NASA celebrated its 60th birthday October 1 with its plans to explore the high frontier battered but intact and a manned mission to Mars still in its sights.
In the past four decades, unmanned space missions have provided us with riveting pictures of our solar system and Voyager has even traveled into interstellar space.
But the agency that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon has not broken Earth’s orbit with a manned mission since Apollo 17 in 1972.
And recent years have seen something that would have once been considered unthinkable: US astronauts boosted into space on Russian launch vehicles.
The failure of NASA to capitalize on the moon landing and to move incrementally into space was something that dismayed Armstrong but the agency marked its anniversary by outlining plans to address what one of its most famous son’s saw as a priority.
In a status report delivered last week, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations William H. Gerstenmaier said NASA continued to work on a sustainable campaign of space exploration that included a return to the moon and missions beyond.
The NASA executive also said the agency would continue to send sophisticated robotic missions to Mars “while we work to develop and demonstrate the deep space capabilities to safely send a human crew to the red planet’’.
“As NASA celebrates its 60th anniversary, one of the Agency’s key goals is opening the space frontier with the objective of extending human presence deeper into the solar system starting with returning humans to the Moon through a sustainable human and robotic spaceflight program,’’ he said.
Part of the problem has always been that NASA suffers the vagaries of political whim and the driving force behind the legendary feats in the 1960s, the Cold War, has long since thawed.
A fickle public also did not help: the 1969 moon landing stopped the world but interest had fallen significantly by the early 1970s.
The agency’s ongoing mission builds on a long legacy that was had its impetus in the successful 1957 launch of Sputnik and the US need to catch up with the Soviet Union.
Military and civilian agencies were jockeying for position, but it was finally decided that the American push into space should be led by a new civilian agency built around the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law on July 29, 1958, and NASA open for business on October 1.
Headed by administrator T. Keith Glennan, an electrical engineer whose early career included a stint in the movie industry, the new administration brought together existing groups and research facilities and accelerated work already being done.
What was had been dubbed The Space Race several years earlier moved into overdrive on April 12, 1961, when Americans awoke to hear that Russian Yuri Gagarin had completed an orbit of the earth with his Vostok spacecraft.
NASA that year launched two sub-orbital flights — Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 and Virgil Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 — but it was not February 20, 1962, that an Atlas rocket carrying John Glenn aboard Friendship 7 saw an American orbit the Earth.
Go back in time and space with this 1960 NASA documentary on Project Mercury.
At that point, the agency was still playing catch-up and continued to do so as the Soviets claimed the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, and established endurance records.
The Russian success and the Bay of Pigs embarrassment turned around President John F. Kennedy’s lukewarm support for NASA and in May, 1961 he committed the US to landing a man on the moon before the decade was finished.
“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,’’ he said in his special message to Congress.
Project Mercury and its cramped capsule made Glenn, Shepard, Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra and Gordon Cooper household names.
Deke Slayton would not make it into space with the Mercury program but would become chief astronaut and play a pivotal ground role as flight drector during the Apollo flights. His only space flight was with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 and culminated in the first meeting in space of American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts.
Over four years and 25 flights – six of them manned — Mercury set the stage a for a program that would propel US space exploration into the lead: Gemini.
A bigger, two-man spacecraft would see the US develop the techniques and technology that would take Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon aboard Apollo 11.
This included setting new durations records, allowing astronauts to operate in the vacuum of space during “space walks” and learning how to dock two spacecraft.
The docking of Gemini 8, piloted by Armstrong, with the Gemini Agena Target Vehicle in 1966 marked the first time two man-made objects met in orbit and joined together.
This and subsequent dockings were essential steps in NASA’s plans to land on the moon.
Watch this fascinating Gemini documentary from 1966.
Yet the Apollo program began with tragedy when Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire that swept through the command module during a ground test.
In recognition of the tragedy, the sequence of subsequent manned and unmanned flights began at Apollo 4.
There were three unmanned validation flights before Apollo 7 launched on October 11, 1968, carrying Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham on an 11-day mission.
Further missions would culminate with the landing on July 20, 1969, of the lunar module carrying Armstrong and Aldrin.
They would stay on the moon for less than 24 hours and spend just two hours 31 minutes outside the lunar module but humanity had for the first time landed on another world.
Click below to see NASA’s original footage from the moon.
There would be five more lunar landings and the dramatic aborted attempt by Apollo 13 before the truncated Apollo program ended in 1972.
NASA had already been studying the concept of a reusable space plane the launch of the Columbia in 1981 marked the start of a fourth program, The Space Shuttle, that would last for three decades of success and tragedy.
Tragedy would come with the loss of the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003.
While it didn’t break Earth orbit, the Shuttle was instrumental in setting up the International Space Station and in projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope and Spacelab.
By the time program ended with the Atlantis flight in July 2011, 135 Shuttle missions had been launched carrying 833 passengers, including the 14 killed in the two accidents.
CNN’s coverage of the Challenger disaster.
Cargo missions to the ISS after this would be handled by an assortment of government and private spacecraft while astronauts were ferried in Russian Soyuz vehicles.
Running parallel with the manned space program were the robotic missions sent out to explore the solar system.
Major achievements, some of them in co-operation with other agencies, came as the Voyager, Cassini and Juno, and New Horizons missions uncovered new data and scored a string of historic firsts.
Voyager 1, with its famous gold record, was launched in 1977 and was the first man-made object to leave the solar system while New Horizons has sent back surprising data on distant Pluto after a nine-year journey.
New Horizons is heading to the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune to conduct a historic flyby at the start of 2019, of an object known as Ultima Thule. It will be farthest object ever visited by a spacecraft.
Cassini traveled 4.9 billion miles (7.9 billion km) to send back stunning images of Saturn and its moons while carrying the Huygens probe, the first man-made object to land on a world in the outer solar system. It plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15, 2017, still sending back valuable data.
Juno is probing Jupiter and its moons after arriving there in 2016 after traveling for almost five years. NASA earlier this year approved an update to Juno’s science operations to keep in orbit above the gas giant until mid-2021.
Already on its 300-million-mile trip to Mars is the Insight lander which will dig deeper into the planet’s surface ever before, to a depth of about 16 ft, as it maps out its interior structure.
It joins a fleet of existing Mars rovers, two of which remain active and are still searching for ancient life.
Another Mars rover destined to head to Mars in 2020 aims, among other things, to demonstrate that fuel and other resources are available for human exploration.
Other exciting plans include a probe that will “touch the sun”, a new space telescope and visit to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
The plan to finally get humans out beyond Earth’s orbit hinges on the Orion spacecraft and the Space Exploration Campaign.
The campaign, as Gerstenmaier noted in his status report, will allow NASA to build on its 60-year history and return to the forefront of a global effort to advance humanity’s future in space.
“We are working on a sustainable campaign of exploration, transitioning the International Space Station (ISS), returning humans to the surface of the Moon and lunar orbit, where we will build the systems, deep space infrastructure, and operational capabilities to expand human presence beyond the Earth-Moon system, eventually embarking on human missions to Mars and other destinations,’’ Gerstenmaier said.
The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is a spacecraft being built in cooperation with the Europeans and designed to take four astronauts beyond low Earth orbit and on to the moon and Mars.
Watch the video below for more details into NASA’s plans for Orion.
Like the Apollo missions, the Orion has a crew module and a service module, supplied by the European Space Agency, that provides cargo space and propulsion.
Plans are to boost it into orbit using its heavy-lift Space Launch System, which produces 8.8 million pounds of thrust a pair of five-segment boosters and four RS-25 engines.
Exploration Mission 1 will be the first integrated test of the SLS and Orion but will not be crewed. It will travel 280,000 miles from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the moon, during a three-week mission.
Orion is intended for missions to the moon and beyond while NASA is handing over low-earth orbit launches to commercial operators such as Space X, Sierra Nevada and Northrop Grumman’s Orbital ATK.
Space X and Boeing are working on crew modules to fly astronauts to the space station but there are concerns these are running behind schedule and may not be ready by the time a contract with Russia’s Soyuz expires in l2019.
The plan is to transition low earth orbit operations from a government-funded model to one of commercial services and partnerships with independent operators by 2025.
A key component of NASA’s deep space plans is the establishment of the first permanent American presence and infrastructure on and around the Moon.
A spacecraft established in cislunar space (between the Earth and Moon) near the Moon will be used as a staging post for missions to the lunar surface and to deep space destinations.
Ground testing of the space gateway is already underway in a number of US states and NASA hopes to start assembly no later than 2022 when it plans to launch a power and propulsion element via a commercial rocket.
“The Gateway will not be continuously occupied like the ISS,’’ Gerstenmaier said. “NASA currently envisions crew visits approximately once per year, so a strong focus is placed on robotic activities and infrastructure to foster ongoing investigations and operations that can operate autonomously between crew visits.”
The campaign would also see robotic missions developed by US companies to the lunar surfaces in the next two years to conduct scientific investigations, check out resources and provide safe lunar landing sites.
“Ultimately, these efforts will culminate in the safe landing of US astronauts on the Moon before the end of the 2020s,’’ the NASA official said.
At this stage, NASA is planning to use its Mars 2020 rover as a building block for subsequent robotic missions that will include the historic first launch of a rocket from another planet and return to Earth.
It says that mission will serve as a critical precursor to an eventual series of crewed missions to Mars planned to start in the 2030’s and culminating in a surface landing, which will be supported by the work we’ll do on the Moon in the coming years.
There will be plenty of people watching to see whether this prediction will come to pass or whether the space exploration can will again be kicked along the road.
As legendary NBC reporter Jay Barbee, who covered NASA from its inception, told AirlineRatings in 2014: “We should be increasing our knowledge of going farther and farther in space because we’re all occupants of a spacecraft 8000 miles in diameter and it’s finite, it’s not going to be able to support us always.
“ So if we can’t get off — because this is really our cradle — if we can’t get out of our cradle and go out and explore, we’re doomed.
“It’s the end of the human species.’’