On July 29, 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law, officially creating NASA. Fifty-five years later, NASA may finally be eligible for those plum senior discounts, but the agency show no signs of slowing down after a very productive first five and a half decades of existence.
Arguably though, NASA's first major accomplishment came a few months before the agency was officially formed, when Explorer 1 -- the first American satellite -- was launched from Cape Canaveral. Explorer 1 was designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which would become a part of NASA just a few months after the new space agency was created.
Pioneer 1 was the first spacecraft launched by NASA itself, on October 11, 1958. The mission goal was for the craft to orbit the moon and return photos of its surface, but it failed to achieve this. According to a NASA history of the mission: "A programming error in the Pioneer 1 launch vehicle upper stage resulted in Pioneer 1 being given insufficient velocity to escape the Earth's gravitational field."
Regardless, Pioneer 1 was NASA's first successful launch, and it did return useful data on Earth's radiation belts.
Alan B. Shepard, Jr. became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, making a 15-minute suborbital flight aboard Freedom 7. While cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space just a few weeks earlier, Shepard was likely the first man to snark his way there, famously telling mission control after hours of launch delays to ''fix your little problem and light this candle.''
On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to circle the Earth aboard Friendship 7. Already an accomplished pilot, Glenn flew parts of his final two orbits manually after an autopilot failure and became one of the first major heroes of the space age in the eyes of the public. Further proving that gravitas has no expiration date, Glenn would return to space over three decades later for a mission aboard a NASA space shuttle.
Not the sexiest of NASA missions, the deployment of the first privately built satellite for communications -- Telstar 1 -- would bounce the first telephone and television signals from Earth and back. The NASA launch on July 10, 1962, would lay the foundation for a global telecommunications infrastructure that would eventually deliver the ability to view cute cat videos on demand from almost any location worldwide.
Before Neil Armstrong, Surveyor 1 paved the way to the moon, touching down on its surface on June 2, 1966, and transmitting back over 10,000 high-quality photos, including this shadow profile. The soft lander would also be a predecessor to many other great terrestrial robots in space including currently roving Martian craft, Curiosity.
You've probably seen this photo of astronaut Buzz Aldrin before. It was taken on the surface of the moon by his colleague Neil Armstrong after the famous July 20, 1969, landing, which you may have heard about. By most measures, this moment sits atop the annals of feel-good scientific awesomeness. While we recently lost Armstrong, Aldrin is still alive and pushing for even further flung small steps and giant leaps.
Despite being plagued by technical problems for a good part of 1973, Skylab served as our first orbiting laboratory. Crews conducted numerous experiments, medical studies, and solar astronomy from space until the workshop was powered down in early 1974.
Skylab would enter the news again a few years later when its orbit began to decay rapidly. NASA steered the workshop as it fell back to earth to avoid contact with populated areas. Skylab finally broke up and impacted the surface in 1979, dropping debris in the Indian Ocean and sparsely populated parts of Australia.
Following in the footsteps (landing gear?) of Surveyor 1, Viking 1 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on August 20, 1975, and landed on the surface of Mars 11 months later. Viking's primary mission from the red planet lasted for just a few months, but it continued to transmit data back to earth until 1982.
Photo by: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
/ Caption by:Eric Mack
Taking advantage of a rare planetary alignment, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched in 1977 with the mission of observing, close-up, all the planets of the outer solar system, with the exception of Pluto. Fortunately, Pluto would later lose its planet status, so no need to feel bad about that one anymore. Three and a half decades later, the Voyager probes are still voyaging and recently just became the first man-made objects to explore the edge of our solar system.
Photo by: Artist's rendering courtesy of NASA
/ Caption by:Eric Mack
Regular, somewhat standardized flights to space became possible with the debut of the space shuttle program. The first reusable spacecraft, shuttles (like Space Shuttle Atlantis pictured above) would run for many years despite a pair of notable tragedies. The shuttle program has now officially been retired and NASA is again looking to push more boundaries, from snagging asteroids to landing humans on Mars.
On April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched. After a mirror defect was discovered and NASA received significant negative publicity, work-arounds were implemented and the scope would go on to significantly broaden our horizons, acquainting us more intimately with distant planets, black holes, and numerous other discoveries. NASA scientists hope that Hubble's successor, the more powerful James Webb Telescope, will lead to more revelations, including perhaps far-off planets capable of supporting life.
On November 20, 1998, assembly of the most complex space project ever -- the International Space Station -- began. Fifteen years later, the effort has provided a semi-permanent home in space to perform all sorts of scientific experiments...and truly epic David Bowie covers.
Photo by: Screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET
/ Caption by:Eric Mack
As the space shuttle program drew to a close, a trio of plucky rovers helped keep the public's eyes and imagination skyward, each landing on Mars for missions exploring the surface of the red planet. Spirit, Opportunity, and now Curiosity (pictured above) have made intriguing observations that hint at the possibility of conditions that could support, or at one time supported, life. Nothing definitive just yet, but it's been worth watching just for the mohawks.