NASA's Research Programs

Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957
Image courtesy NASA History Office
Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957

In response to the launch of the first orbiting satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union in 1958, there was a perception that America was technologically behind the Russians. That same year, Congress created NASA. It incorporated several existing agencies into its structure:

  • The National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA)
  • Several research laboratories, including Ames Aeronautical Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • The Army Ballistic Missile Agency

NASA created several new centers that mobilized resources within the government, military, and private industry to recruit astronauts, develop spacecraft and build launch vehicles to put a man in space.

Aeronautical Research (1958 - Present)
Some of NASA's key aeronautical research programs have been the X-15 rocket plane and the HL10 wingless lifting body and X-29 forward-swept wing aircraft. Aeronautical research conducted by or sponsored by NASA has led to improvements in avionics, including glass cockpits, heads-up displays and computer-controlled fly-by-wire systems.

The second X-15 just after launch in the early 1960s
Image courtesy Dryden Flight Research Center
The second X-15 just after launch in the early 1960s

Unmanned Space Probes Explore the Solar System (1959 - Present)
NASA has sent numerous robotic space probes to various places in the solar system. The early probes (Ranger, Lunar Orbiter, Pioneer and Surveyor) were sent to the moon to obtain information necessary for the moon landings of the Apollo program. NASA later returned to the moon with the Clementine (1992) and Lunar Prospector (1998) probes for further lunar exploration.

NASA has sent flybys, orbiters and landers to explore the inner and outer planets. They include:

  • Mariner - flybys of Mercury, Venus and Mars
  • Pioneer - flybys of the moon (early missions), Jupiter (Pioneer 10), Venus (Pioneer Venus missions)
  • Voyager -flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune
  • Magellan - Venus orbiter and radar mapping
  • Viking - Mars landings
  • Galileo - Jupiter orbiter
  • Cassini - Saturn orbiter with Huygens landing probe on Saturn's moon, Titan
  • NEAR - asteroid orbiter
  • Deep Space 1 - asteroid flyby
  • Stardust - comet flyby and sample return
  • Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity - Mars landing rovers
  • Mars Climate Orbiter - Mars orbiter
  • Messenger - Mercury orbiter
  • New Horizons - Pluto and Charon orbiter

These probes have made many invaluable scientific discoveries. Next, we'll look at Projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.