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What Does NASA Do?

About NASA

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.

Organization

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.

Our Work Today

In the early 21st century, NASA is extending our senses to see the farthest reaches of the universe, while pushing the boundaries of human spaceflight farther from Earth than ever before.

Humankind is poised to take its Next Giant Leap, far beyond the frontiers of exploration we've reached to date. On Earth and in space, the agency is developing new capabilities to send future human missions to an asteroid and Mars. Mars once had conditions suitable for life. Future exploration on our Journey to Mars could uncover evidence of past life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?

The Journey to Mars begins aboard the International Space Station, where astronauts are extending permanent human presence in space and performing research that will help us understand how humans can live and work off Earth for long periods. U.S. commercial companies are supplying cargo to the space station, and will soon launch astronauts once again from U.S. soil., helping foster development of private-sector aerospace. Part of the U.S. portion of the space station has been designated as a national laboratory, and NASA is committed to using this unique resource for wide-ranging scientific research.

To send astronauts deeper into the solar system, NASA is developing the most advanced rocket and spacecraft ever designed. NASA's Orion spacecraft will carry four astronauts to missions beyond the moon, launched from Florida aboard the Space Launch System (SLS) -- an advanced heavy-lift rocket that will provide an entirely new national capability for human exploration beyond Earth's orbit.

To help test other spaceflight capabilities to meet the goal of sending humans to Mars, including advanced propulsion and spacesuits, NASA is developing the Asteroid Redirect Mission first-ever mission to identify, capture and redirect a near-Earth asteroid to a stable orbit around the moon, where astronauts will explore it in the 2020s, returning with samples.

An unprecedented array of science missions is seeking new knowledge and understanding of Earth, the solar system and the universe.

We're studying Earth right now through current and future spacecraft helping answer critical challenges facing our planet: climate change, sea level rise, freshwater resources and extreme weather events.

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.

A fleet of robotic explorers is on and around Mars, dramatically increasing our knowledge about the Red Planet, paving the way for future human explorers.

Multiple NASA missions are studying our sun and the solar system, unraveling mysteries about their origin and evolution. By understanding variations of the sun in real-time, we can better characterize space weather, which can impact exploration and technology on Earth.

The New Horizons spacecraft nears Pluto for a July 2015 rendezvous, which will provide the closest views we've ever had of the dwarf planet. The Juno spacecraft is poised to reach Jupiter in 2016, and will peer beneath its dense gas to reveal the mysteries of its core.

NASA telescopes also are peering into the farthest reaches of the universe and back to its earliest moments of existence, helping us understand the universe's origin, evolution, and destiny. Entering its 25th year, the Hubble Space Telescope continues to explore as NASA develops its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will capture light from the universe's earliest stars.

It's an exciting time at NASA as we reach for new heights to reveal the unknown and benefit humankind. See a list of NASA's current missions and find out what we're launching next!

Updated November 2014

Page Last Updated: November 20th, 2014
Page Editor: Gary Daines