Today NASA celebrates its 60th birthday. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 on July 29, 1958.
NASA replaced the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and President Eisenhower viewed the creation of the agency as an historic step, “further equipping the United States for leadership in the space age” and allowing it to make “an effective national effort in the fields of aeronautics and space exploration.” You can read the full text of President Eisenhower’s signing statement here.
It is not unusual for federal legislation to be hailed as historic when it is signed, but in the case of the National Aeronautics and Space Act that prediction was entirely accurate. I think it is safe to say that NASA has met, and greatly exceeded, the goal of allowing the United States to make “an effective national effort in the field of aeronautics and space exploration.” The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the space shuttle and international space station, and the many unmanned probes and devices that have allowed us to better understand our solar system all bear the indelible imprint of NASA. NASA has taken human beings to the Moon and brought them safely back home and has given us up-close looks at Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons. NASA’s efforts have also helped to push advancements in science, technology, and other areas that have now become part of our lives and culture. By any measure, this still-sprightly 60-year-old has been a spectacular success.
Some people reflexively complain about the creation of any federal agency, but NASA is an example of how mobilizing an effort at the national level and entrusting it to knowledgeable people can accomplish great things. With private space exploration and travel looming on the immediate horizon, and Congress currently considering how to regulate those private efforts going forward, it will be interesting to see what the next 60 years bring for NASA — the little agency that could.