As a kid growing up in the 1950s outer space and rockets were the things of comic books, movies and science fiction. We had toy plastic rockets and pretended we were Buck Rogers of comic book fame and our imaginations ran as wildly as the strange creatures we saw at the movie theaters. Those movies, which seemed so real to us kids in the 1950s are what we call B movie Sci Fi films today.
In late 1950, my dad was a civilian spray painter at a plant that handled Navy contracts. Imagine how proud I was when I learned that my dad had done the detailed spray painting on some of the Navy’s Vanguard rockets. The Vanguard rockets were originally designed to launch satellites into outer space and orbit around the earth. I still remember when dad came home from work one day and told us the navy launched one of rockets he helped paint and that it went into outer space.
Then a couple months later, with much fanfare and national attention, a Vanguard rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral only to fail at launch and explode. At the time, NASA did not exist. Launching rockets and satellites into space was relegated to the military and agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), or the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). As imagined, most of the agencies worked on their own projects with little communication or coordination with the others.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched a rocket that place their Sputnik 1 satellite into orbit around the earth. The space race was on, but the US was not organized enough to meet the challenge.
On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2 into orbit around the earth.
On November 21, 1957, President Eisenhower tasked James Killian to lead the President’s Science Advisory Committee to investigate what it would take for America to enter the space race with the Soviet Union.
On November 25, 1957, the Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, began holding investigative hearings on the need, implications and costs of getting involved in the space race. They also explored whether to use one or more of the existing agencies or to create an entirely new agency.
On January 31, 1958, the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency used a Jupiter C rocket to put America’s first satellite, Explorer 1 into orbit. The primary purpose of Explorer 1 was to detect the amount of radiation outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
During this time, the Navy continued to test the Vanguard rockets and my dad’s work continued to be sent into outer space.
On April 2, 1958, acting upon the report he received from his Science Advisory Committee, Eisenhower sent a piece of legislation to Congress, calling for the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). Congress debated Eisenhower’s bill for the next several months before passing the bill in late July 1958.
On this day, July 29, 1958, Eisenhower signed the bill into law, creating NASA.
On October 1, 1958, NASA officially opened its doors for business and they have succeeded in putting men and women in space and on the moon. NASA has sent out probes to every planet in our solar system and even beyond.
Sources for the above includes: Vanguard; Explorer 1 Overview; The Birth of NASA; NASA Created; NASA Begins; 50 Years Ago: NASA Born in Sputnik’s Wake; The Act that Created the Space Agency Was Signed on July 29, 1958; Nasa turns 57: how did the US space agency start?