NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., houses the higher-ups responsible for charting the space agency's course and implementing its vision. For the record, that vision is: "To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind."

NASA Headquarters is at Two Independence Square in Washington, D.C.
NASA Headquarters is at Two Independence Square in Washington, D.C.
Credit: NASA

Former space shuttle commander Charlie Bolden has headed NASA since 2009, when he became the first African-American to lead the agency on a permanent basis. NASA's deputy administrator is Lori Garver, who served as the chief civil space policy adviser for President Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

NASA HQ is located at Two Independence Square, a building in a complex at 300 E Street SW in the nation's capital. It oversees activities conducted at the agency's 10 field centers and a variety of installations scattered around the country. [Infographic: NASA Centers' New Mission]

Headquartersis divided into three main organizations, which the agency calls mission directorates. These directorates are Aeronautics, Human Exploration and Operations, and Science. [Giant Leaps: Top Milestones of Human Spaceflight]


NASA isn't just about spaceflight and space science, as its full name — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — makes clear.

The Aeronautics Mission Directorate works to make air travel smoother and safer. The directorate has three main goals, according to its website: 1) Improve gate-to-gate mobility in the nation's commerical air transportation system; 2) Reduce aircraft noise, emissions and fuel use, as well as the overall environmental impact on communities surrounding airports; and 3) Maintain or improve aircraft safety.

The logo of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The logo of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Credit: NASA

Aeronautics research takes place at four of NASA's 10 centers: Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.; Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California; Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio; and Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Jaiwon Shin leads the Aeronautics Mission Directorate, which received $551 million in the White House's budget request for fiscal year 2013 (out of a total NASA allocation of $17.7 billion).

Human Exploration and Operations

This directorate manages NASA's human spaceflight operations in low-Earth orbit and beyond. Much of the work is connected with the $100 billion International Space Station, which has hosted astronauts continuously since 2000.

But NASA is also working to get people to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, then on to Mars by the mid-2030s — tasks laid out by President Obama in 2010. To make this happen, the agency is building a huge rocket called the Space Launch System and a capsule known as Orion.

Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) also manages the space agency's efforts to nurture the emerging American private spaceflight industry, which NASA wants to fill the crew- and cargo-carrying shoes of the retired space shuttle fleet.

NASA hopes at least two American commercial spaceships are ready to ferry astronauts to and from the space station by 2017. The agency has also inked deals with two companies — California-based SpaceX and Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. — to make supply runs to the orbiting lab with unmanned craft. [Special Report: The Private Space Taxi Race]

The HEO directorate is relatively new, having been created in August 2011. It combines two previous directorates, which were known as Space Operations and Exploration Systems.

Bill Gerstenmaier leads HEO, which received $7.9 billion in the White House's 2013 federal budget request — about 45 percent of NASA's total allocation.

NASA field centers that are key to the goals and activities of this directorate include Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, Houston's Johnson Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.


The Science Mission Directorate manages NASA's many scientific and unmanned exploration activities, which the space agency breaks into four main areas: Earth science, planetary science, heliophysics and astrophysics.

The directorate's cosmic reach is thus vast, spanning missions that study Earth from space to unmanned efforts that explore other worlds such as Mars and Jupiter to space telescopes that peer to the very edge of the observable universe.

For example, Science oversees the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission, which dropped the 1-ton Curiosity rover onto the Red Planet's surface on Aug. 5, 2012. And it's responsible for the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that's slated for a 2018 launch.

The Science Mission Directorate is led by former astronaut John Grunsfeld. The directorate received $4.9 billion in the White House's 2013 federal budget request. (The allocations to NASA's three directorates don't add up to the agency's total budget of $17.7 billion because some money goes to construction, field center management and education efforts, among other things.)

The 2013 budget request gives NASA's planetary science efforts $1.2 billion, a 20 percent cut from 2012, with much of the money coming out of the agency's Mars program. The reduction forced NASA to scale back and fundamentally restructure its Mars exploration plans.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. has managed many of the space agency's robotic exploration missions over the years. Several other NASA field centers play a large role in the Science Mission Directorate's activities, including Ames and Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. 

— Mike Wall, Senior Writer