Happy Birthday, NASA! Space Agency Born 60 Years Ago

NASA was officially born 60 years ago yesterday when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation bringing the agency into existence on July 29, 1958.

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]

President Eisenhower commissioned Dr. T. Keith Glennan, right, as the first administrator for NASA and Dr. Hugh L. Dryden as deputy administrator. The National Aeronautics and Space Act (Pub.L. 85-568), the United States federal statute that created NASA, was signed into law 50 years ago today on July 29, 1958. (Image credit: NASA)

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.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Meghan Bartels
Senior Writer

Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.