NASA was founded on 29th July 1958, under the patronage of the US government. The statute that defined its role, read "An act to pioneer research in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautical fields".
The idea of setting up a scientific and technologically advanced institute was conceived due to the conditions prevailing in the Cold War period. USA and USSR emerged as the two superpowers in the aftermath of World War II and began a race to establish their influence over the world. The resulting battle of intellectual and political supremacy, led to a series of developments, especially in military and space research. Space exploration became an important area of competition and each nation tried to outsmart the other, to gain a stronghold in the 'space war'. The U.S pursued a policy of extensive work in astronomy and related space sciences, to accentuate its technological supremacy.
However, the ingenious creation that is NASA, was not a sudden fallout of some rivalry. There was a sequence of events that finally led to the congregation of this super project. Space and aeronautics were a subject of great interest in the beginning of the 19th century. On March 3rd, 1915 National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was formed in USA, which was later rechristened National Advisory Council on Aeronautics. This period witnessed a series of scientific developments, such as liquid fuel rockets launched by Dr. Goddard in the US, rocket planes in Germany, ballistic missiles in the erstwhile USSR, and so on. Finally, 4th October 1957 marked the dawn of the 'Space Age', when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made space satellite. It was immediately followed by Sputnik 2 which carried a dog named Laika, the first animal on board a space flight. The first successful US launch was Explorer 1. It discovered the 'Van Allan Belts' which were present around the Earth. This was followed by Vanguard 1 and Explorer 3. The US had arrived big time on the space research scene with Russia challenging its dominion.
In the wake of all these developments, National Advisory Council on Aeronautics was renamed National Aeronautics and Space Administration, it was formally inaugurated on October 1st, 1958, as a dedicated body for advanced research. It began full scale operations with a staff of around 8000 people and three advanced labs; Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory. Gradually, the number of centers went on increasing. Today, it has 10 different centers across the country. There were several programs undertaken during its initial years. Wernher Von Braun, a German who later became a US citizen, was the father of the US space program. He contributed heavily in the new setup by breakthrough research on jet engines and aviation technology.
The year 1958 saw some of the first efforts to test the human survival skills in space. The earliest NASA programs were devoted to the launch of a manned space flight, as soon as possible. Trained officers from the US Army, Navy, and the Air Force, worked in tandem with this specially formed task group; for testing new inventions. A special team was dedicated to work out the environment aboard a spacecraft in Project Mercury. These efforts bore fruit on May 5, 1961 when Alan Shepard became the first American to pilot a space vehicle, in the 'Freedom 7'. John Glenn became the first American to successfully orbit the Earth on May 5th, 1961.
This endeavor was succeeded by Project Gemini, to conduct tests on the Moon, and Project Apollo, to explore the Moon in detail. NASA also conducted a landmark research in the study of space adaptability. Humans learned more about dealing with weightlessness, ways to safely return to the Earth's atmosphere, stationing a spacecraft in space and other such vital techniques. Edward White is credited to be the first US astronaut to perform a 'spacewalk'.
A determined president, John F. Kennedy, had instructed his nation's best minds, to leave no stone unturned in their quest to reach the Moon. The Apollo series of flights to the space, were missions to make this dream a reality. In the process, a crew of 3 astronauts were burned to death in an accident aboard an Apollo capsule, that exploded on January 27th, 1967, due to some technical snags. It was on July 20th, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin landed on the moon and were immortalized forever in human history as the first humans to do so. The famous words uttered by Neil Armstrong when he first stepped on the Moon surface were, "That's one small step for man but a giant leap for mankind." The rigorous work and money put in by the NASA staff was lauded throughout the world. It marked the beginning of a new phase in human evolution, 'The Space Age'.
Further, there were 5 more such probes sent to the Moon and our knowledge about the lunar environment, along with the survival strategies in space, became more and more commendable. 1972 was a year of friendship and mutual co-operation in the space technology, as the leaders the US and the USSR joined hands for collaborative space projects. The next phase of human travel began in 1981, aboard the STS - space shuttle series also known as Space Transportation System. Sally Ride became the first American woman to be in space on the NASA shuttle STS-7, on June 18th,1983.
NASA's journey of space exploration hasn't always been a pleasant experience. Tragedy struck on January 28th, 1986 when the 'Challenger' orbiter's liquid fuel tank burst, resulting in the death of all 7 crew members and again on February 1st, 2003 when the 'Columbia' mission failed on its re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. The silver-lining amidst all these tragic losses was that it was able to achieve many milestones in its never-ending quest for technological advancement. The various communication and weather satellites that orbit in space, the super fast and latest gadgetry in airplanes and jets, or the scram-jet technology to fly ten times faster than the speed of sound; its every little innovation is a testimony to the brilliance and dedication of its work culture.
NASA is still holding onto its place of prominence in science and technology and is definitely a great asset for the future of human innovation.