This category includes government establishments primarily engaged in programs for manned and unmanned space flights and space exploration. Research and development laboratories operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are classified as auxiliaries to this industry. Private establishments primarily engaged in operation of space flights on their own account are classified in SIC 4789: Transportation Services, Not Elsewhere Classified.
927110 (Space Research and Technology)
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the primary U.S. government agency involved in space research and technology. The Department of Defense also operates extensive space research programs, many of them classified.
Other government agencies involved in space research include the Department of Commerce, which operates the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Office of Space Commercialization; the National Science Foundation, which operates several Earth-based observatories; and the Smithsonian Institution, which operates the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies.
The federal space program came to prominence during the 1960s as a result of the "space race," which pitted the United States against the Soviet Union in a contest to be first to land a man on the moon. Over the years, the space program has enjoyed spectacular successes, but also suffered several disappointments, including the tragic explosion of the Challenger shuttle and the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.
NASA, the government's largest space research organization, is divided into several "enterprises," each responsible for a different aspect of the U.S. space program. In addition to enterprises devoted to Education, as well as Safety and Mission Assurance, NASA accomplishes its objectives via five main enterprises: Aerospace Technology, Space Science, Earth Science, Biological and Physical Research, and Space Flight.
Aerospace Technology Enterprise. The Aerospace Technology Enterprise is primarily involved in aeronautical research, including development of high-speed aircraft and air-traffic control aids for civil transport, rather than space flight. According to NASA, this office is driven by four main themes: the administration's Space Launch Initiative, aeronautics technology, mission and science measurement technology, and innovative technology transfer partnerships. The Aerospace Technology Enterprise also manages the Ames Research Center, Dryden Flight Research Facility, Langley Research Center, and the Glenn Research Center.
The Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, was established in 1939 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to conduct aircraft research. It was named for Dr. Joseph S. Ames, NACA chairman from 1927 to 1939. The center became part of NASA in 1958. The center has continued to conduct a broad range of research, including computer space-flight simulations.
The Hugh L. Dryden Flight Research Facility at the Edwards Air Force Base in Edwards, California, was established in 1946. Dryden is involved in testing high-speed aircraft and wingless lifting bodies. Dryden developed the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle during the Apollo program and was involved in developing and testing the space shuttle Enterprise. Space shuttles that land at Edwards Air Force Base were supported by the Dryden Research Facility.
The NASA John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in Cleveland, Ohio, was established in 1941. It formerly was named the Lewis Research Center for George W. Lewis, NACA director of research from 1924 to 1947. However, on March 1, 1999, this facility was renamed to also reflect legendary astronaut John Glenn. The research center is best known for its work in jet propulsion, although it also was instrumental in developing liquid hydrogen as a fuel for space flight in the 1960s. It was responsible for developing an electrical power system for the space station program, and also includes the Microgravity Science Division, which is responsible for experimenting with microgravity science technology.
Located on an 800-acre site in Hampton, Virginia, the NASA Langley Research Center was established in 1917 as the United States' first civil aeronautics laboratory. More than 50 percent of the center's work is devoted to the field of civil and military aeronautics. In addition, its other areas of concentration include the development of next-generation spaceships, as well as aviation safety. The Center for Excellence for Structures and Materials also is located at Langley.
Space Sciences Enterprise. The Space Sciences Enterprise is primarily responsible for programs involving the unmanned scientific investigation of the solar system and deep space. NASA's Space Science Program seeks to understand the nature of the Universe, to explore the solar system, to better understand the relationship between the Earth and sun, and to study the origin and possible distribution of life in the Universe.
The Space Sciences Enterprise conducts many of its projects at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. NASA operates the JPL under contract with the California Institute of Technology. Founded in 1944, JPL built the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, in 1958. JPL also was responsible for the Ranger probes that provided the first close-up pictures of the moon between 1964 and 1965. Since then, probes launched by JPL have explored every planet in the solar systems except Pluto. Projects under its direction have included Voyager, Galileo, Magellan, Mars Observer, and Ulysses. JPL also developed a wide-field planetary camera for the Hubble Space Telescope that was launched in 1990. The Office of Space Sciences continued to manage the Hubble telescope into the early 2000s. In recent years, it has outfitted the device with a Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS). These enhancements extended HST's wavelength range into the near infrared and greatly enhanced its ability for ultraviolet spectroscopy.
Earth Science Enterprise. As its name suggests, the Earth Science Enterprise is responsible for NASA's earth science and environmental programs, which include space-based research. The division also has responsibility for the Goddard Space Flight Center. The center, located in Greenbelt, Maryland, has boasted the largest scientific staff of all NASA centers. It was named for Robert H. Goddard, considered the father of modern rocketry. In the early 1990s, the Goddard center was responsible for monitoring more than 20 major space projects, including the Cosmic Background Explorer, which was launched in 1989 to investigate the origins of the universe, and the Hubble Space Telescope. Other projects managed by Goddard included the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, the International Ultraviolet Explorer, and the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, launched in 1991 as part of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The center also operated the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.
Earth Science has funded research projects including: Synthesis and Modeling Project of the U.S. Joint Global Ocean Flux Study; Satellite Remote Sensing Measurement, Accuracy, Variability, and Validation Studies; The Effects of Tropical Forest Conversion: Ecological Research in the Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA); and Remote Sensing Research—Biological Oceanography.
Biological and Physical Research Enterprise. This NASA office is responsible for researching the effect of zero gravity and space flight on humans and other biological organisms.
Space Flight Enterprise. The Space Flight Enterprise is responsible for the operation of the space shuttle. It also is responsible for the International Space Station, which serves as a habitable space laboratory where scientists can conduct a wide array of experiments. The Space Flight Enterprise oversees all space and flight support, including advanced systems, space communications, and rocket propulsion testing. Finally, it has managerial oversight for the Kennedy Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, and the Stennis Space Center.
The Kennedy Space Center on Florida's Cape Canaveral is NASA's primary launch facility. The Air Force established a missile test center on Cape Canaveral in 1949, and the first U.S. manned space flights were launched from there. The Kennedy Space Center, named for President John F. Kennedy, was built in the early 1960s for the Apollo program. The main complex was on Merritt Island, separated from Cape Canaveral by the Banana River, but the actual launch sites were on the cape. The first space shuttle was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in 1981.
The Marshall Space Flight Center at the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, was NASA's primary rocket research center and played a key role in the development of the space shuttle. The center continued to be responsible for the space shuttle's main engines and operated the Spacelab Mission Operations Control Center. Marshall also managed the Michoud Assembly Facility, the Slidell Computer Complex, and the Advanced Rocket Motor program. Originally part of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, Marshall became part of NASA in 1960. It was named for George C. Marshall, who served as Army chief of staff during World War II and later as secretary of both Defense and State.
The Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, is NASA's primary center for the design and testing of spacecraft for manned flight. Mission Control for all manned space flights is also located at the Johnson Space Center, as are most astronaut training facilities. The center also is responsible for operation of the White Sands Test Facility at Las Cruces, New Mexico. The center was established in 1961, and later named for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi, is responsible for testing the space shuttle's main engines, the same role it filled for the Saturn V rocket during the Apollo space program. The center was named for Congressman John C. Stennis.
Robert H. Goddard. The U.S. government took its first tentative step into space research in 1916, when the federally chartered Smithsonian Institute began to subsidize the work of physicist Robert Hutchings Goddard. During World War I, Goddard engaged in weapons research for the U.S. military, working primarily with solid-fuel rockets. After the war, he returned to experimenting with liquid-fuel rockets, which seemed to hold greater promise. He continued to receive $100 a month from the Navy Bureau of Ordnance.
In 1920, the Smithsonian published a treatise by Goddard entitled "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes." The Smithsonian also issued a press release mentioning the possibility that rockets developed for atmospheric research might one day land a magnesium flare on the moon that would be visible from Earth.
Later that same year, the Smithsonian published another treatise by Goddard entitled "Report on Further Developments of the Rocket Method of Investigating Space." In the treatise, Goddard discussed such visionary topics as the control of unmanned space vehicles, ion propulsion, and a "solar sail"—a giant mirror up to 600 feet square—that could be unfurled in space to collect solar energy. He also suggested that spacecraft carrying metal plates engraved with diagrams of the solar system could be sent into deep space in search of extraterrestrial life—a plan that was carried out in 1972 with Pioneer 10. At the time, however, many influential newspapers openly ridiculed Goddard's ideas.
Goddard severed his relationship with the U.S. military in 1923 and returned to Clark University, in Massachusetts, where he was professor of physics. In 1926, Goddard launched the world's first liquid-fuel rocket on a farm near Auburn, Massachusetts. The awkward-looking mechanism of tanks and tubes reached a height of 41 feet and traveled 184 feet down range. The flight lasted just 2.5 seconds.
In 1929, Goddard was introduced to Charles Lindbergh, the celebrated American pilot who had made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic two years earlier. Lindbergh later persuaded both the Guggenheim Foundation and the Carnegie Institute to back Goddard, which enabled him to leave his teaching position and devote full-time to rocket research at a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. In 1935, Goddard launched a rocket that reached an altitude of 7,500 feet and flew faster than the speed of sound.
When the United States entered World War II, Goddard again turned his attention to developing rockets for the military. He died in 1945. Although little known outside the research community, Goddard was the first to develop the mathematics of rocket action and prove that rockets would work in a vacuum. He also was the first to develop a gyroscope-based control mechanism. In 1960, NASA and the U.S. military awarded $1 million to Goddard's estate and the Guggenheim Foundation for use of his patents. NASA also named its primary research and engineering facility the Goddard Space Flight Center.
Wernher von Braun. About 1930, a group of rocket enthusiasts who had formed the German space society, known as the Verein fur Raumschiffsfahrt or VFR, approached the German government with a proposal to develop the rockets as an alternative to traditional artillery. One of those enthusiasts was Wernher von Braun, who later would be responsible for developing the Saturn V rocket that would take U.S. astronauts to the moon.
Under the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, the German military was reduced to little more than a police force. Among the restrictions, Germany was prohibited from developing heavy artillery, building tanks, or possessing an air force. Rockets, however, were not mentioned in the treaty, and in 1932 von Braun became an advisor to the fledgling German rocket program.
During World War II, a team of scientists led by von Braun developed the V-2 rocket that was used to bomb England. They also began developing a larger rocket that would have been able to reach the United States. However, by early 1945, it was clear that Germany was losing the war, and von Braun began to prepare for the future.
At the time, von Braun's research facility was on an isolated peninsula near the Baltic Sea, and it appeared likely that he would be captured by the Russian army. However, von Braun and most of his team preferred to be captured by American forces. Von Braun convinced the beleaguered German military that he needed to move the research center to Mittelwerk in the central German highlands, where the scientists buried tons of documents and waited to be captured. In what became known as Operation Paperclip, von Braun, more than 100 of his staff members, most of the documents, and about 100 V-2 rockets were eventually taken to the United States.
Space Race. Von Braun and most of the other German scientists became part of various U.S. military research programs. However, following World War II, the United States placed more emphasis on developing long-range bombers than intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which many military leaders felt would never be able to deliver warheads the size of an atomic bomb. Even when the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite in 1957, most U.S. military leaders were unconcerned. President Dwight D. Eisenhower told the news media, "One small ball in the air … does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota."
However, the public outcry at being bested by the Soviet Union did cause the military to step up rocket research. In 1955, the Navy had initiated Project Vanguard, basically a civilian research program, to develop a rocket for launching unmanned satellites for the International Geophysical Year. Late in 1957, a month after Sputnik 2 was launched with the dog Laika aboard, the Navy attempted to quiet public concerns about Soviet superiority by sending its own satellite into orbit. However, the Vanguard rocket rose only a few feet before exploding.
Attention then turned to the Redstone rocket, which the Army was developing at Huntsville, Alabama, under the direction of von Braun. Initially, the Redstone was to be a long-range ICBM, and the Army was under orders from the Pentagon not to interfere with Project Vanguard by attempting to launch a satellite. However, following the launch of Sputnik 1, von Braun was given the go-ahead to develop a rocket capable of reaching outer space.
In January 1958, a modified Redstone rocket, known as the Jupiter-C, lifted off with Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite to successfully reach orbit. Almost immediately, Explorer 1 made a startling discovery when it sent back evidence of two regions of electrically charged particles high above the Earth, which became known as the Van Allen Belts. Although still trailing the Soviet Union, the Army and von Braun had taken the clear lead in the U.S. space program.
NASA. By 1958 two things had become clear: the Soviet Union was planning to put a man into orbit, and most Americans favored the United States joining the space race. Although the Navy's Vanguard succeeded in carrying a satellite into orbit in March 1958, the rocket was clearly too small and too unreliable for a manned space program. Only 3 of the 11 Vanguard rockets were ever launched successfully. The Air Force proposed a "Man in Space Soonest" program using supersonic aircraft that could reach outer space, but would not be able to go into orbit. Meanwhile, von Braun and the Army began developing a rocket known as the Saturn that would be more powerful than either the Vanguard or the Redstone.
However, President Eisenhower and his scientific advisor, James Killian, then president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believed the space program should be a civilian effort focused on scientific exploration rather than military purposes. To achieve that goal, they turned to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a panel of scientists created by Congress in 1915 to promote development of civilian aircraft. In the mid-1950s, NACA was operated two aeronautical laboratories and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Then chaired by General Jimmy Doolittle, NACA also moved into space research and was in the process of building the first hydrogen-fueled rocket engine. In 1957, one-fifth of NACA's budget was devoted to space research.
In April 1958 NACA was renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. Six months later, the organization was absorbed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), created when Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act. NASA was charged with the peaceful exploration of space "for the benefit of all mankind," which included the efforts to put a man into space that had been started by the military. NASA also was given control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA's budget in 1959, its first full year of operation, was $331 million.
Manned Space Program. During its first three years, the U.S. space agency achieved little success. Of 28 satellites sent aloft, only eight achieved orbit, including the first communications satellite, Project Score, launched in December 1958. The manned space program, Project Mercury, was equally unsuccessful. The first unmanned test of a Mercury-Redstone rocket lasted just 58 seconds before the rocket failed. The second Mercury-Redstone rocket never left the launching pad. Meanwhile, in 1959, the Soviet Union launched Luna 2, the first probe to reach the moon, and Luna 3, which took the first pictures of the far side of the moon. In 1960, the Soviet Union launched several dogs into space aboard Sputnik 5 and returned them safely to the Earth.
Although Eisenhower had opposed manned space flight as too expensive, the pressure mounted for NASA to match the Soviet Union. In January 1961, Ham, a chimpanzee who had been taught to perform simple tasks, was launched into space on a sub-orbital flight. NASA then scheduled the first manned flight for the middle of March. However, von Braun cautiously decided the Mercury-Redstone rocket needed further testing and postponed the flight until May. On April 12, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, less than a month before astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., rocketed into space on May 5.
Three weeks later, on May 25, President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress and declared, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth." NASA's budget was nearly doubled from $964 million in 1961 to $1.8 billion in 1962. The Department of Defense budget for space activities also increased by more than 50 percent, from $814 million to $1.3 billion.
Nine years later, on July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr., eased a spidery-looking craft known as the Lunar Module 3 onto the surface of the moon, while astronaut Michael Collins continued to orbit above them in Apollo 11. Armstrong and Aldrin spent nearly 24 hours on the moon, including more than two hours outside their spacecraft. The three astronauts returned to Earth on July 24. A total of 14 men have set foot on the moon.
Between Shepard's 15-minute suborbital flight in 1961 and the historic, eight-day Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969 there were many spectacular moments. For example, during the flight of Apollo 8 in 1968, astronaut Frank Borman read from the Book of Genesis while orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve. The space program also experienced tragedy in 1976 when astronauts Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire during a pre-flight test of the Apollo capsule. NASA's budget averaged $5 billion a year from 1964 through 1968.
As Apollo 11 was on its way to the moon in 1969, then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew announced that NASA's next goal would be to land men on Mars, and the Space Task Group was created to formulate a plan. However, less than a year later, in the midst of the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon issued a statement that shocked NASA officials. After a decade of spectacular achievements in space, Nixon declared, "Space must take its place with other national priorities."
By the time the Apollo program ended in 1972, NASA's budget had dropped to $3.3 billion. There were only six more missions to the moon, beginning with Apollo 12 in November 1969 and ending with Apollo 17 in December 1972. The Apollo 13 mission was aborted when an oxygen tank aboard the service module exploded, disabling the spacecraft en route to the moon. The astronauts averted disaster by using the moon's gravity to slingshot the spacecraft back to Earth. The last men to walk on the moon were astronauts Eugene A. Cernan and Harrison H. Schmitt. Although often talked about, there still were no manned missions to Mars planned in the mid-1990s.
Skylab. When Apollo ended, NASA turned its attention to Skylab. Conceived in 1969, the 85-ton Skylab, the first U.S. space station, actually consisted of the third stage of a Saturn V rocket modified to provide workspace and living quarters for three astronauts who would stay in orbit for extended periods of times. Skylab, considered the first serious opportunity to conduct industrial research in space, was launched in May 1973.
However, a heat shield and one of two solar panels that would produce electricity for Skylab were lost during launch, and a second solar panel only partially opened once Skylab was in orbit. The first astronauts to use the space station, Charles Conrad, Joseph P. Kerwin, and Paul J. Weitz, who followed Skylab into space a few days later, had to erect a large aluminum "parasol" to protect the area of Skylab where the heat shield had been torn away from the heat of the sun. They also repaired the remaining solar panel.
Eventually, Skylab demonstrated that humans could live and work in space for extended periods of time without harmful effects. Three teams of astronauts ultimately spent a total of 171 days aboard Skylab, with the last crew staying 84 days. The astronauts also conducted significant astrological research, including observations of the stars and planets without the visually distorting effect of the Earth's atmosphere. The industrial research was less successful. For example, in the gravity-free environment of Skylab, the astronauts were able to create perfectly round ball bearings. However, they were unable to remove the bearings from the crucible without producing a tail.
In 1978, NASA discovered Skylab, abandoned since 1974, was in a deteriorating orbit and eventually would fall back to Earth. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to trigger Skylab's thrusters from Earth and boost the space station into a more stable orbit. NASA also considered a manned rescue mission using the shuttle spacecraft then under development. However, the shuttle was not completed in time, and on July 11, Skylab plunged into the Earth's atmosphere and broke up over the South Pacific and Indian Ocean.
Unmanned Space Research. While the manned space program captured most of the public's attention, NASA also launched numerous unmanned planetary probes. The first of these probes to successfully complete its mission was Mariner II, launched in 1962, which passed within 22,000 miles of Venus. It revealed that the planet's surface was about 800 degrees Fahrenheit—too hot for any earthly plants or animals to survive.
Mariner IV, launched in 1964, discovered that Mars had a thin atmosphere, and sent back pictures as it passed within 6,120 miles of the planet. Mariner V, launched in 1967, was another mission to Venus, while Mariners VI and VII, launched in 1969, and Mariner IX, launched in 1971, provided more information about Mars.
In 1972, two more unmanned probes, Viking I and II, landed softly on the surface of Mars, where they sent back photographs and analyzed the plant's soil and atmosphere. In 1972, NASA also launched Pioneer X, a nuclear-powered probe that reached Jupiter 21 months later. After flying past Jupiter, Pioneer X continued toward Uranus. Pioneer XI, launched in 1973, also flew by Jupiter, but used the planet's gravity in a slingshot effect to send it on toward Saturn. Mariner X, also launched in 1973, flew by Venus and then used the planet's gravity to send it on to Mercury.
Perhaps the most ambitious probes were Voyagers I and II, both launched in 1977. They reached Jupiter in 1979 and transmitted spectacular pictures revealing, among other things, a ring similar to the one around Saturn and giant active volcanoes on Io, one of Jupiter's moons. They also took time-lapse motion pictures of the swirling gases surrounding the planet. As they left Jupiter, both probes headed for Saturn, where they revealed more information about the planet's rings and took pictures of previously unknown moons. Voyager I then headed out into the universe, while Voyager II headed for Uranus, which it reached in 1986; and Neptune, which it reached in 1989. Voyager II came within 3,000 miles of Neptune, 2.8 billion miles from Earth, and revealed for the first time six new moons and four rings circling the planet.
Space Shuttle. In 1972, Congress approved NASA's plan to build a reusable spacecraft that came to be known as the shuttle. The shuttle was a four-piece launch vehicle that consisted of a delta-winged orbiter, a strap-on fuel tank, and two solid-fuel boosters. The 122-foot long orbiter would be launched into space as a rocket, but would return to the Earth as an airplane.
It took almost as long to develop the shuttle as it did to put a man on the moon, but on April 12, 1981, the twentieth anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's first flight into space, the shuttle Columbia lifted off from Cape Kennedy with astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen aboard. After one orbit, the shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.
In July 1982, after two more test flights and a classified mission for the military, the shuttle Columbia was declared operational. In November 1982, Columbia carried two privately owned communications satellites aloft in its cargo bay and placed them into orbit. A year later, Columbia lifted off with Spacelab, a research laboratory built by the European Space Agency, tucked neatly into its cargo bay. Spacelab could be removed between flights and prepared for the next research mission.
By 1985, NASA had added three more shuttles to the Space Transportation System—Challenger (1983), Discovery (1984), and Atlantis (1985). The cost of the program since its inception in the early 1970s was more than $13 billion. NASA's budget had climbed steadily from a post-Apollo low of $3 billion in 1974 to $7.5 billion in 1985. NASA also completed nine shuttle missions in 1985 and announced the sale of the first products made in space—perfectly round, microscopic bits of plastic. James M. Beggs, then NASA administrator, announced, "This material is the first of what we expect will be a long line of products to carry the made-in-space label."
However, NASA, which once predicted nearly 60 shuttle flights per year by 1990, was forced to cut back to less than a dozen flights because of higher costs and greater preparation time. In addition, NASA, which had hoped to support the shuttle program by carrying commercial satellites into orbit, began to face competition from the European Space Agency and other space programs. The United States also began to emphasize its military space program, and by 1986 the $14.1 billion budgeted for military space activities was almost twice the $7.2 billion allocated to NASA.
Challenger. Less than two minutes after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven crew members. NASA had scheduled 13 more shuttle flights for 1986, but it immediately shut down the program until the cause of the explosion was determined. An official investigation later found that a rubber seal on one of the shuttle's two booster rockets had failed because of unusually cool temperatures at the launch site. But the investigation also placed blame for the tragedy on mismanagement at NASA and Morton Thiokol, Inc., which built the booster.
According to the Rogers Commission report, NASA and Morton Thiokol had been aware of the effect cool temperatures could have on the rubber seals for some time, but had done nothing to correct the problem. The investigation also found that more than a dozen engineers at Morton Thiokol attempted to warn NASA about the dangers immediately preceding the launch, but had been blocked by poor internal communications at NASA. The report criticized the political and economic pressure on NASA to schedule frequent shuttle flights, and more than a dozen senior executives at NASA and Morton Thiokol ultimately resigned because of the Challenger disaster.
To reduce the number of shuttle flights, President Ronald Reagan directed NASA to stop carrying commercial payloads and to concentrate on scientific missions. The Air Force was given responsibility for unmanned military launches, while commercial payloads were to be carried aloft by private corporations.
The shuttle program remained grounded until late 1988, when both Discovery and Atlantis flew successful missions. There were only four shuttle missions in 1989, but two were especially significant for space research. In May, astronauts aboard the Atlantis achieved the first launch of a planetary probe, the Venus-bound Magellan, from the shuttle's cargo bay. In October, the Atlantis launched the Galileo on a six-year mission to Jupiter. In 1990, radar signals from Magellan began penetrating the thick clouds surrounding Venus and transmitting clear images of the surface back to Earth.
Fuel leaks discovered aboard Columbia and Atlantis grounded the space shuttles for much of 1990. As a result, the National Space Council reversed the policy instituted in 1986 that NASA concentrate on manned space flight. The Council recommended that NASA develop new unmanned launch vehicles and reduce its dependence on the space shuttles.
Hubble Telescope. In January 1990, astronauts aboard the shuttle Columbia successfully retrieved a satellite, known as the Long Duration Exposure Facility, which had been launched in 1984 to test the long-term effect of space on various materials. In April, the shuttle Discovery lifted-off with the long-delayed Hubble Space Telescope. The $1.5 billion telescope, named for American astronomer Edwin P. Hubble, was to provide the clearest views ever of stars, galaxies, and other space phenomenon. However, the images sent back to Earth were blurred, and scientists discovered that the main 95-inch mirror had been ground to the wrong optical specifications.
NASA was able to restore some clarity, producing images beyond the capability of Earth-based telescopes, by using a computer technique known deconvolution, but the Hubble Space Telescope remained an embarrassing disappointment. An official investigation criticized both the manufacturer and management at NASA. In 1993, astronauts aboard the shuttle Endeavor were able to correct many of the problems with the Hubble telescope by installing new optics.
Mars Observer. After the Hubble telescope embarrassment, NASA appeared back on track in 1992, which was celebrated worldwide as "International Space Year." There were several successful shuttle flights involving military and scientific missions, including experiments aboard the International Microgravity Laboratory carried aloft in Discovery's cargo bay in January. On the Endeavor's maiden voyage in May, astronauts retrieved a communications satellite that had been stranded in a useless orbit since 1990 and boosted it into the proper orbit.
NASA also used an unmanned Titan 3 rocket to launch the Mars Observer, a probe designed to spend a full Martian year, or 687 earth days, orbiting the planet and mapping its surface. However, after making the 450-million mile trip in 11 months, the Mars Observer stopped transmitting, and NASA speculated it might have exploded when the braking rockets fired.
In 1993, the White House also instructed NASA to redesign the proposed space station to reduce the cost over the next three years from an estimated $17 billion to $9 billion or less. More than $8 billion already had been spent on the program since 1984, when the project was endorsed by then-President Ronald Reagan.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton reduced NASA's budget by about $250 million for 1995, from $15.55 billion to $14.3 billion—the first reduction in the agency's budget since 1972. Most of the reduction came in space shuttle operations, which were pegged at $3.3 billion. Under the proposal, there was a slight increase in science programs, which would account for about 24 percent of the total NASA budget.
In 1996, NASA stunned the world by announcing that they had discovered evidence of life on Mars. Earlier, in 1984, scientists discovered the remnants of an asteroid that struck the Earth approximately 13,000 years ago. Analysis of gas trapped in the rock indicated a Martian origin; and unusual mineral compounds surrounding carbonate globules indicate biological activity. Various dating methods placed the rock's age at 4.5 billion years, and the carbonate globules at 3.6 billion years. Critics remained skeptical, saying that these minerals could also be formed by inorganic processes. They wanted to see evidence of cell division and life cycles. NASA is continuing its investigation.
Shuttle missions have continued, but with more focus on scientific and defense missions. Throughout the 1990s, NASA has faced increasing competition from foreign competitors for commercial payloads.
In 1996, NASA awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin to develop a new reusable launch vehicle, the X-33. NASA expected that this vehicle would eventually replace the space shuttle as their primary manned spacecraft.
NASA has been developing new ways to remote planetary surfaces. By combining a Full Immersion Telepresence Testbed (FITT) and a Dexterous Anthropomorphic Robotic Testbed (DART) technologies, NASA hopes to accomplish more ambitious surveys of Mars. A DART robot could travel the surface of Mars carrying its own laboratory, while a person sits in a safe, remote location controlling the robot with the FITT gear.
NASA's successes for 1998 included the in-orbit assembly of two units for the International Space Station (ISS), two launches to Mars, and a Space Shuttle science research mission that put Senator John Glenn back in orbit. At the same time, NASA was reorganizing and reducing the number of its full-time employees, dropping 440 FTEs (full-time equivalents) in fiscal year 1998 and an estimated 350 more for fiscal year 1999. At the end of 1998, the NASA workforce totaled 18,924 FTEs.
In 1999, NASA continued its efforts to develop and refine a next-generation Reusable Launch Vehicle. It also focused on support for logistics launches and the launch of the Russian Service Module. MEIT activities for Z1 truss, the photovoltaic arrays on P6, MEIT for the Lab, and the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) were also priorities. Seven additional U.S. assembly and logistics flights were planned for FY 2000.
A growing use of NASA's space force has been in the area of medical research. Scientists have been growing antibody crystals aboard the Space Shuttle, which effectively treat many viral illnesses of humans such as the common cold and flu. Because of the weightless environment, known as microgravity, protein crystals grow larger and are of better quality than those grown on earth. In late 1999, NASA announced that it was working on another protein crystal to combat human diabetes, not associated with viral infection.
Another important use of space technology has been in the tracking of weather. The U.S.-France collaboration known as the TOPEX/Poseidon Satellite was used to track the 1997 to 1998 El Nino event, from a distance of 800 miles above earth.
Disappointing news came in September 1999, when NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, launched in December 1998, smashed into Mars after a final rocket firing intended to put the spacecraft in orbit around Mars. The Orbiter was supposed to relay signals from the Mars Polar Lander, scheduled to land on Mars in December 1999. In early November, NASA issued a press release, identifying human error as the cause of the loss: failure to convert English measures into metric values.
During the early 2000s, America's space program experienced an unfortunate setback. In the wake of other national challenges—including the September 11 terrorist attacks and war with Iraq—the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost on February 1, 2003, bursting into flames as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere. On board were seven astronauts: Commander Rick Husband; Pilot Willie McCool; Mission Specialists David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark; Payload Commander Michael Anderson; and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon of the Israel Space Agency.
Most of the debris from the incident was strewn across a wide area of Texas, spanning some 2,400 square miles. However, recovery efforts reached as far away as California. To assist in the recovery of shuttle material, NASA relied on thousands of individuals including citizen volunteers, state and local law enforcement, and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. and Texas Forest Services. By mid-April, some 70,000 items with a combined weight of 78,000 pounds had been recovered and delivered to the Kennedy Space Center. According to NASA, this represented 37 percent of the Shuttle Columbia by weight.
As NASA conducted an official investigation into the crash, a number of different theories emerged as to what caused it. These included faulty hardware, software glitches, human mistakes, and even acts of sabotage. Questions emerged about the future of the agency's remaining three space shuttles. Some observers speculated as to whether they would be replaced by a new generation of space vehicles. In addition, speculation emerged about next steps for the International Space Station (ISS), the construction of which remained incomplete.
On June 4, 2003, NASA released a joint statement made by President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The statement revealed that, through international cooperation, the two nations would continue to support the ISS project. It also affirmed that, just as NASA had done 17 years before in the wake of the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy, America would continue to carry out its mission. The statement read: "The loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia has underscored the historic role of the United States and Russia as partners in space exploration, who have persevered despite tragedy and adversity. During this challenging time, our partnership has deepened and the International Space Station (ISS) program remains strong. The extraordinary efforts of our countries continue."
"The United States is committed to safely returning the Space Shuttle to flight, and the Russian Federation is committed to meeting the ISS crew transport and logistics resupply requirements necessary to maintain our joint American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut teams on board the ISS until the Space Shuttle returns to flight."
"We confirm our mutual aspiration to ensure the continued assembly and viability of the International Space Station as a world-class research facility, relying on our unprecedented experience of bilateral and multilateral interaction in space. We reaffirm our commitment to the mission of human space flight and are prepared to take energetic steps to enhance our cooperation in the application of space technology and techniques."
Representing a massive collaboration between the United States, Russia, and 14 other nations, the International Space Station (ISS) has been going through assembly stages since 1998 and is scheduled for completion by 2004. The ISS is a permanent space research laboratory, the size of a football field, which will orbit the earth at 17,500 miles per hour with a minimum life expectancy of 10 years. Boeing North America is the sole contractor for the project, managed by NASA's Johnson Space Center. When completed, the $40-billion spacecraft will house up to seven astronauts at a time, for as long as six months. It has been dubbed "the window to the universe." It represents the world's largest peace time engineering effort.
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