NASA: An introduction

What is NASA?

NASA – or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to give it its full name – is an American government agency focused on space exploration, aeronautics and aerospace research.

While NASA’s most famous achievement was completing a manned moon landing in 1969, the agency also maintains a presence on the International Space Station and undertakes groundbreaking work in exploring the outer solar system, most recently with New Horizons’ mission to Pluto. NASA is currently exploring the possibility of a manned mission to Mars, but the venture is not without huge logistical problems.

Much of the technology invented by NASA for use by its astronauts has filtered down to Earth for use in domestic industries and homes. Teflon and memory foam, to name just a couple.

When was NASA established?

NASA was established in 1958, but it had a predecessor: NACA. That confusingly sounds the same when read aloud, but only shares two of the same words in its acronym: National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. NASA absorbed NACA and its 8,000 employees and $100 million annual budget in 1958, but NACA had existed since 1915.

Has NASA’s budget increased over time?

The absorption of NACA by NASA was at a time of perceived national crisis, with the Cold War at its peak and the Soviet Union having immense success with Sputnik. As such, NASA’s budget for its first few years was enormous, increasing by more than tenfold in its first five years.

If you were to plot a graph of NASA’s budget over time, it would look like it has grown larger and larger right up to the modern day, but adjusting for inflation and as an overall percentage of GD, you can clearly see that NASA’s relative budget rose and fell along with its political importance – with its peak in 1967 as the agency raced the Soviet Union to land a man on the moon:nasa_budget_as_percentage_of_gdp

0x0077BE, used under Creative Commons

In real terms, adjusted for inflation, NASA’s budget for 2016 – $19.3bn – is high, but closer to the 1970s and 1980s than the Agency’s 1960s heyday.

What are NASA’s greatest achievements?

The moon landings remain a tough one to beat, but the sheer amount of money thrown at the Apollo missions means there are others that should certainly be considered.

The Space Shuttle, retired in 2011 after 30 years of service, saved a huge amount of money by being reusable, as well as a huge technical achievement: able to withstand the heat of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

The Hubble Telescope – 15 years in the making and ten times the resolution of Earth-based telescopes – is another contender. It was a huge deal when it launched in 1990, although it will soon be well and truly superseded by the James Webb telescope, which is around 100 times more powerful.

New Horizons explored Pluto, revealing amazing discoveries about a planet that’s some 7.5bn kilometres away. Before that, Voyager 2 swung past Uranus and Neptune between 1977 and 1989, when the technology to do so was considerably more basic than what we have to work with now.

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