October 1, 2008 Cochlear implants, ultrasonically welded swimsuits, DustBusters, and freeze-dried food. You owe more to NASA than you think. Fifty years ago today, NASA’s employees turned up for their first day at work. One-hundred and fifty manned missions, $810.459 billion present-day dollars, and 382 kilograms of moon rocks later, the ripples from NASA have influenced society and the development of technology in ways we rarely detect. Kyle Sherer takes a closer look at the history and major achievements of the last half-century.

When NASA required a small, portable machine to pick up samples from the surface of the moon, it commissioned Black & Decker to create the device. The computer program B&D made to produce the model inspired a new design, which was eventually used as the basis of the DustBuster. The composite material NASA developed for rocket casings has been incorporated into fire fighting equipment, while NASA research into algae as a recycling agent resulted in an improved recipe for baby food.

But when tracking ripples, the starting point has to be the splash that disturbed the pond. In the case of NASA, the splash was made by a spherical hunk of metal with whisker-like antennae and a simple transmitter.

Throwing up the gauntlet: The launch of Sputnik

On October 4, 1957, amateur radio operators were told to monitor the 20.005 and 40.002 MHz frequencies. For 22 days, an intermittent beeping sound could be detected – a sound congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce referred to as “an intercontinental, outer-space raspberry.” It was the sound transmitted by Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, launched without warning by the USSR in a staggering demonstration of technological superiority. The 585-millimeter model traveled 60 million kilometers in three months, orbiting the Earth 1,440 times before burning up on re-entry above Alaska.

The inspiration for Sputnik was a “super-weapon” designed by German scientist Wernher von Braun during WWII, which the Nazi Propaganda Ministry dubbed “Vengeance Weapon 2.” The V-2 rocket was the first ballistic missile, capable of striking at super-sonic speeds without warning. Hitler hoped the rocket would spread despair amongst the Allied forces, but despite repeated bombings of Belgium and Britain, it did not create the emotional impact necessary to turn the tide of the war. However, the value of the technology was not ignored, especially when the USA and USSR realized the V-2 could be adapted to achieve orbital flight – a longstanding scientific goal that until this time had been out of reach.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had declared intentions to create satellites by the end of 1958, but the launch of Sputnik 1 was months earlier than the US anticipated, and far too early for them to match. When the USSR succeeded in placing the first animal in orbit on November 3, 1957, the United States had not even launched a satellite. Their first attempt at doing so, the Navy’s Vanguard TV3, launched on December 6, 1957, and rose just four feet into the air before exploding, earning the derisive title “Kaputnik” in the press. In response, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act in July 1958, creating NASA, an agency devoted to space travel and aerospace research. The C in every NACA logo was carefully painted over and replaced with an S. That, says Neil Armstrong, was the only thing to really indicate that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics had been dissolved, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had been created.

NASA’s early years: Project Mercury

By the time NASA began, the US had succeeded in launching Explorer 1, their first satellite. The Explorer program was initially overlooked in favor of Project Vanguard, but after the spectacular collapse of the first Vanguard satellite, Explorer was rushed into development and built in just 84 days. Behind Explorer’s success was Wernher von Braun, recruited by the US military under Operation Paperclip, and now aiming his rockets toward loftier targets. Von Braun’s expertise and management were pivotal to NASA’s space race accomplishments, though his history with the Nazi party made him a controversial figure – comedian Tom Lehrer remarked that he knew how to count down to zero in German and English…and started learning the Chinese.

NASA’s first space program was Project Mercury, a $2.7 billion (adjusted for inflation) attempt to put man in orbit that stemmed from the Man in Space Soonest (MISS) program. The 3.51-metre Mercury rockets could only fit a single crew member, who, according to NASA, did not so much ride the craft as wear it. On May 5, 1961, the first Mercury vessel successfully carried an American pilot.

On May 25, less than three weeks after a single American astronaut had spent just 15 minutes in sub-orbital flight, President Kennedy proclaimed to Congress that the US should commit to landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. The first phases of the space race had ended with Russian superiority – now it was up to NASA to turn the tide.

Putting Man on the Moon

While the USSR maintained a technological edge over the US for much of the space race, they lacked a very important factor – a cohesive, organizational entity, like NASA, to co ordinate their efforts. In 1964, 30 distinct launcher and spacecraft designs were being simultaneously developed and pushed by various scientific, military and political advocates within the Soviet Union. The space efforts of the USSR were also hampered by the bureaucracy of communism – programs had to be scheduled in harmony with the grand five-year plans, severely reducing Russia’s ability to adapt their strategies to the accelerating American program.

Sergey Korolyov, the secretive Soviet engineer known only to the outside world as the “Chief Designer”, was eventually given complete authority over the manned space program in 1964, but his death two years later put the Soviet space program in further disarray. Infighting and divisiveness within the Russian space program allowed a more unified NASA to snatch the lead, during the most pivotal stretch of the space race – the quest to put man on the moon. While the space race would continue past the moon landing in projects like Skylab, Apollo 11 represented its apex.

The Apollo program cost $135 billion (adjusted for inflation) – the largest commitment of resources ever made by a nation in peacetime. At its peak, NASA employed 400,000 people, and solicited the support of 20,000 firms and universities. When Apollo 11 landed on July 20, 1969, one fifth of the world’s population watched the moonwalk on television.

Beyond the moon

In Moondust, Andrew Smith comments that of all the milestones that cause people to remember where they were, the moon landing is the only one that does not involve death or conflict. The language of NASA is unusually spiritual for a government agency – a recent space exploration proposal claims that what they are engaged in is “more than just science.” The intangible aspects of NASA’s research, the amazing photographs, the sense of exploration and discovery, are examples of the rare resource which NASA is uniquely able to provide from outer space: perspective.

And for a little economic perspective: in its entire 50-year history NASA has spent a total of only (in 2007 dollar value) $810.459 billion – a sum dwarfed by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, set to cost a total of $2.4 trillion by 2017. Despite consuming a fraction of a percent of the annual budget, NASA is forced to beg for every penny. And despite advancing to a manned lunar mission in 12 years, we are now unable to send a man to the moon even if we wanted to. In 2004, George W Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, which outlines a road map to put a man on Mars. NASA, and other space agencies, tentatively project such an expedition by 2050.

This year’s presidential candidates have been unapologetic about dipping into NASA funding, with Senator Obama claiming that NASA is “no longer inspiring.” His opinion is presumably shared by the children in the UK who believe Winston Churchill was the first man on the moon. Yet, in looking at NASA’s history, it is tempting to believe that instead of chipping away at the funding and relevancy of NASA, and claiming a manned mission to Mars is too difficult and unrewarding, we should create an ultimatum, and commit to accomplishing the fantastic simply because it’s fantastic. In the words of Kennedy: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

And the ripples will continue to move outwards, in ever wider circles.

Kyle Sherer

To learn more see NASA's interactive feature celebrating 50 years of exploration.

View gallery - 6 images