What Does NASA Do?
NASA's vision: To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.
To do that, thousands of people have been working around the world -- and off of it -- for more than 50 years, trying to answer some basic questions. What's out there in space? How do we get there? What will we find? What can we learn there, or learn just by trying to get there, that will make life better here on Earth?
A Little History
President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958, partially in response to the Soviet Union's launch of the first artificial satellite the previous year. NASA grew out of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), which had been researching flight technology for more than 40 years.
President John F. Kennedy focused NASA and the nation on sending astronauts to the moon by the end of the 1960s. Through the Mercury and Gemini projects, NASA developed the technology and skills it needed for the journey. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first of 12 men to walk on the moon, meeting Kennedy's challenge.
Meanwhile, NASA was continuing the aeronautics research pioneered by NACA. It also conducted purely scientific research and worked on developing applications for space technology, combining both pursuits in developing the first weather and communications satellites.
After Apollo, NASA focused on creating a reusable ship to provide regular access to space: the space shuttle. First launched in 1981, the space shuttle flew more than 130 successful missions before being retired in 2011. In 2000, the United States and Russia established permanent human presence in space aboard the International Space Station, a multinational project representing the work of 15 nations.
NASA also has continued its scientific research. In 1997, Mars Pathfinder became the first in a fleet of spacecraft that will explore Mars in the next decade, as we try to determine whether life ever existed there. The Terra, Aqua and Aura Earth Observing System satellites are flagships of a different fleet, this one in Earth orbit, designed to help us understand how our home world is changing. NASA's aeronautics teams are focused on improving aviation, so it meets the explosive growth in global demand for air services.
Throughout its history, NASA has conducted or funded research that has led to numerous improvements to life here on Earth.
NASA Headquarters, in Washington, provides overall guidance and direction to the agency, under the leadership of the administrator. Ten field centers and a variety of installations conduct the day-to-day work, in laboratories, on air fields, in wind tunnels and in control rooms.
NASA conducts its work in four principal organizations, called mission directorates:
Aeronautics: manages research focused on meeting global demand for air mobility in ways that are more environmentally friendly and sustainable, while also embracing revolutionary technology from outside aviation.
Human Exploration and Operations: focuses on International Space Station operations, development of commercial spaceflight capabilities and human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.
Science: explores the Earth, solar system and universe beyond; charts the best route of discovery; and reaps the benefits of Earth and space exploration for society.
- Space Technology: rapidly develops, innovates, demonstrates, and infuses revolutionary, high-payoff technologies that enable NASA's future missions while providing economic benefit to the nation.
In the early 21st century, NASA's reach spans the universe. The Mars rover Curiosity met its major science objective -- finding evidence of a past environment suitable for microbial life -- in the first eight months of a planned 23-month mission, and now is continuing to look for more information about the habitability of the Martian environment. Cassini remains studying the Saturn system, as Juno makes its way to Jupiter. The restored Hubble Space Telescope continues to explore the deepest reaches of the cosmos as NASA develops the James Webb Space Telescope.
Closer to home, the crews of the International Space Station are extending the permanent human presence in space and performing research that will help us understand how humans can live and work off Earth for long periods. Working with U.S. commercial companies to develop spacecraft capable of carrying humans and cargo to the International Space Station, NASA is helping to foster the development of private-sector aerospace while also building the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket to send humans into deep space.
Earth science satellites are sending back unprecedented data on Earth's oceans, climate and other features. NASA's aeronautics team is working with other government organizations, universities, and industry to fundamentally improve the air transportation experience and retain our nation's leadership in global aviation.
Even with the retirement of the agency's space shuttles in 2011, NASA has a robust program of exploration, technology development and scientific research that will last for years to come. Here is what's next for NASA:
NASA is designing and building the capabilities to send humans to explore beyond Earth orbit, including the development of the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket, working toward a goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid in the coming decade and then to Mars by the 2030s.
The International Space Station is fully staffed with a crew of six, and American astronauts will continue to live and work there in space 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Part of the U.S. portion of the station has been designated as a national laboratory, and NASA is committed to using this unique resource for wide-ranging scientific research.
U.S. commercial companies have begun delivering cargo to the space station, and commercial industry partners are working with NASA to develop new spacecraft and rockets to transport astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, allowing NASA to focus its attention on the next steps into our solar system.
NASA is researching ways to design and build aircraft that are safer, more fuel-efficient, quieter, and environmentally responsible. NASA also is part of the government team that is working to develop the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, to be in place by the year 2025.
- NASA is conducting an unprecedented array of science missions that will seek new knowledge and understanding of Earth, the solar system and the universe.
Updated September 2013