Brainnews returns with interesting facts you never knew about one of the world’s largest space research agency National Aeronautics And Space Administration (NASA).
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA; /ˈnæsə/) is an independent agency of the U.S. federal government responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and space research.
NASA was established in 1958, succeeding the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency was to have a distinctly civilian orientation, encouraging peaceful applications in space science. Since its establishment, most US space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo Moon landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion spacecraft, the Space Launch System, and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program, which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for uncrewed NASA launches.
NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System; advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program; exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic spacecraft such as New Horizons; and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories and associated programs.
From 1946, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) had been experimenting with rocket planes such as the supersonic Bell X-1. In the early 1950s, there was challenge to launch an artificial satellite for the International Geophysical Year (1957–58). An effort for this was the American Project Vanguard. After the Soviet space program’s launch of the world’s first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1) on October 4, 1957, the attention of the United States turned toward its own fledgling space efforts. The U.S. Congress, alarmed by the perceived threat to national security and technological leadership (known as the “Sputnik crisis”), urged immediate and swift action; President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his advisers counseled more deliberate measures. On January 12, 1958, NACA organized a “Special Committee on Space Technology”, headed by Guyford Stever. On January 14, 1958, NACA Director Hugh Dryden published “A National Research Program for Space Technology” stating:
It is of great urgency and importance to our country both from consideration of our prestige as a nation as well as military necessity that this challenge [Sputnik] be met by an energetic program of research and development for the conquest of space … It is accordingly proposed that the scientific research be the responsibility of a national civilian agency … NACA is capable, by rapid extension and expansion of its effort, of providing leadership in space technology.
While this new federal agency would conduct all non-military space activity, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created in February 1958 to develop space technology for military application.
On July 29, 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing NASA. When it began operations on October 1, 1958, NASA absorbed the 43-year-old NACA intact; its 8,000 employees, an annual budget of US$100 million, three major research laboratories (Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory) and two small test facilities. Elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the United States Naval Research Laboratory were incorporated into NASA. A significant contributor to NASA’s entry into the Space Race with the Soviet Union was the technology from the German rocket program led by Wernher von Braun, who was now working for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), which in turn incorporated the technology of American scientist Robert Goddard’s earlier works. Earlier research efforts within the US Air Force and many of ARPA’s early space programs were also transferred to NASA. In December 1958, NASA gained control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a contractor facility operated by the California Institute of Technology.
NASA’s share of the total federal budget peaked at approximately 4.41% in 1966 during the Apollo program, then rapidly declined to approximately 1% in 1975, and stayed around that level through 1998. The percentage then gradually dropped, until leveling off again at around half a percent in 2006 (estimated in 2012 at 0.48% of the federal budget). In a March 2012 hearing of the United States Senate Science Committee, science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson testified that “Right now, NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar. For twice that—a penny on a dollar—we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.”
Despite this, public perception of NASA’s budget differs significantly: a 1997 poll indicated that most Americans believed that 20% of the federal budget went to NASA.
For Fiscal Year 2015, NASA received an appropriation of US$18.01 billion from Congress—$549 million more than requested and approximately $350 million more than the 2014 NASA budget passed by Congress.
In Fiscal Year 2016, NASA received $19.3 billion.
President Donald Trump signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 in March, which set the 2017 budget at around $19.5 billion. The budget is also reported as $19.3 billion for 2017, with $20.7 billion proposed for FY2018.
Examples of some proposed FY2018 budgets:
Exploration: $4.79 billion
Planetary science: $2.23 billion
Earth science: $1.92 billion
Aeronautics: $0.685 billion
Use of the metric system
US law requires the International System of Units to be used in all U.S. Government programs, “except where impractical”.
In 1969, the Apollo 11 landed on the Moon using a mix of United States customary units and metric units. In the 1980s, NASA started the transition towards full metrication, and was predominantly metric by the 1990s. On September 23, 1999, a unit mixup between US and SI units resulted in a loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter.
In August 2007, NASA stated that all future missions and explorations of the Moon will be done entirely using the SI system. This was done to improve cooperation with space agencies of other countries which already use the metric system.
As of 2007, NASA is predominantly working with SI units, but some projects still use English units, and some, including the International Space Station, use a mix of both.
Some of NASA’s main directives have been the landing of a crewed spacecraft on the Moon, the designing and construction of the Space Shuttle, and efforts to construct a large, crewed space station. Typically, the major directives originated from the intersection of scientific interest and advice, political interests, federal funding concerns, and the public interest, that all together brought varying waves of effort, often heavily swayed by technical developments, funding changes, and world events. For example, in the 1980s, the Reagan administration announced a directive with a major push to build a crewed space station, given the name Space Station Freedom. But, when the Cold War ended, Russia, the United States, and other international partners came together to design and build the International Space Station.
In the 2010s, major shifts in directives include the retirement of the Space Shuttle, and the later development of a new crewed heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System. Missions for the new Space Launch System have varied, but overall, NASA’s directives are similar to the Space Shuttle program as the primary goal and desire is human spaceflight. Additionally, NASA’s Space Exploration Initiative of the 1980s opened new avenues of exploration focused on other galaxies.
For the coming decades, NASA’s focus has gradually shifting towards eventual exploration of Mars. One of the technological options focused on was the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). ARM had largely been defunded in 2017, but the key technologies developed for ARM would be utilized for future exploration, notably on a solar electric propulsion system.
Longer project execution timelines leave future executive administration officials to execute on a directive, which can lead to directional mismanagement.
Previously, in the early 2000s, NASA worked towards a strategic plan called the Constellation Program, but the program was defunded in the early 2010s. In the 1990s, NASA’s administration adopted an approach to planning coined “Faster, Better, Cheaper”.
NASA Advisory Council
In response to the Apollo 1 accident, which killed three astronauts in 1967, Congress directed NASA to form an Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) to advise the NASA Administrator on safety issues and hazards in NASA’s aerospace programs. In the aftermath of the Shuttle Columbia disaster, Congress required that the ASAP submit an annual report to the NASA Administrator and to Congress. By 1971, NASA had also established the Space Program Advisory Council and the Research and Technology Advisory Council to provide the administrator with advisory committee support. In 1977, the latter two were combined to form the NASA Advisory Council (NAC).
The NASA Authorization Act of 2014 reaffirmed the importance of ASAP.