NASA was designed to be a civilian rather than a government agency, which would be responsible for the coordination of all of the USA’s planned explorations into Space. Although the American government had been interested in exploring Space, it wasn’t until the Soviet Union’s launch of its first satellite, Sputnik I on October 4th, 1957 that they decided they needed make a public statement of their intensions to compete with Russia in what was to become known as The Space Race.
The launch of Sputnik I, (a cricket ball sized satellite which orbited the earth in 98 minutes), caught Americans by surprise and sparked fears that the Soviets might also be capable of sending missiles with nuclear weapons from Europe to America.
The Soviet’s launch of Sputnik II, which was large enough to carry a dog called Laika, in November 3rd, 1957, panicked America, and in December they attempted to launch a satellite of their own, called Vanguard, but it exploded shortly after takeoff.
It wasn’t until 1958, that the Americans started to prove they were as adept at space explorations as their Soviet rivals. On January 31, 1958, they launched Explorer I, the first U.S. satellite to successfully orbit the earth. This success went a long way to encourage the US Congress to grant the creation of NASA.
With President John F. Kennedy’s declaration in May 1961, that America planned to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, the Space Race became increasing more competitive. It took eight years, but on July 20th, 1969, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission achieved Kennedy’s goal, when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Although space exploration has slowed in the last decade, NASA continues to make advances in space exploration, including playing a major part in the construction of the International Space Station.
In 2004, President George Bush, like Kennedy before him, challenged NASA to return to the moon by 2020 and establish “an extended human presence” there that could serve as a launching point for “human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.”
Only time will tell if his dream will also come true.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.