President Dwight D. Eisenhower (center) appoints T. Keith Glennan (right) NASA's first administrator and Hugh L. Dryden its first deputy administrator.
Image Credit: NASA

Although NASA is best known for 60 years of engineering and scientific achievements, it originally came into being as a matter of national security. After the Soviets flew the first two Sputniks in 1957 and Sputnik 3 in 1958, the U.S. government saw space as important new political, if not military, battlefield and began to lay the course for a long-term space plan.

“It was almost as if a bomb had fallen” on Capitol Hill, Congressional staffer Eilene Galloway said in a 2000 oral history interview, “because we were so surprised that the Soviet Union was first. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had space projects in the International Geophysical Year, but our project was very small. It was a satellite that weighed a little more than three pounds, and the Soviet satellite [weighed 184 pounds and] really opened up outer space as the new environment, added to land, sea and air.”

Scientists pushed President Eisenhower to make any new agency charged with overseeing space exploration a civilian agency, fearing military control would mean research only into military priorities

Video: "How It All Began".

Congressional hearings on the matter, chaired by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX), began in November 1957 and continued for six weeks. Johnson asked Galloway, a defense analyst with the Legislative Reference Service, to summarize the Congressional testimony. Her report, titled “The Problems of Congress in Formulating Outer Space Legislation,” recommended several options including creation of a new civilian agency to lead America’s space efforts.

On April 2, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a draft law to Congress that called for a civilian National Aeronautics and Space Agency, based on the existing National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), to oversee the US space program. Twelve days later both the Senate and the House introduced versions of a bill to establish such an organization, with hearings beginning the next day. Galloway successfully lobbied to designate the new organization an Administration rather than an Agency to give it broader authority to coordinate with many other government agencies.


Senator Johnson (left); Legislative Reference Service analyst Galloway (middle); President Eisenhower addressing Congress. (right).

The House bill passed on June 2 and the Senate version on June 16. Senator Johnson chaired a bipartisan panel to produce a joint version of the bill, and met with the President following the July 4th holiday to resolve the remaining issues. Congress passed the final version of the bill, the National Aeronautics and Space Act, on July 16 and President Eisenhower signed it into law on July 29, 1958. The bill established eight objectives for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA):

  1. The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;
  2. The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles; Tea
  3. The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space;
  4. The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes;
  5. The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;
  6. The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defense of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;
  7. Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results thereof;
  8. The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities and equipment

Although the Act has been amended over the years, these eight objectives still describe the major functions of NASA today.


Dryden (at left) and Glennan (second from right) being sworn in as President Eisenhower (second from left) looks on.

On Aug. 8, President Eisenhower nominated T. Keith Glennan, President of Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio, and Hugh L. Dryden, Director of the NACA, to be NASA Administrator and Deputy Administrator, respectively. The Senate confirmed them a week later and they were sworn in at the White House on Aug. 19. NASA officially opened for business on Oct. 1, 1958, with its Headquarters at first occupying temporary office space at the Dolley Madison House in Washington, DC.

Related links:

NASA: 60 Years and Counting – an overview of the agency’s achievements of the last six decades.

The Birth of NASA: A history of how the agency came to be.

Eilene Galloway’s oral histories with the JSC History Office.