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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Out of This World

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They've provided us with some of the most unforgettable moments in the last half century, not to mention some of its memorable catchphrases: "Houston, we have a problem," and, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." But just what is NASA?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was established by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958 after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite into space, prompting many to fear that the Soviets might gain a strategic or military edge over the United States during the Cold War.

Race to the Moon
President John F. Kennedy made it a national priority to place a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. His vision came to fruition on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, with Armstrong uttering his famous "giant leap for mankind" statement as he took his first step off the lunar lander. In all, six of NASA's Apollo missions landed on the moon.

Habitats in Space
In the 1970s, NASA turned its attention toward other space missions. Highlights include launching Pioneer 10, the first space probe to an outer planet, in 1972, and later the first spacecraft to travel beyond the solar system; Skylab, the nation's first space station, in 1973; and Viking, the first probe to land successfully on Mars in 1976.

Not Without Tragedy
In 1981, NASA pioneered the space shuttle, a craft that, unlike previous spaceships, could be reused. In the following years, two shuttles have been lost. The Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986, and the Columbia was destroyed upon re-entry in 2003; in both instances, all seven crewmembers aboard were killed. NASA moved beyond the moon, sending the Mars Pathfinder to that planet in 1996 to determine whether life has ever existed there, and if so, what it might have been. In 2000, the United States and Russia established a permanent human station in space. The International Space Station is the work of 16 different nations and it continues to operate today.

Headquartered in Washington D.C., NASA has 10 field offices:

  • Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., which researches new technologies

  • Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., which conducts flight research

  • Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, which studies power, propulsion and communications technologies

  • Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., which observes Earth, the solar system and the universe

  • The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, which works on robotic exploration of the solar system

  • Johnson Space Center in Houston, which has pioneered human space exploration and launched some of NASA's most famous missions

  • Kennedy Space Center on Florida's Atlantic coast, which prepares and launches space missions

  • Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., which focuses on aviation and space research

  • Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., which studies space travel and propulsion technologies

  • Stennis Space Research Center in Mississippi, which conducts rocket propulsion and remote technologies experiments

NASA's work centers in four main areas: flight technologies, to be used both on Earth and in outer space; capabilities for affordable, sustainable human and robotic exploration in space; means to explore the Earth, moon, Mars, other planets and beyond; and space operations and exploration.

Everyday Benefits of NASA Research
Innovations from NASA's work in space are used every day on Earth. Satellite technology that drives all manner of telecommunications, cordless appliances, smoke detectors and plastics have all been developed or refined through their use in the space program. Other commercial products, such as Velcro and the instant beverage Tang, got a big boost from their use by NASA astronauts.

Phaedra Trethan is a freelance writer who also works as a copy editor for the Camden Courier-Post. She formerly worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she wrote about books, religion, sports, music, films and restaurants.

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