Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | On NASA’s birthday, a reminder that we can thank Nixon for the agency

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica |

Happy Birthday, NASA! —

“I think it certainly has a future. Let’s hope it’s vibrant.”

  • President Richard Nixon famously greeted the crew of Apollo 11. He also gets blamed for cutting NASA funding. Less known is his role in creating the civil space agency. This gallery tells some of the early story of NASA.


  • The launch of Sputnik, on Oct. 4, 1957, raised alarms in the United States about the country’s lack of space-faring capability.

  • Two months later, the first US attempt to respond to Sputnik with its own satellite on a Navy Vanguard rocket failed. That’s the rocket there, blowing up.

  • The US finally succeeded in January 1958, with its own satellite. Here, William Hayward Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun display a full-scale model of Explorer 1 at a news conference in Washington, DC after confirmation the satellite was in orbit.

  • Dwight Eisenhower and his VP, Richard Nixon, had to decide whether to reply with a military or civil agency to Russia’s space successes.

    National Archives

  • In 1957 President Eisenhower established the Office of the Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and appointed James Killian. Killian advised in favor of a civilian agency a year later.


  • The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics facilities, including the High-Speed Flight Station, became part of the new NASA agency on Oct. 1, 1958.

  • Previously, NACA (pronounced “N-A-C-A,” not “nacka”) helped design and test US aircraft and performed related aeronautical research. The first “A” in NASA, after all, stands for aeronautics.

  • President Eisenhower commissioned Dr. T. Keith Glennan, right, as the first administrator for NASA and Dr. Hugh L. Dryden as deputy administrator.


  • Dr. von Braun briefs President Eisenhower at the front of the S1 Stage of the Saturn 1 vehicle at the Marshall Space Flight Center on September 8, 1960. The president’s visit was to dedicate Marshall Space Flight Center as a new NASA field center in honor of General George C. Marshall.

  • At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, President Jimmy Carter, hand on waist, is briefed on preparations for the first space shuttle launch by center director Lee Scherer. To the left of Carter is NASA Administrator Robert Frosch. Carter strengthened NASA’s role in launch.


NASA formally opened its doors on October 1, 1958, and it turns 60 years old today. The nation’s space agency has marked the diamond anniversary in various ways, and anticipates a bright future.

However, given heated talk of a Space Force, military “domination” of space, and the rise of commercial companies, it is reasonable to pause at this moment to ponder NASA’s durability. A review of the space agency’s early history validates concerns about NASA’s relative fragility. In the late 1950s, the US Air Force resisted the removal of human spaceflight activities to a new civil space agency, and it has quietly been pushing back ever since. Even 60 years later, this war may not yet be lost by the military.

This tension, and more, is revealed in a new book titled The Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration, edited by space historian John Logsdon. The book presents some of the seminal documents from the creation and evolution of NASA over the last six decades. It reflects what Logsdon describes as “30 years of immersion in primary documents and reflects my judgment on a mixture of what’s most important plus some that are human interest and fun.”

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | Civil or military?

In an interview with Ars, Logsdon reviewed some of the earliest government discussions that led to the formation of NASA. In February 1958, President Eisenhower and a small group of advisors—including then Vice President Richard Nixon—met with Republican congressional leaders four months to the day after the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite.

“One of the things is that from its inception, and even before that, the space program was a political act,” Logsdon said. “It was formulated in the context of geopolitics. And back in the 1950s, in particular it was the Cold War competition between the United States and Soviet Union. Some of the themes that we are debating even today, like the importance of space for our national security, and the right way to organize that, were addressed right at the very beginning.”

The principal question debated during this meeting concerned the US response to Russia’s spaceflight activities: should they be led by the military, or some kind of civilian space agency? Eisenhower, according to notes

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