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NASA 60 th Logo

60 Moments in NASA History

In six decades, NASA has had too many achievements to easily catalogue on one web page. Listed below are 60 of the most important that have laid the groundwork for the agency’s current programs and future endeavors.


Last flight of the “finest and most productive research aircraft ever seen”—the X-15. The X-15 flew for nearly 10 years and set unofficial speed and altitude records of 4,520 mph (Mach 6.7) and 354,200 feet, while investigating all aspects of piloted hypersonic flight. Information from the program contributed to the development of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo piloted spaceflight programs as well as the Space Shuttle.

NASA conducts the first test of the supercritical wing -- in some ways a normal airplane wing turned upside-down -- designed to allow planes to travel more smoothly as they approached the speed of sound. It was part of NASA's ongoing efforts to improve aeronautics and led one Boeing executive to say, “NASA’s work on managing the sound barrier provided the fundamental understanding of transonic and supersonic aerodynamics, which allowed the development of the aircraft we fly around in today.”

First flight of Digital-Fly-By-Wire aircraft, which controlled flight surfaces by computer instead by cables reacting to movements by the pilot. Based in part on the Apollo navigation computer (and championed by Neil Armstrong, then at NASA Headquarters) fly-by-wire systems are used in aircraft around the world today. Part of the benefit is replacing heavy mechanical systems, allowing greater fuel efficiency and increased passenter and cargo loads.

First autoland by transport aircraft with thrust-only control.

Pathfinder-Plus solar-powered aircraft flies to record altitude of 80,201 feet.

X-43A sets Mach 9.6 speed record.

President Eisenhower signs the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating the agency, which was based on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics when it opens for business on Oct. 1, 1958. He is shown here in August giving commissions to T. Keith Glennan (right) and Hugh L. Dryden (left), NASA's first administrator and deputy administrator respectively.

NASA launches Pioneer 1. A project inherited from the U.S. Army, Pioneer 1 became NASA’s first spacecraft. Meant to go into lunar orbit and carrying a TV camera to study the moon's surface, a mechanical problem limited the spacecraft to sending 43 minutes of data back before re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.

Three weeks after the first U.S. astronaut flies, President Kennedy announces the audacious goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. The challenge to NASA was immense; the agency had only rough plans for a Moon landing in several decades. But once the goal was set, NASA responded.

The first commercial resupply mission launches to the International Space Station.

At a press conference in Washington, NASA introduces the first American astronauts, the Mercury 7. All experienced military test pilots, they had undergone an incredible battery of physical and mental examinations.

Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space, making a 15-minute suborbital flight.

The second major step toward the Moon was putting a man in orbit. Astronaut John Glenn got that job, making three laps around the Earth in just under five hours.

Ed White becomes the first American to take a spacewalk. Developing spacesuit technology and spacewalking skills were crucial to our plans in space.

A fire on the launch pad kills the first Apollo crew: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. NASA responded to this crushing loss by overhauling the Apollo spacecraft design and developing the processes and procedures that allowed us to safely conduct the rest of the Apollo program.

The crew of Apollo 8 are the first humans to see the Earth from lunar orbit and capture the famous Earthrise photograph. Orbiting the Moon on Christmas Eve, they add some perspective to a turbulent 1968 in their TV broadcast that concludes with a reading from the Book of Genesis

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first humans to walk on another celestial body.

NASA's "successful failure" begins with an explosion in the service module of the Apollo 13 spacecraft. The crew had to use the lunar module as a lifeboat while they spent more than three days circling the moon and returning to Earth.

NASA launches Skylab, the first U.S. space station.

Docking of the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz capsules, the first joint mission between Americans and Russians.

NASA announces the selection of 35 new astronauts, including the first women and African-Americans.

The first orbital flight of the space shuttle, NASA's reusable space vehicle.

Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space.

Guy Bluford becomes the first African-American in space.

The crew of space shuttle mission STS-41-C makes the first on orbit satellite repair, replacing instruments on the Solar Max satellite.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, is lost shortly after launch.

The United States and Russia agree to expand their cooperation in human spaceflight. The effort would start with Sergei Krikalev becoming the first Russian to fly aboard an American spacecraft when he joined the STS-60 crew for its 1994 flight. In 1995, American Norm Thagard would spend 115 days aboard the Russian space station

The United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency announce they will cooperate on building the International Space Station.

John Glenn returns to space on STS-95.

Shuttle docks to ISS for the first time on STS-96. The first element, Zarya, has been launched from Russia on Nov. 20, 1998. STS-88 had joined the Unity node to Zarya on Dec. 6, 1998, officially beginning construction of the ISS.

STS-93 launches with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, commanded by Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle flight.

Expedition 1 crew members (from left) Bill Shepherd, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev board the International Space Station, beginning humanity’s permanent presence in space.

Space Shuttle Columbia is lost with its crew of seven during re-entry. Top row, from left: David M. Brown, mission specialist; William C. McCool, pilot; and Michael P. Anderson, payload commander. Bottom row, from left: Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick D. Husband, mission commander; Laurel B. Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist from the Israeli Space Agency.

Orion capsule completes its first spaceflight test.

NASA names four astronauts to the first commercial crew flights, scheduled for 2018. From left Doug Hurney, Eric Boe, Bob Behnken and Suni Williams.

Aboard the International Space Station, astronaut T.J. Creamer sends the first unassisted Tweet from space.

Premiere of “The Martian” featuring many of the technologies NASA is working to explore the moon and Mars.

A solar eclipse visible across the United States becomes the biggest online event in NASA's history. More than 50 million viewers watched the eclipse via web streams of NASA Television, and NASA’s website received one fifth of its traffic for the year in one day.

Katherine Johnson presented Presidential Medal of Freedom, recognizing the work she and other female "computers" did to make the early U.S. space program successful.

Peggy Whitson returns from ISS as the new U.S. record holder for space flight, with 665 days in space.

NASA launches TIROS 1, the first weather satellite. Crude by modern standards, this is the first television image from space. Tiros 1 operated for only 78 days but proved scientists could monitor the Earth's weather patterns and cloud cover from space.

NASA launches ECHO 1, the first communications satellite. Echo was a passive satellite; it reflected radio and radar signals rather than generating or relaying them. Scientists were also able to track it as a way of understanding the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere.

Mariner 2 flies past the planet Venus in the first space mission to study another planet at close range. Among many other things, the spacecraft discovered that Venus had no magnetic field

Mariner 9 reaches Mars and becomes the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. Its mapping mission is initially delayed by a dust storm that obscures all of Mars's surface except the tops of its tallest mountains.

Landsat 1 launch, beginning more than 40 years of continuous observations of the Earth's land surfaces, oceans and atmosphere.

The Apollo 17 crew takes a picture of the Earth on their way to the Moon: the "Blue Marble".

Viking 1 lands on Mars, beginning NASA’s 40 years of exploration of the Red Planet.

Pioneer 10 becomes the first spacecraft to travel beyond the orbits of the known planets. In about 2 million years, it will come close to the star Aldeberan.

Launch of the Cosmic Background Explorer, which measured the background radiation of the universe to better understand how the universe formed after the Big Bang. In 2006, John Mather of NASA and George Smoot of the University of California would share the Nobel Prize for their work based on COBE data.

The Hubble Space Telescope deployed from STS-31. Research based on Hubble data has fundamentally changed how we view the cosmos, touching on black holes, dark energy and matter, and planets in other solar systems. The telescope would capture a number of iconic images, including the image below of the Eagle Nebula, dubbed “The Pillars of Creation.”

NASA Releases "WMAP" baby picture of the universe. WMAP would revolutionize understanding of the structure and evolution of the universe.

ESA's Huygens probe, which traveled to Saturn with the Cassini spacecraft, lands on Titan. (Artist’s concept)

Stardust mission returns to Earth to samples of Comet Wild-2.

Voyager 1 becomes the first spacecraft to reach interstellar space.

New Horizons flies by Pluto, sending back the first close up views of the dwarf planet.

Juno reaches orbit around Jupiter.

Oumuamua, first known interstellar object, makes closest approach to Earth.

NASA confirms recovery of Antarctic ozone hole due to Montreal Protocol.

NASA launches the communications satellite Telstar I, the first active communications satellite and, also the first satellite launched for a private company. Telstar was built and operated by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). On July 23, it relayed the first publicly available transatlantic TV signal, showing pictures of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, part of a baseball game and remarks by President Kennedy on the value of the American dollar, which was causing concern in Europe. When Kennedy denied that the United States would devalue the dollar, it immediately strengthened on world markets. CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, also on the broadcast, later said that "We all glimpsed something of the true power of the instrument we had wrought."

NASA launches Intelsat 1 for the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT). Built by Hughes Aircraft Company, Intelsat 1 (known as Early Bird at the time) was the first communications satellite placed in a geosynchronous orbit. From Earth the satellite appears to stay in one spot in the sky, making for a very simple and robust way to use satellites for communications. This idea had been popularized by Arthur C. Clarke in 1945.

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National Aeronautics and Space Administration

NASA Official: Brian Dunbar

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