October 1, 1958, the official launch date of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was the beginning of a rich history of unique scientific and technological achievements in human space flight, aeronautics, space science, and space applications. Formed as a result of the Sputnik crisis of confidence, NASA inherited the earlier National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and other government organizations, and almost immediately began working on options for human space flight.
Advanced aeronautics research Building on its NACA roots, NASA has continued to conduct numerous types of advanced aeronautics research on aerodynamics, wind shear, and other important topics, using wind tunnels, flight testing, and computer simulations. NASA's highly successful X-15 program involved a rocket-powered airplane that flew above the atmosphere, then glided back to Earth non-powered, which provided shuttle designers with numerous useful data. The watershed F-8 digital-fly-by-wire program laid the groundwork for such electronic flight in many other aircraft, including the space shuttle and high-performance aircraft that would have been otherwise uncontrollable. NASA also has conducted important research on such topics as "lifting bodies" (wingless airplanes) and "supercritical wings" to dampen the effect of shock waves on trans-sonic aircraft.
Humans in space NASA's first high-profile program was Project Mercury, an effort to learn whether or not humans could survive in space, followed by Project Gemini, which built upon Mercury's successes and used spacecraft built for two astronauts. NASA's human space-flight efforts then extended to the moon with Project Apollo, culminating in 1969 when the Apollo 11 mission first put humans on the lunar surface. After the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz Test Projects of the early and mid-1970s, NASA's human space-flight efforts resumed in 1981, with the Space Shuttle Program that continues today, to help build the International Space Station.
Probing the solar system NASA has launched a number of such significant scientific probes as the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, that have investigated the moon, the planets, and other phenomena of the solar system. NASA has sent several spacecraft to explore Mars, including the Viking and Mars Pathfinder spacecraft. The Hubble Space Telescope and other space-science craft have provided scientists with a number of significant astronomical discoveries.
Satellite technology NASA also has conducted pioneering work in space-applications satellites. The agency has helped to develop such new generations of communications satellites as the Echo, Telstar, and Syncom. NASA's Earth science efforts also have literally changed the way humans view their home planet; the Landsat and Earth Observing System spacecraft have contributed numerous important scientific findings. NASA technology also has resulted from numerous "spin-offs" in wide-ranging scientific, technical, and commercial fields. Overall, while the tremendous technical and scientific accomplishments of NASA demonstrate vividly that humans can achieve previously inconceivable feats, scientists and lay persons alike are humbled by the realization that the Earth is just a tiny "blue marble" in the cosmos.