How NASA Works

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President John F. Kennedy addresses a joint session of the Congress in an historic speech on May 25, 1961.
Image courtesy NASA
President John F. Kennedy addresses a joint session of the Congress in an historic speech on May 25, 1961. See more space exploration images.

…I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish…

- President John F. Kennedy, "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs," May 25, 1961

­With these words, President John F. Kennedy challenged a fledgling, three-year-old government agency to accomplish one of the greatest achievements of mankind. That agency was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In its 55-year history, NASA has placed men on the moon, established a space station in Earth orbit, explored most of the planets in our solar system, and gazed into the depths of the universe. These accomplishments are just the beginnings of America's space program.

With the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, Congress created NASA to research problems in flight, both within and outside the Earth's atmosphere and to ensure that United States' space activities were peaceful and beneficial to mankind. NASA's mission is to pioneer space exploration, make scientific discoveries and conduct aeronautical research. But how does NASA fit into the federal government?

In this article, we will examine what NASA does, what it has accomplished, how it is organized and what it intends to do in the future.

A Saturn V booster lifts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center
Image courtesy NASA
A Saturn V booster lifts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center

NASA is an independent civilian space agency under the executive branch, created by Congress to help execute policy or provide special services (other independent agencies include the Central Intelligence Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation). Although NASA is not a cabinet-level organization like the Department of Defense, its administrator gets nominated by the President and must be confirmed by the Senate. Presidents can set policies/directions for the agency. Here are some examples:

  • 1961- President John F. Kennedy directed NASA to land men on the moon by 1970
  • 1972 - President Richard M. Nixon instructed NASA to develop the space shuttle
  • 1984 - President Ronald Reagan called on NASA to develop a space station "in a decade"
  • 1989 - President George H.W. Bush proposed to send humans to Mars
  • 2004 - President George W. Bush directed NASA develop a new space vehicle by 2008 (now called Orion, see How the Crew Exploration Vehicle Works) and focus human space activities on exploration

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Like all other government agencies and departments, NASA proposes an annual budget, which gets incorporated into the President's annual budget and submitted to Congress. Congress debates and appropriates funds to NASA through legislation (appropriations bills). NASA's success in carrying out its mission and achieving presidential directives is highly dependent upon funding from Congress. For example, the Mars exploration program proposed by President George H.W. Bush met enormous resistance in Congress because it was deemed to be too expensive ($500 billion over 20 to 30 years). Congress did not fund the program and the proposal failed.

Next, let's look at what NASA has accomplished since its inception.­

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