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.­

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.

Project Mercury and Other NASA Projects

Project Mercury, which ran from 1961 to 1963, had the goal of determining whether humans could survive in space. Single astronauts were launched into space in the Mercury spacecraft on six missions and spent up to 34 hours in space (see How Project Mercury Worked and How Project Mercury Missions Worked).

Soon after astronaut Alan B. Shepard completed a 15-minute suborbital flight, President Kennedy committed NASA to sending a man to the moon and back before the end of the decade. Under the direction of then Vice President (later President) Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress appropriated funds and NASA expanded its programs to achieve President Kennedy's vision.

Project Gemini (1965-1966)
The Gemini spacecraft carried two astronauts and could maneuver in space. Over the course of 10 missions, astronauts changed orbits, rendezvoused with other spacecraft, docked with an unmanned Agena rocket, and walked and spent long periods of time in space.

Gemini II spacecraft on display at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
Public domain image
Gemini II spacecraft on display at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida

Upon completion of the Gemini program, NASA learned how to fly, live and work in space for the durations (around two weeks) necessary to send men to the moon and back.

Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, faces the camera as he walks on the moon during Apollo 11 extravehicular activity.
Image courtesy JSC Digital Image Collection/ NASA
Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, faces the camera as he walks on the moon during Apollo 11 extravehicular activity.

Project Apollo (1967-1972)
The Apollo spacecraft carried three men and consisted of a command module (crew quarters), service module (rocket motor, fuel cells, fuel tank, maneuvering rockets, science packages and life support), and a lunar module (a two-man, two-stage independent space vehicle for landing and lifting off from the lunar surface). Apollo's primary mission was to land men on the moon, explore it and return them safely to Earth.

Project Apollo started with a tragic fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts (Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee) on the launch pad. The Apollo spacecraft was redesigned and tested in Earth orbit during Apollo 7. Apollo 8 took astronauts into lunar orbit, then Apollo missions 9 and 10 tested the lunar module in earth orbit and lunar orbit, respectively. Apollo 11 carried the first men (Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin) to the lunar surface, while a third astronaut (Michael Collins) orbited the moon in the command module. Armstrong and Aldrin spent hours walking on the moon, and their mission fulfilled President Kennedy's challenge.

NASA sent six more missions to explore various places on the moon, where astronauts spent up to two days exploring the lunar surface and gathering samples of moon rocks. One mission, Apollo 13, did not make it to the moon because an explosion crippled the spacecraft en route. NASA showed its ability to handle a crisis as it improvised solutions to get the spacecraft around the moon and return the crew safely to Earth (Apollo 13 is often called a successful failure).

In the next section, we'll look at more accomplishments in NASA history.

Skylab and Beyond

In 1973, NASA placed its first space station, Skylab, into Earth orbit. Although Skylab was damaged in flight, NASA sent the first crew to repair the spacecraft and make it livable. The crew remained on board for 28 days and conducted numerous experiments on the physiological effects of long duration spaceflight and observations of the sun and Earth. Two subsequent crews spent time (58 days and 84 days) in the Skylab continuing experiments and observations.

Apollo Soyuz Test Project (1975)
The final Apollo mission was the Apollo Soyuz Test project, which was a joint mission with the Soviet Union. An Apollo spacecraft with three astronauts docked in Earth orbit with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft containing two cosmonauts. The crews spent two days together conducting experiments. The flight demonstrated that the United States and the Soviet Union could work together in space and laid the groundwork for the Shuttle/Mir program and the International Space Station two decades later.

An artist's concept depicting a scene in Earth orbit during the Apollo transposition and docking maneuvers of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission.
Image courtesy Paul Fjeld/JSC Digital Image Collection/ NASA
An artist's concept depicting a scene in Earth orbit during the Apollo transposition and docking maneuvers of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission.

Space Shuttle (1980-present)
In 1980, the first reusable spacecraft, the space shuttle, flew into Earth orbit. NASA's fleet of space shuttles has operated for over 20 years, ferrying humans into space, deploying satellites and space probes, and helping build the International Space Station. Two shuttles and their crews, the Challenger and the Columbia, have been lost. NASA has learned many lessons in operating the shuttle and has made several redesigns and procedural changes to make the shuttle flights safer. NASA plans to end the shuttle program by 2010 and replace the shuttle with the new Orion spacecraft.

Space Telescopes (1990 - Present)
The Hubble space telescope was launched by NASA in 1990. After a shuttle mission to fix its defective optics, the telescope has been used to make many astronomical discoveries. Several other space telescopes have been placed in orbit, such as the Chandra X-ray telescope and Infrared Astronomy Satellite (IRAS). These telescopes have allowed astronomers to peer far into space (and back in time).

International Space Station (2000-Present)
NASA began constructing the International Space Station in cooperation with several nations, including Russia, the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan. The goal of the project is to establish a permanent human presence in Earth orbit for conducting experiments and observations. Fifteen crews consisting of astronauts and cosmonauts have manned the station as this project continues.

These accomplishments in space exploration and aeronautical research require enormous efforts in manpower and resources. So how does NASA manage all of these projects? Let's look at how NASA is organized.

NASA's Infrastructure

When you think of NASA, most people think of the astronauts, but there's a lot more to the organization. To accomplish NASA's basic mission, they need people to develop and build new technologies, assemble and test spacecraft and their components, train astronauts/pilots and provide mission support services. With each task, there are workers to employ and pay, contractors to hire and supplies to purchase. NASA requires an enormous work force (over 18,000 employees and 40,000 contractors) and a large budget ($17.3 billion estimated for fiscal year 2008). NASA must have an infrastructure to deliver goods and services and account for the money spent.

NASA's organizational structure
Image courtesy NASA

NASA's organizational structure has changed over the decades to make the administration more efficient and to adapt to changes in its direction/priorities in the post-Apollo era. NASA's current organizational structure reflects a strategic plan formulated in 2006 to carry out the goals set forth in President George W. Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration). NASA has four main offices, or directorates, through which it works to accomplish its goals:

  • Aeronautics Research - conduct research and development for safe, reliable flight vehicles and aviation systems
  • Exploration Systems - develop technologies to support human and robotic exploration of space
  • Science - explore Earth, sun, solar system and universe through missions that are proposed by principal investigators (scientists) within both NASA and academia
  • Space Operations - direct launches, operations and communications for all spacecraft both in Earth orbit and beyond

The mission directorates are located in NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and form the core of NASA's efforts. Each office coordinates activities within various NASA centers across the country to achieve its responsibilities.

Work for NASA
NASA needs all types of workers -- scientists, engineers, accountants, writers and maintenance workers. If you would like to apply for a job at NASA, consult the NASAJobs Web site. Here, you can post your resume, search jobs and review job openings at NASA Headquarters or any of the NASA Centers. NASA also has summer employment, internships and cooperative programs.

Mission Planning
Mission planning happens in 3 phases: Preflight, Flight and Extended Operations.

  • Preflight - Someone (scientists in NASA or external) proposes a mission to answer a scientific question. If NASA accepts the proposal, they assign a Scientific Working Group at a NASA Center to determine the mission goals, spacecraft designs, trajectories, launch vehicles and costs. If the project continues, NASA assigns scientists at various centers to build and test the spacecraft (usually with the help of contractors) and work on other aspects of the mission.
  • Flight - KSC launches the mission and hands it off to one of the NASA centers. The Deep Space Network receives data for the spacecraft in flight. When the spacecraft "encounters" its destination, scientific experiments are carried out and data transmitted to Earth. They send the information to various scientific teams that analyze the data and publish the findings.
  • Extended Operations - Spacecraft continues to send back data until it no longer works. In some cases, it may be possible to redirect it for a secondary objective. Human missions and some sample return missions come back to Earth.

For more details on mission planning, see Basics of Space Flight, Section II, Chapter 7 Mission Inception. Next, we'll look at NASA's Mission Support.

NASA's Mission Support

NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Image courtesy NASA
NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Mission Support Offices carry out the business and management functions of NASA activities in support of the mission directorates. These include financial activities, legal services, medical services and public affairs. Here are the mission support offices:

Chief Financial Officer - responsible for accounting

Chief Information Officer - provides information technology support for all NASA personnel and disseminates information to the public

General Counsel - provides legal services (policies, patents, quality standards including contracts and procurements)

Integrated Enterprise Management Program - manages human resources and financial matters and improves business practices

Innovative Partnership Program - establishes and oversees technology transfer and partnership relations with government agencies, private industry and academia

External Relations - coordinates all activities of mission directorates with U.S. government agencies and international agencies such as the European Space Agency and the Russian Space agency

Chief Health and Medical Officer - ensures the health of all NASA employees both in space and on the ground. This office establishes health policy and guidelines. It also oversees standards of human and animal research studies.

Institutions & Management - oversees several business aspects of NASA:

  • Diversity and Equal Opportunity - ensures NASA's compliance with federal Equal Opportunity statutes
  • Human Capital Management - human resources conducts all aspects of employment at NASA
  • Procurement - responsible for purchasing and accounting for all equipment and supplies. Like other government agencies, goods and services are obtained through a bidding and contract process. NASA usually awards the contract to the lowest bidder.
  • Security and Program Protection - oversees all aspects of security at NASA facilities including information security, counter intelligence and counter terrorism.
  • Small Business Programs - oversees the dealings of NASA with small businesses to ensure that they get equal access and the opportunity to NASA contracts and partnerships
  • NASA Shared Services - consolidates selected activities from NASA centers such as human resources, financial management, information technology and procurement

Strategic Communications - communicate, inform, and educate various groups about NASA activities

Education - provides teacher K-12 teacher support in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This office establishes partnerships with K-12 and higher education institutions to retain students in the science and technical fields. It also seeks to engage the public in NASA's mission.

Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs - communicates information between NASA, Congress, and other legislators (state, local)

Public Affairs - communicates information with the general public and news media through press releases, news conferences and the Internet.

We'll look at the NASA Administrator's Office next.

NASA Administrator's Office

NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin
Image courtesy Renee Bouchard/NASA
Dr. Michael Griffin is NASA's Eleventh administrator

The Administrator's Office at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. oversees all aspects of NASA operations (Mission directorates, NASA Centers and Mission Support Offices). It includes the administrator, deputy administrator, associate deputy administrator, associate administrator, assistant associate administrator, chief of staff and deputy chief of staff/White House liaison. The administrator's office has a support staff:

  • Chief Safety and Mission Assurance Officer - oversees all activities to ensure safety and success and conducts risk assessment and management
  • Program Analysis and Evaluation - makes strategic decisions based on objective multi-disciplinary analysis
  • Chief Engineer - assures that missions are conducted with sound engineering principles, proper controls and management
  • Program and Institutional Integration - coordinates activities of various NASA programs
  • Inspector General - audits NASA activities, promotes efficiency within NASA, prevents and detects possible criminal activity and keeps NASA Administrator and Congress informed of problems

The Administrator's Office also receives independent advice and assessment from several NASA Advisory Groups. These groups are standing committees:

  • Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel - members from academia and private industry advise NASA on safety and hazards within NASA's aerospace program. This panel was formed by Congress to investigate the Apollo 1 fire in 1967.
  • NASA Advisory Council - members advise NASA on topics related to mission directorates and audit/finance
  • National Academy of Sciences - provides technical advice, survey information and scientific assessments
  • National Academy of Public Administration - provides advice on improving efficiency and accountability
In the next section, we'll look at NASA's Research Centers.

NASA Research Centers

The work (research and development) of each directorate gets divided among 10 centers across the country. Each center has its own director, staff (administration, procurement, public affairs), and responsibilities. First, we'll look at each research center in more detail.

Ames Research Center (ARC) in Moffett Field, California was founded in 1939 as an aeronautical research center, Ames focuses on researching new technologies to make NASA missions possible. These technologies include space biology, nanotechnology, biotechnology, heat protection systems for spacecraft and aircraft, information technology and astrobiology.

Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC)
in Edwards, Calif., conducts aeronautical research and flight operations. At DFRC, test pilots have flown all the new experimental aircraft. For example, General Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the X-1 in 1947. The X-15 rocket plane was tested and flew to the outer reaches of the Earth's atmosphere and back. Today, aircraft such as the Altair unmanned aerial vehicle and the X-48 blended wing body are being tested. Besides aircraft, DFRC tests the launch abort systems for the Orion spacecraft.

Boeing's X-48B Blended Wing Body technology demonstrator shows off its unique lines at sunset on Rogers Dry Lake adjacent to NASA DFRC.
Image courtesy Robert Ferguson NASA Dryden Flight Research Center
Boeing's X-48B Blended Wing Body technology demonstrator shows off its unique lines at sunset on Rogers Dry Lake adjacent to NASA DFRC.

DFRC is the alternate landing field for the space shuttle and manages an airborne infrared telescope aboard a 747 jumbo jet in cooperation with Ames Research Center

Glenn Research Center (GRC) in Cleveland, Ohio researches aerospace propulsion systems and communications technologies, including:

Boeing's X-48B Blended Wing Body technology demonstrator shows off its unique lines at sunset on Rogers Dry Lake adjacent to NASA DFRC.
Image courtesy NASA Glenn Research Center
Deep Space 1 with the NSTAR Ion Engine

  • various wind tunnel facilities for aeronautical and aerospace research
  • develop service module and adapter for Orion spacecraft
  • develop launch and ascent abort systems for Orion spacecraft
  • develop and test electrical power systems and instruments for the upper stage of Ares launch vehicle that will lift the Orion spacecraft
  • research fluid flow and combustion for rocket propulsion
  • test and evaluate materials in upper atmosphere and space environments
  • develop electrical and nuclear space-propulsion concepts

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., conducts robotic explorations of the solar system. Virtually all of America's unmanned space missions have been planned, designed, built, and operated by JPL. JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope (infrared telescope) as well as several ground-based telescopes including the Keck interferometer (dual telescopes) in Hawaii. JPL built and operates NASA Deep Space Tracking Network to receive communications from unmanned spacecraft throughout the solar system and beyond.

The Cassini-Hyugens mission to Saturn
Image courtesy NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
The Cassini-Hyugens mission to Saturn

Langley Research Center (LaRC) in Hampton, Virginia, conducts aviation and space research. Scientists at LaRC develop airframes and study how layers of aircraft/spacecraft behave as they fly through the atmosphere of Earth and other planets using wind tunnels. Langley research also focuses on aviation safety, aerospace vehicle technologies and quiet aircraft technology.

Next, we'll look at NASA's flight centers.

NASA's Flight Centers

NASA's flight centers focus on getting everything from satellites to humans into space. They also perform research to gain more knowledge about the Earth, the sun, the moon, our solar system and the whole universe.

Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC)
in Greenbelt, Maryland was the first space flight center established by NASA. Some of its projects include:

  • Space Telescope Science Institute
  • managing satellites that observe the earth, sun and the universe
  • operating NASA's spaceflight tracking networks
  • developing weather satellites for forecasting and research for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

GSFC operates the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University in New York City. The institute studies global climate change using data gathered by GSFC and its missions.

An astronaut trains for an extravehicular activity in the Sonny Carter Training Facility Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at Johnson Space Center.
Image courtesy NASA Johnson Space Center
An astronaut trains for an extravehicular activity in the Sonny Carter Training Facility Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at Johnson Space Center.

Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas conducts human space exploration activities. Here Mission Control directs all manned spaceflights. JSC is the home of the astronaut corps and the place where astronaut selection and training takes place. For this purpose, JSC houses space vehicle mockups, neutral buoyancy simulators for weightlessness, computer flight simulators and specialized aircraft (T-38 trainer jets and Gulfstream jet aircraft modified to simulate the shuttle landing). JSC has research programs in space biomedicine, life support, power systems, robotics, flight software, and space suit technology.

JSC also operates the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. Here, NASA test fires rocket engines for various missions and test various materials for space flight. This facility also serves as an alternate landing site for the space shuttle along with DFRC and KSC.

Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida is KSC is America's spaceport. KSC has been the launch facility for all NASA manned missions since the days of Project Mercury. At KSC, rocket stages and payloads (such as Space Shuttle, Delta) are assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building and transported to one of several launch pads (Launch Complex 39A for shuttle). KSC also houses:

  • Orbiter Processing Facility - refurbish shuttles after landing
  • Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility - services the shuttle main engines
  • Shuttle landing strip
  • Hangar AF at Canaveral Air Force Station - the shuttle's solid rocket boosters are returned after recovery
  • Rotation/Processing Building - refurbished solid rocket booster segments are assembled
  • Launch Control Center - directs all aspects of a mission's launch. After the rocket clears the tower, control is transferred to Mission control Center in JSC (manned missions) or another NASA Center such as JPL or GSFC (unmanned missions).

KSC operates launch complexes at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Kodiak Island in Alaska where expendable rockets are also launched.

The space shuttle Atlantis rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center
Image courtesy NASA
The space shuttle Atlantis rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center

Langley Research Center (LaRC) in Langley, Virginia, conducts aviation and pace research. Using many types of wind tunnels, scientists develop airframes and study how layers of aircraft/spacecraft behave as they fly through the atmosphere of Earth and other planets/moons. Langley also focuses on aviation safety, aerospace vehicle technologies and quiet aircraft technology.

Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama develops space transportation and rocket-propulsion technologies. At MSFC, NASA developed all of its launch vehicles from the first Redstone and Atlas rockets, which launched Project Mercury, to the Apollo Saturn V rockets and space-shuttle main engines. This tradition continues as MSFC designs the Ares launch vehicle for the Orion spacecraft. Other projects at MSFC include:

  • developing and testing components for the International Space Station including module nodes, scientific equipment racks, and logistic modules
  • developing new rocket technologies such as advanced chemical propulsion, electric/ion propulsion, solar sails and aerobrakes
  • developing new optical materials and technologies for space telescopes

A space shuttle main engine is tested at the Marshall Space Flight Center
Image courtesy NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
A space shuttle main engine is tested at the Marshall Space Flight Center

Stennis Space Center (SSC) in Hancock County, Mississippi performs rocket testing and remote sensing technology. SSC is a primary rocket test center for NASA. The Applied Research and Technology Office at SSC develops remote sensing tools and software and disseminates information about Earth observations through various partnerships.

Next, we'll look at the future of NASA.

Future NASA Projects

space shuttle
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
Flying the space shuttle safely until its retirement is one of NASA's goals for the future.

According to NASA's Strategic Plan and Vision for Space Exploration, NASA is directing its efforts to the following goals:

  1. Fly the space shuttle as safely as possible until its retirement in 2010
  2. Complete the International Space Station according to NASA's commitments
  3. Broaden its programs in science and aeronautics, while focusing the human spaceflight endeavors on exporation
  4. Develop , build and fly a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (Project Orion) with its launch vehicles (Ares) by 2014
  5. Develop and expand partnerships with private industries
  6. Develop a program to return humans to the moon, establish a lunar base and pursue subsequent exploration of Mars and other destinations

­The history of NASA has shown that it can do amazing things. But history has also shown that NASA needs strong presidential leadership, strong leadership within NASA, public support, and congressional funding. NASA has the infrastructure in place for leadership, to obtain its scientific and technical goals and to inform and educate the public. NASA will continue to do amazing things in aviation and space exploration.

On the next page, we'll take a look at some of the criticisms NASA has faced.

Criticisms of NASA

No one can deny that NASA has achieved extraordinary things in its relatively short lifetime. However, NASA is not without its critics. Criticisms seem to come on two fronts:

Critics argue whether or not the benefits of space exploration justify the high cost.
Image courtesy Lockheed Martin Corp/NASA
Critics argue whether or not the benefits of space exploration justify the high cost.
  • Is the high cost of space exploration worth the scientific/economic returns? Scientific and technological advancements cannot always come with a price tag, but rather are invaluable to humanity.
  • Is it worth risking human lives to explore space when expendable robots can do it at a cheaper price in both dollars and human risk? This question has been bantered about since the inception of NASA and there is no definitive answer. Many people feel that the human experience of space exploration is as important and priceless as the mere data that a robot would send back. For example, a geologist on the moon would know more about what rocks to look for and return than a robot.
  • Are we taking unnecessary risks in space exploration? Space is a hostile environment and space exploration will always have dangers. However, NASA is trying to minimize risks where possible and make it as safe as possible.

For lots more information about NASA and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • NASA
  • NASA History Division
  • Aeronautics Research
  • Exploration Systems
  • Science
  • Space Operations
  • Ames Research Center
  • Dryden Flight Research Center
  • Glenn Research Center
  • Goddard Space Flight Center
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Johnson Space Center
  • Kennedy Space Center
  • Langley Research Center
  • Marshall Space Flight Center
  • Stennis Space Center
  • Basics of Space Flight
  • The Vision for Space Exploration
  • 2006 NASA Strategic Plan
  • NASA Fact Sheets on various NASA centers