on the Vanguard TV-3 launch failure.
Now that the Russians had established the precedent of using a military rocket to launch a civilian satellite, the Eisenhower administration turned to the Army Ballistic Missile Agency to launch what would become America's first satellite. Explorer 1 launched on January 31, 1958, atop a modified Jupiter-C intermediate range ballistic missile.
Later in 1958, NASA was created out of several existing federal agencies. NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, was combined with several space research agencies from the Defense Department, so the U.S. could claim it was separating civilian and military space research.
Many of today's NASA field centers trace their origins back to that merger.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory contracted with the U.S. Army in the early 1940s to develop jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) aircraft. In the 1950s, it helped develop some of the nation's earliest missiles. JPL developed the Explorer 1 satellite.
The Langley Research Center was established in 1917 by NACA. Originally established for aeronautical research, it expanded into rocketry research in the 1940s which led to the creation of what is known today as NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.
The White Sands Test Facility was the Army's White Sands Proving Ground in the 1940s. Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists were shipped here along with the parts for about 100 V-2 rockets after World War II so they could teach rocketry to American military and university engineers.
Marshall Space Flight Center was an arsenal for storing ordnance shells during World War II. Eventually named the Redstone Arsenal, von Braun and his team were transferred here from White Sands in 1950. When the remnants of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency were transferred to NASA in 1960, von Braun became the center's first director.
As an intellectual exercise, let's pretend that Lloyd Berkner never thought of the IGY and proposed it to his scientist colleagues.
No IGY, which means no Sputnik, no Vanguard, no Explorer.
Let's take this supposition one step further, and assume that the United States and Soviet Union didn't become adversaries after World War II.
What would have happened to the nascent rocketry research that came out of the war?
My guess is that government funding for rocketry would have languished. Nazi Germany's V-2 might have become an historical curiosity, perhaps dismissed as a desperate tactic in the waning days of a lost war.
But another American adversary would have arisen sooner or later, perhaps one that pursued rocketry as a military weapon.
It's also possible that some entrepreneur would have recognized the value of orbital satellites. Many of rocketry's earliest visionaries understood the potential for orbital communications and observation satellites. The 1950s equivalent of Elon Musk might have decided to invest in resurrecting V-2 technology to launch a demonstration satellite to attract more investors.
But let's fast-forward to 2013.
Why would today's federal government want to create a NASA?
No perceived external mortal threat exists, as did the Soviet Union in 1958.
With trillion-dollar annual federal deficits and a bitterly partisan Congress, I think we all agree they would lack any far-sighted vision to create a space exploration agency.
Assuming a growing satellite launch industry, the government would probably decide it needed regulation, so we might have a space version of the Federal Aviation Administration. As other nations started to grow their own commercial launch industries, perhaps Congress would create a NACA for space to coordinate and promote research.
But it's unlikely that Congress would choose to simply lump together into one federal agency all the disparate military research facilities such as JPL, Redstone Arsenal and White Sands — if they even still existed.
It's been suggested that NASA be given the power to close and consolidate its facilities, but Congress has blocked that, preferring to protect pork in its districts and states.
The point of this pointless exercise is to suggest that if we decided today to create a government-funded space agency, it would probably look very different from NASA. NASA's bureaucracy is a Cold War relic, incapable of designing and pursuing its own nimble agenda because Congress won't let it. A recent example is the Space Launch System, dubbed Senate Launch System by its critics, because the program was imposed upon NASA by Congress in 2010.
As long as space exploration — and exploitation — is beholden to taxpayer financing, NASA won't be free to pursue its own destiny.
So perhaps it's time to ask ourselves as a nation, and as a global spacefaring species, what kind of government program we want — if any.
Just as NACA and the other agencies were absorbed into NASA in 1958, maybe we need to think about replacing NASA with another approach.
The problem, of course, is that Congress won't let it happen.
Hence the pointless exercise.
My opinion is that the success of commercial space will force the issue. NASA will eventually become like the old NACA. Exploration and exploitation will be led by the private sector.
That was essentially the motivation of the earliest ocean explorers such as Christopher Columbus — profit and advantage over rival nations.
History does tend to repeat itself.