The decision came after Soviet successes with the Sputnik program sparked concerns in the U.S. that American efforts in space were coming up short. The new administration was built on the framework of an existing agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), with legislation laying out eight primary goals for NASA.
"There are no blueprints or road maps which clearly mark out the course," Lyndon B. Johnson said at the time, in his role as Senate majority leader and chairman of the Special Committee on Space and Astronautics, according to a video released by NASA to commemorate the anniversary. "The limits of the job are no less than the limits of the universe." [Presidential Visions of Space Exploration: From Ike to Trump]
The USSR had launched the first-ever satellite, Sputnik, the year before. "It was almost as if a bomb had fallen" on Capitol Hill, Eilene Galloway, a congressional staffer involved in NASA's birth, later said about the Sputnik launch.
"We were having mostly explosions with our rockets," Charlie Duke, a NASA astronaut, recalls in the video of the period just before NASA was created. "It seemed like 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, blow up, more than liftoff, back in those days." Engineers finally had a successful launch on Jan. 31, 1958, but Congress didn't want the space efforts to lose momentum.
And so Congress set about overhauling NACA, turning it into an administration that could handle both aeronautics engineering and scientific space exploration. NASA's agenda focused on expanding human knowledge, developing new technology, and becoming a civilian agency that partnered with other countries and acted as a central clearinghouse for space exploration in the U.S.
The result is the administration so many people admire today.