Does this scenario sound familiar? Technological advances in other countries have become a major concern to the United States government. Lagging behind would put America not only at a technical disadvantage, but also an economic and perhaps even military one. To focus U.S. technological research, Congress and the President create a new federal agency.
The creation of NASA following the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik? Yes, certainly. But it had happened before. Even though Americans had flown the first airplane in 1903, by the beginning of World War I in 1914, the United States lagged behind Europe in airplane technology. In order to catch up, Congress founded the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics on March 3, 1915, as an independent government agency reporting directly to the President.
For 40 years, the NACA (with each individual letter always pronounced, never as an acronym like “NASA”) conducted aeronautical research that was ultimately transferred to the nascent aerospace industry, which led the U.S. economy into the late 20th century. In the 1950s, as pilots were taking experimental vehicles like the X-15 faster and higher than ever before, to the edge of space, NACA engineers began thinking about sending humans into space. NACA developed a plan that called for a blunt-body spacecraft that would reenter with a heat shield, a worldwide tracking network, and dual controls that would gradually give the pilot of the craft greater control.
NASA opened for business on Oct. 1, 1958, with T. Keith Glennan, president of Case Institute of Technology in Ohio, as its first administrator. NACA director Hugh Dryden served as the first deputy administrator, and NACA veteran Robert Gilruth ultimately headed the Space Task Group and the Mercury program before becoming the director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center) in Houston.
President Dwight Eisenhower (center) presents commissions to T. Keith Glennan (left) and Hugh L. Dryden (right), NASA's first administrator and deputy administrator respectively. In July 1958, Eisenhower had signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating the agency, which opened for business on Oct. 1, 1958.
Image Credit: NASA