Birth of NASA
In the eyes of the world, the Soviet Union was whipping the United States in the Space Race. Most Americans thought so, too. While the Soviets had orbited several satellites -- including two that carried dogs -- American rockets kept blowing up. So the U.S. decided to combine most of its space work into a new agency. President Dwight Eisenhower made it official 50 years ago today: He signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, giving birth to NASA.
While earlier space efforts were handled by the military, NASA was a civilian agency. It was designed to focus on peaceful uses of space, and its work was open to the public.
NASA took over an older organization that focused on aviation. It also took over an Army rocket center in Alabama. The research team there was headed by Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi engineer who launched the first American satellite in early 1958.
Von Braun's team modified its booster to launch the first American astronaut. And it developed the Saturn rockets that sent astronauts to the Moon.
NASA has had its shares of triumphs and tragedies over the years -- from successful Moon landings, Mars probes, and space-based telescopes, to botched Mars missions and the destruction of two space shuttles. And its plans for new missions to the Moon and Mars are controversial. But the agency continues to conduct its work in public view -- long after the end of the Space Race that gave it birth.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
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