Watch on YouTube a video clip about NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
Fifty-five years ago today, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Act.
NASA itself was not born until October 1, 1958. It took a few months to transfer various federal agencies into the new NASA.
At its core was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). NASA was intended to become an aerospace version of the NACA, but all that changed when President John F. Kennedy proposed on May 25, 1961 that the United States place a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s.
Why was NASA created?
The answer goes back to the International Geophysical Year.
In the early 1950s, as both the United States and the Soviet Union developed rocketry technology not to explore space but to launch bombs at each other, a group of scientists proposed the IGY as a peaceful means of encouraging nations to engage in coordinated observations of geophysical phenomena. The United States and the Soviet Union agreed to participate by launching the world's first artificial satellites between July 1957 and December 1958.
Concerned that using a military rocket to launch a civilian satellite would give the Soviets an excuse to militarize space, the Eisenhower administration approved the Vanguard project. A nominally civilian booster based on sounding rocket technology would be designed by the Naval Research Laboratory to launch the Vanguard satellites.
It was certainly no secret that the Soviets were going to launch a satellite. Soviet scientists provided their American counterparts with documents detailing their experiment, and publicized in advance the frequency that could be used to listen to the satellite's “beep beep” signal once it was launched. How and when was not revealed.
Many Americans simply didn't believe the Russians were capable of launching a satellite into orbit. Russian rocket research was more secretive than their American counterparts. Both programs were rooted in their military agencies, as until the IGY no nation had a purely civilian rocket program.
When Sputnik I launched on October 4, 1957, the booster was an R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile. The U.S. had its own ICBM in development, the SM-65 Atlas, but it would not be operational for another two years.
Some leapt to the conclusion that this meant the Soviets had a military superiority, but failed to consider whether the R-7 could actually hit a target, much less that the U.S. had intermediate range missiles and nuclear bombers stationed near the Soviet border.
After Sputnik 2 launched with a dog on November 3, 1957, the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress sensed an opportunity to attack the Republican Eisenhower administration. Senator Henry Jackson (D-WA) called it, “A devastating blow to the prestige of the United States as the leader in the scientific and technical world.” Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson declared, “Soon, they will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.” On November 25, 1957, Johnson chaired the opening hearing of the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee investigation into Sputnik.
The hysteria ratcheted again when on December 4, 1957 Vanguard TV-3 blew up on launch live on national television.
December 4, 1957 ... Vanguard TV-3 explodes live on national television.
Vanguard TV-3 was never intended to be a response to the Russian Sputnik launches. It was Test Vehicle 3, the next in a series of tests to validate the Vanguard technology. If it had been successful, it would have placed an inert six-pound ball into orbit. Modest as that was, it would have been America's first satellite. Its failure only provided more fodder for the Democrats.
Entering 1958, both the Eisenhower administration and both houses of Congress were preparing legislation to address the supposed technology gap between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library has online a treasure trove of documents related to the decision-making process that led to the creation of NASA.
A March 5, 1958 memorandum documents a meeting Eisenhower had with his staff to discuss an organization “for the conduct of civil space programs.” The recommendation was to “use the NACA, substantially reconstituted and made responsive to Presidential direction.” The memo referred to a “National Aeronautics and Space Agency” as the name of the proposed civilian department.
The memo concludes, “There was some suggestion that a better name than 'agency' might be found for the NASA — 'institute.'” Do you think “Administration” was an upgrade?
The administration and Congress, unlike today, worked together to craft the final legislation. Eisenhower and Johnson met at the White House on July 7, 1958 to hammer out the final details.
After the bill passed Congress, Eisenhower signed it fifty-five years ago today.
During the next few months, the Washington bureaucracy scrambled to consolidate the NACA and various space research agencies from the Defense Department into the new NASA. Hugh Dryden, the NACA director, was named NASA's Deputy Administrator. The administrator for the new agency would be Keith Glennan, who was president of the Case Institute of Technology.
Glennan and Dryden produced an internal film to be used to introduce Glennan to the former NACA employees.
September 1958 film introducing new NASA Administrator Keith Glennan to NACA employees.
It was during that transition period that ambitious young Democratic senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA) gave a speech on the floor of Congress, August 14, 1958. Titled “United States Military and Diplomatic Policies — Preparing for the Gap,” Kennedy claimed that the U.S. faced a “gap” in which its nuclear deterrent would be inferior to the Soviets.
It was an argument he used during the 1960 presidential campaign against Eisenhower's vice-president, Richard M. Nixon.
Once he was elected President, Kennedy was told by military experts that the supposed “gap” did not exist, but of course he would not admit that publicly.
Having pledged to close the gap, Kennedy inherited the non-existent danger, and the danger appeared all the more imminent once the Soviets orbited Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.
NASA's Project Mercury, approved on October 7, 1958 and announced on December 17, 1958, was a fundamental program to learn the basics about humans functioning in orbit. Mercury could have launched a human before Gagarin, but concerns about the Mercury-Redstone 2 test flight results with Ham the chimpanzee on January 31, 1961 led NASA to conclude they had more work to do before it was safe to launch humans.
Once Alan Shepard launched May 5, 1961 on his 15-minute suborbital test flight, Kennedy felt confident enough to announce his administration's Moon program proposal.
May 25, 1961 ... President John F. Kennedy changes the course of NASA. Video source: John F. Kennedy Library.
If you watch the above excerpt, implicit in Kennedy's proposal is the acknowledgement that he is changing the purpose of NASA. No longer will it be an aerospace research and development agency. It will now be a propaganda organ to show the world that American technology is superior to the Soviet Union.
The speech changed the course of history. And of NASA.
The Sputnik launches, and Yuri Gagarin's orbit, created crises that prodded Congress and the White House to act. The irony is that it was another perceived crisis that led to the creation of the NACA in 1915.
To quote from the NASA History Program Office:
The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) came into being, much like its successor organization, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in response to the success of others. Even though the Wright brothers had been the first to make a powered airplane flight in 1903, by the beginning of World War I in 1914, the United States lagged behind Europe in airplane technology. In order to catch up, Congress founded NACA on 3 March 1915, as an independent government agency reporting directly to the President.
The fundamental difference is that the NACA was always intended to be no more than an R&D agency which would turn over its research to the private sector and to the military. That was also NASA's role until May 25, 1961, when President Kennedy proposed putting a man on the Moon to enhance American prestige.
That happened on July 20, 1969. NASA has spent the forty-four years since then trying to find its course.