What is NASA? Exploring the universe for 65 years

a person stands on a ladder and reaches towards a large nasa logo pasted on the outside of a building
A worker performing maintenance at an exterior NASA logo. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA, also known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is the U.S. government's civil space agency. 

NASA "explores the unknown in air and space, innovates for the benefit of humanity, and inspires the world through discovery," according to the agency's website. The agency employs 18,000 civil servants, has thousands of contractors, and an annual budget of $23 billion.

The agency has 20 centers and facilities across the United States, with research directions including Earth's climate, the sun, the solar system and aeronautics research and development. In human spaceflight, large projects include the International Space Station and the Artemis program which aims to land humans on the moon later in the 2020s.

Related: What was the space race?

NASA is working to increase diversity following early government inclusions issues, such as the "Lavender Scare" of the 1950s and 1960s against LGBTQ+ people, and the exclusion of women and people of color in both astronaut and ground roles. A 1978 astronaut class known as the "Thirty-Five New Guys" was one early effort to increase Black and women representation in the agency.

NASA's recent efforts to increase diversity date back to at least 2010, according to its Office of the Inspector General. Since then, NASA enacted a charter for its LGBTQ Pride Alliance in May 2018. The agency also named its headquarters after a Black woman and "Hidden Figure" Mary Jackson in 2020.

The agency has numerous programs in aerospace and space exploration, but here we will focus on its main space exploration programs — human and robotic.

Mary W. Jackson overcame the barriers of segregation and gender bias to become the first African American female engineer to work at NASA. She later led the efforts to ensure equal opportunities for future generations. The Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building in Washington, D.C. has been named in her honor.  (Image credit: NASA)

NASA formation

NASA was officially formed through the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 to in part, pursue "activities in space [that] should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind." (Today, NASA recognizes a diverse workforce and uses terms such as "humans" instead.)

Much of the agency's research, employees and programs were inherited from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics which was formed in 1915 in the midst of the First World War, during a need to develop advanced airplane technology, according to a NASA overview.

Other facilities were incorporated into NASA after its formation on Oct. 1, 1958, with notable examples including the Armyâs Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that later pursued solar system exploration, and rocket research under the Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama (now called the Marshall Space Flight Center). Today, astronaut activities are performed at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and solar system science at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center near Baltimore.

U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón is seen during her visit to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), overlooking the Europa Clipper while it was under assembly in January 2023. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The impetus for NASA's formation was complex, but briefly put, the United States and the Soviet Union were in the midst of a Cold War, which Encyclopedia Britannica describes as "an ongoing political rivalry" between those countries and their allies between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. That rivalry spurred missile technology and rocket development.

NASA itself argues that it was formed due to "technological advances in other countries", saying that "lagging" in space matters "would put America not only at a technical disadvantage but also an economic and perhaps even military one."

As the Second World War ended, both NASA and the Soviet Union acquired former Nazi German rocket engineers, including Wernher von Braun at NASA. The engineers' role in Nazi atrocities must be remembered, but regarding the space program, they played a crucial role in developing early rockets.

That development culminated with the surprise launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik in 1957, the first-ever artificially made human satellite. NASA was also working on its own satellite under the auspices of the International Geophysical Year (from July 1, 1957, to Dec. 31, 1958). After several failed attempts by the Americans, the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, reached orbit on Jan. 31, 1958.

Related: V2 rocket: Origin, history and spaceflight legacy

An artist's illustration of NASA's Explorer 11 satellite, a later entrant in the Explorer series. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA human spaceflight programs

NASA's spaceflight history has been covered in numerous books, but its notable astronaut programs include:

Project Mercury: The first human spaceflight program that sent single astronauts into space. It sent its first astronaut (Alan Shepard) to space on May 25, 1961, roughly six weeks after the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin.

Project Gemini: A set of two-person missions to test technology and procedures ahead of moon landings, deemed a key NASA priority as of 1961. The program performed dockings and spacewalks, among other achievements.

Apollo: This program culminated with the landing of 12 men on the moon, starting with Apollo 11 on July 12, 1969. However, three astronauts were killed during a launch pad fire for Apollo 1 on Jan. 27, 1967, that sparked a lengthy investigation and spacecraft redesigns. The Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975 saw Americans and Soviets meet in space during a lull in the Cold War.

Skylab: The first American space station included a tricky set of spacewalks to repair Skylab after the facility was severely damaged during launch. Skylab hosted three crews and came down unexpectedly in 1981, mainly in rural Australia.

Sally Ride was the first U.S. woman in space and the first known LGBTQ+ astronaut, although she did not reveal the latter fact during her lifetime. (Image credit: NASA)

Space shuttle: The shuttle flew 135 crews and is known for opening up the program at last to women, people of color and international astronauts after decades of restrictions. Two crews of seven astronauts each died: Challenger's STS-51-L during launch on Jan. 28, 1986, and Columbia's STS-107 crew during landing on Feb. 1, 2003. The shuttle also was key in developing the ISS, including visits to the Soviet-Russian Mir space station as an early ISS testbed.

International Space Station: The ISS construction began in 1998 and permanent crews on the complex began in 2000. The ISS aims to serve as a testbed for science and for examining human health on long-duration missions. Hundreds of people have served on the ISS; a typical stay is six months, but a handful of NASA astronauts have spent a year on board.

Russian Soyuz seats: The shuttle's retirement in 2011 led to nearly a decade of dependence on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to access the ISS. NASA paid by the seat to use Soyuz. Dozens of missions went well, although relations periodically deteriorated and one crew experienced a scary (but safe) abort in 2018.

Commercial crew: NASA funded SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner as the first U.S. commercial company crewed spacecraft for the ISS, with SpaceX and Boeing allowed to use the technology for other space matters. The program is still very young. SpaceX sent its first crewed mission to the ISS aboard Dragon in 2020, while Boeing is expected to do the same in 2023 or so.

Artemis program: NASA aims to bring humans back to the moon in the 2020s with the Artemis program, with international partners. The uncrewed Artemis 1 flew around the moon successfully in 2021 and a crewed mission, Artemis 2, is expected to follow around 2024. A landing mission, Artemis 3, will launch no sooner than 2025 or 2026.

Related: Four for the moon! NASA names Artemis 2 astronaut crew for 1st lunar mission since Apollo

The Artemis 2 crew that will fly around the moon. Clockwise: NASA astronaut Christina Koch, NASA astronaut Victor Glover, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen, and NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman. (Image credit: NASA/Josh Valcarcel)

NASA solar system exploration

Numerous NASA probes have explored Earth and the solar system, but a sampling of notable missions include:

Pioneer series: This early spacecraft series explored the solar system when spaceflight engineering was in its infancy. Amid numerous failures due to inexperience, the program successfully sent probes to the moon, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn.

Mariner series: The Mariner series, conducted between 1962 and 1973, made visits to the planets Mercury, Venus and Mars. Especially notable is Mariner 9, the first orbiter at Mars that discovered the planet's volcanoes and vast canyons during an era in which scientists thought its surface was like Earth's quiet moon.

Viking 1 and Viking 2 landings: Viking 1 and Viking 2 alighted on the Martian surface in 1976, marking the first-ever landings on the Red Planet. The probes worked for years on the surface, gathering valuable data about the Mars environment, and also performed controversial life-searching experiments.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2: These spacecraft were launched in 1977 to take advantage of a rare alignment between the planets that allowed Voyager 2, with additional funding, to make flybys of Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989. Both spacecraft also explored Jupiter, Saturn and (decades later) interstellar space, where they are still sending back scientific information.

Artist's impression of a Voyager spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA / JPL)

Hubble Space Telescope: The observatory (funded by both NASA and the European Space Agency) launched in 1990 to explore the universe in optical and infrared light. Its flawed mirror caused the first space shuttle repair mission in 1993, and four other servicing missions followed through 2009. Hubble remains active and is best known for confirming the acceleration of the universe, among numerous other discoveries.

'Faster, better, cheaper': As computer technology improved in the 1990s, NASA implemented a "faster, better, cheaper" approach on select spacecraft. It sent more than a dozen missions to space using several techniques to cut down on cost, such as working in small teams, using off-the-shelf technology and reducing inspections ahead of launch. The most notable success was Mars Pathfinder (below), with other ones including Lunar Prospector and asteroid probes called Stardust and NEAR-Shoemaker. That said, the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander missions due to simple engineering mistakes forced a rethink of the program.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter: NASA's LRO launched in 2009 to map the surface in high resolution, successfully following up on reports of water ice from other missions. LRO is now serving as a scout ahead of NASA's Artemis program, as it provides imagery for landing missions at the south pole (a key area due to the suspected presence of water ice in its craters.)

The Hubble Space Telescope is deployed from the cargo bay of space shuttle Discovery during mission STS-31 on April 25, 1990. (Image credit: NASA)

Mars rover program: Several NASA orbiters found evidence of ancient water on the surface of the Red Planet, which was a large impetus for the ongoing rover program. NASA's first Mars rover was Sojourner, a mini-machine that rode to the surface aboard the Pathfinder lander in 1996. The agency followed the work up with the Mars Exploration Rovers, known as Spirit and Opportunity, who reached the surface in 2004 and explored for years beyond their 90-sol design life. A car-sized rover, Curiosity, followed in 2012 with a more advanced machine, Perseverance, in 2021. Curiosity and Perseverance are still active. In the 2030s or so, a Mars sample return mission is planned with ESA.

Earth observation program: NASA has been observing our planet for decades to learn about matters such as climate change, fires, water and extreme weather forecasting. Dozens of satellites have launched, with a selected few programs including the long-running Landsat series with the United States Geological Survey, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) series with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and individual satellites like Aqua or Terra.

Other solar system probes: There have been many, but examples include the Magellan mission to Venus, numerous Mars spacecraft such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Galileo (with ESA) and Juno (independently) missions to Jupiter, the Cassini-Huygens mission (with ESA) to Saturn, the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, and several spacecraft that have visited or touched down on comets and asteroids.

James Webb Space Telescope: Webb or JWST launched in 2021 to explore the earliest galaxies and history of the universe. Its notable discoveries span a range of astrophysics in stars, exoplanets and young galaxies.

NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office: The agency works with partner telescopes to scan for potential threats from asteroids or comets (no imminent threats are known after decades of searching.) Other U.S. agencies or departments are also involved to assist with matters such as training and emergency management.

Related: Solar system planets, order and formation: A guide

Curiosity takes a selfie at Mont Mercou on Mars on March 30, 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Q&A: Vanessa Wyche

headshot of vanessa wyche
Vanessa Wyche

Vanessa Wyche joined NASA in 1989 after working for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She is now director of NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) and the first Black woman to hold the role. Wyche's other key leadership positions have included deputy director of JSC, director of the Exploration Integration and Science Directorate, flight manager of several missions of the space shuttle, and executive officer in the Office of the NASA Administrator.

What advice would you give to students who desire to work for NASA?

Find your passion, whatever it is that you're excited about, because there's so many different careers that you can do at NASA, whether you're interested in being an engineer or an accountant, etc. We do have internship programs at NASA, and all of our centers.

What do you foresee will be the future of the astronaut corps?

We'll probably be needing more astronauts. We're doing operations in low Earth orbit. We'll also be doing simultaneous operations on the moon, and preparations for going to Mars. Our astronaut corps is very diverse. We have people of all different backgrounds, and also they have different skill sets. 

What excites you the most about the future of NASA?

We have more people that are going into space in different ways. Additionally, we have more companies and more countries that are joining. I believe that space is going to be just like aviation was 50 years ago. There are going to be people from all over the world going into space.

This Q&A is based upon a livestreamed event at the Smithsonian National Air & Space museum in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 12, 2023 celebrating Black History Month at NASA. The answers are edited and condensed.

Additional resources

Read more about NASA's early days in this brief history of NASA. Eilene Galloway, often called "the grand matriarch of space law," tells here how she came to work for Lyndon B. Johnson and helped him bring NASA into existence.


Encyclopedia Britannica. (2023, June 20.) "Cold War." https://www.britannica.com/event/Cold-War

NASA. (n.d., retrieved 2023, June 21.) "NASA 60 Years and Counting: Beginnings." https://www.nasa.gov/specials/60counting/begin.html

NASA. (2023, May 30). "Our Mission and Values." https://www.nasa.gov/careers/our-mission-and-values

NASA Office of Inspector General. (2023, April 20). "NASA's Efforts to Increase Diversity in Its Workforce." https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/IG-23-011.pdf

NASA. (2023, Jan. 27). "About NASA." https://www.nasa.gov/about/index.html

NASA. (2022, May 6). "LGBTQ Pride Alliance." https://www.nasa.gov/centers/hq/eodm/employee_resource_groups/pride_alliance

NASA. (2010, Oct. 26). "NACA Overview." https://history.nasa.gov/naca/overview.html

NASA. (2004, Feb. 14). "National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958." https://history.nasa.gov/spaceact.html

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace

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