The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the U.S. government agency concerned with space exploration. It is not a military agency; it's a civilian agency (although some personnel, particularly astronauts, may be military officers on special assignment to the agency as a tour of duty). Much of the "military vs. civilian" confusion is likely due to the frequent misconception of NASA's responsibilities, as the agency is frequently portrayed as conducting activities—such as tracking objects in Earth orbit, or launching and controlling secret satellites, for example—that generally fall within the purview of military or intelligence communities (most often the United States Air Force). Furthermore many astronauts (especially in the early daysnote ) were military officers when they flew.
Generally, a radio transmission addressed to "Houston" (especially from anyone in space) is a reference to NASA's Mission Control Center at Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in the Texan city of the same name. And no, JSC (or KSC) is not the only NASA center in existence, nor is it the NASA headquarters. In fact, there are nine main NASA facilities note alongside Jet Propulsion Laboratory note in Pasadena, CA, Deep Space Network,note two other tracking stations, two abandoned tracking stations in Australia, the NASA infrared telescope at Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, and finally, the NASA Headquarters, located in a fairly nondescript building around the corner of 300 E Street SW, Washington, D.C.. note
The Mercury Program
The Russians had put Yuri Gagarin in space, so the US played catch-up. The goal of this program was simply putting Americans in orbit. After a test flight involving Ham the Chimp, Alan Shepard (who went into space on a ballistic arc without actually orbiting) and John Glenn (the first American in orbit) made their famous flights.
The Right Stuff is a movie about the Mercury astronauts, based on a nonfiction book by Tom Wolfe. The Astronaut Wives Club is a miniseries about their wives, based on a nonfiction book by Lily Koppel.
The Gemini Program
Within three weeks after the first successful Mercury flight, in mid-1961, President Kennedy announced that the United States should commit to the goal of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" before the end of the 1960s. This, of course, meant that they needed a lot of practice. The Gemini Program focused on staying in space for long periods of time in two-person capsules, spacewalking, and rendezvous and docking in orbit.
Despite its crucial importance to the space race, Gemini is the forgotten middle child of the space program. Outside of non-fiction books, the most exposure it's gotten is half of an episode of the HBO Docudrama Mini Series From the Earth to the Moon. There were some proposals to use Gemini as a quicker means of getting (fewer people) to the Moon, or using it as the basis for a larger orbital ship called Big Gemini—these tended to be suppressed by NASA after they had committed to Apollo.
The Apollo Program
NASA's most famous program. The Apollo spacecraft was a three-person vessel that had three main parts: the Command Module, a squat cone note where the crew spent most of their time and which was the only bit that would survive re-entry; the Service Module, a big cylinder where all of the life-support equipment was kept; and the Lunar Module, the funny spidery thing that actually landed on the Moon. Missions to the Moon were propelled by the Saturn V, America's largest ever rocket, and the largest rocket ever successfully used (the Soviet N1 and Energia rockets were larger, but the N1 was a catastrophic failure and kept secret until 1990, and Energia was too expensive to be useful, especially after The Great Politics Mess-Up resulted in a near-bankrupt Russia). Notable missions include:
- Apollo 1: caught fire during a "dry run" for the launch, killing the three astronauts on board.note
- Apollo 7: first successful manned flight of an Apollo spacecraft (Apollo missions 26 were unmanned).
- Apollo 8: the first mission in human history that went to the Moon. This was the first time that Humans had left near earth orbit. The flight did not land. Arguably the defining moment where the United States overtook the USSR in The Space Race. note Also notable for the Christmas Eve broadcast, in which the astronauts read from Genesis during a scheduled television broadcast, and the famous Earthrise photograph. Many professionals think of this as more significant than even...
- Apollo 11: first manned mission to land on the Moon. Neil Armstrong gets to say his famous lines. Gently parodied by The Dish, which loosely follows the tale of the radio observatory in Australia responsible for tracking the mission. NASA erased their recordings of the event, which they never lived down.
- Apollo 13: the "successful failure." Several critical equipment failures meant that the craft could not land on the Moon, but due to the tenacity of both the astronauts in the craft and the controllers, astronauts, scientists and engineers on the ground, all three crew members made it back alive. Made into an excellent novel and movie. Jim Lovell, who went past the Moon twice on Apollo missions 8 and 13 but never got to land on it, deserves a special mention here. Also, due to the nature of the emergency-abort maneuver's free-return-trajectory around the Moon, the 3 man crew of Apollo 13 hold the world-record of travelling a greater distance away from the center of the earth than any other humans in history.
- Apollo 15: the first of the J-missions. Changes to the launcher and its trajectory allowed a heavier payload, including a lunar rover, and total EVA time was about double that of Apollo 14. The Genesis Rock was discovered on this mission, which is probably one of the reasons NASA still considers it the most successful manned space mission ever, the infamous postage stamp incident notwithstanding.
- Alumni of the University of Michigan are likely to gloat about Apollo 15, as all three crew members had spent time in Ann Arbor (Worden and Irwin had Masters' in engineering from Michigan, while Scott had spent his freshman year as an undergraduate there before he was appointed to West Point as a transfer).
- Apollo 17: the last mission to the Moon (Apollo missions 12, 14, 15, and 16 were successful manned landings and 18, 19 and 20 were cancelled since Nixon slashed NASA's budget for various reasons, such as its connection to John F. Kennedy, his opponent in the 1960 election, and the need to continue funding the (ultimately futile) American war effort in Vietnam. The only time where a civilian scientist (Harrison Schmitt) has been able to walk on the Moon.
Skylab and the Apollo Applications Program
From the beginning of the Apollo program, NASA had been looking into using spare Apollo hardware for a number of other scientific missions. This outgrowth of Apollo was called the Apollo Applications Program, which proposed a number of ambitious ideas. These included plans for a manned orbital observatory, a Venus flyby using the third stage of the Saturn V as a "wet workshop," and various lunar habitats. The only one of these ideas to reach fruition was Skylab, a Space Station built into an empty stage from a spare Saturn V. Skylab suffered severe damage during its launch in 1973, but the crews that followed it up managed to repair it, and it was inhabited for most of the next nine months. Early shuttle missions were planned to resuscitate the station, but delays to the shuttle program and increased sun activity in 1979 saw Skylab deorbit over Australia on (ironically) July 4, 1979.
Apollo-Soyuz Test Project
A successful docking of an American Apollo and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in space in 1975. Generally considered the formal end of The Space Race and is significant for many reasons:
- It ended the first phase of US manned spaceflight; there would be no further manned launches for nearly six years. Fittingly the crew included Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton (who was grounded for medical reasons, becoming chief astronaut over the years but never flying until this mission) and was commanded by Tom Stafford, a Gemini and Apollo veteran (and commander of Apollo 10).
- It is at this point that the superpowers' space ambitions and aims diverged. NASA concentrated on science missions in a reusable spacecraft as well as sending of probes to other planets; the Soviets on long term manned spaceflight using space stations, at which they began to excel.
- If Apollo 8 was the start of the US lead in manned spaceflight, ASTP was the end; the Soviets would take it back in the late '70s with the Salyut space stations, which found their ultimate expression in Mir. The Russians remain the worlds premier spacefaring nation. note
- It was the start of the era of space cooperation, which has never really ended and found its ultimate expression in the ISS (below).
The Space Shuttle
Designed to be the opposite of the Saturn V, the Shuttle note has been described as a "do anything vehicle, but not a go anywhere one": it is a versatile vehicle and was designed to be an economical one. (That's by the standards of space flight to begin with, and it actually ended up costing a lot more per launch than envisioned.) It could not, however, get further than low Earth orbit (though some works of fiction have the Space Shuttle going beyond Earth orbit). The Shuttle was originally proposed as part of a complete infrastructure of American Earth-orbit facilities, including the Space Station Freedom (see below); budgetary cutbacks meant that only one portion of the proposal could be funded, and the Shuttle was selected. Somewhat ironically, it is only in the final stages of its life-cycle that the advent of the International Space Station has allowed the Shuttle to be used in the capacity for which it was originally designed.
Strictly speaking, the big black-and-white thing that looks kind of like an airplane is called an "orbiter"; the space shuttle consists of an orbiter, a large external fuel tank (which is not recovered—a new one must be used every time), and two Solid Rocket Boosters (which were recovered and reused). Six orbiters have been built in total:
- Enterprise (after that Enterprise, seriously!note ). Built primarily for aerodynamic testing purposes, Enterprise wasn't actually capable of spaceflight (as it is missing several minor things like heat shielding or engines), though there were originally plans to refit it for such.note
- Now housed at the USS Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York City. Go see it!
- Columbia (after the first American vessel to circumnavigate the world, and also the Apollo 11 Command Module). The first space shuttle launched (in 1981). Slightly different from later shuttles due to design changes. Columbia remained in service until 2003, when it broke up during atmospheric reentry, killing all aboard. The reason for the disaster lies in the foam on the external tank. During launch, a piece of foam was shed from the tank, which hit the leading-edge tip of Columbia's left wing. Shedding foam was a longtime problem with the shuttle system, dating back to the very first mission. This time, though, the foam hit the shuttle in a critical spot on the wing's leading edge, allowing hot gases to seep into the shuttle and basically blowtorch the wing's internal structures, causing increasing destabilization that ultimately tore the shuttle - and its crew - to pieces.
- Challenger (after the ship used for the Challenger expedition, and the Apollo 17 Command Module). First launched in 1983. Carried the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride, into space. Sadly, Challenger is best known for its destruction in 1986 just over a minute after liftoff. What made the tragedy even more devastating was the presence of a civilian school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space, not knowing that her ultimate fate would be to die in an explosion. The destruction was caused by a design flaw in the solid-rocket booster that, when combined with abnormally-strong wind shear and temperatures you'd never expect for Florida, caused a "bleed-through" on the external tank. It had happened several times before, but nothing wrong ever happened, so NASA made it a feature of the system. On this mission, the bleed-through caused the SRB to tear itself from the external tank, flinging the stack broadside into its own airstream (keep in mind the shuttle was flying at Mach-1 at the time), and tore the orbiter and external tank apart, as the airstream pushed them too far past stress tolerances. The SRBs, which were designed with a higher stress tolerance, remained in flight, out of control, before being destroyed by the Range Safety Officer. To this day, the media still refers to the disaster as an explosion, though the correct term is disintegration, as all indications suggest that the crew was still alive after break-up, only to be killed when they slammed into the Atlantic at roughly 200 MPH.
- Discovery (after quite a few different ships of exploration). First launched in 1984. Discovery was used to launch the Hubble Space Telescope, was the first American spacecraft to carry a Russian into space, and was the first shuttle to be launched after the destruction of both Challenger and Columbia.
- Also the Orbiter with the most flights and longest cumulative time in space.
- Now housed at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center.
- In a reversal of how Enterprise got her name, the titular starship of Star Trek: Discovery is named (in part) for this shuttle.
- Atlantis (after an oceanographic research vessel). First launched in 1985. The final orbiter to be decommissioned, it took off on its final mission on July 8, 2011, about half an hour before noon Eastern Daylight Time.
- Currently on display in a dedicated building at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
- Endeavour (after James Cook's ship and also the Apollo 15 Command Module; Americans normally spell the word "endeavor"). First launched in 1992. Constructed as a replacement for Challenger.
- Currently on display in a temporary pavillion at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. When its permanent home is constructed, it will be displayed in launch configuration, complete with external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters.
The entire space shuttle fleet was decommissioned in 2011, in favor of a new system known as Orion that could have, when using the new Ares-class rockets, been able to go back to the Moon. This new system was soon cancelled, but Orion was moved into the under-development "Space Launch System." See "Project Constellation" for more details.
The International Space Station
An outgrowth of a design project known as Space Station Freedom, which was initiated under the Reagan administration. By the 1980's the Soviets had wrested back the top dog position in manned spaceflight with the Salyut series of stations. The launch of Mir cemented this. note Space Station Freedom was supposed to be the US's answer. Following a series of budget cutbacks (and a trimmed-down redesign, jokingly known as "Space Station Fred"), the Freedom proposal was abandoned in favor of the ISS, a collaborative project between NASA, the Russian Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, the multinational European Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. This orbital science research facility is commanded from mission control centers in Houston, U.S. (which typically has overall operational control); Moscow, Russia; Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany; and Tsukuba, Japan.
It has been said, not entirely inaccurately, that the ISS came about because each member had something they lacked. The Russians lacked money, NASA expertise, and the Canadians, Japanese, and Europeans a human spaceflight program, and ISS rectified this. note Launched in 1998 and permanently manned since 2000, it is now the size of a five bedroom suburban house in living space alone, and nearly a million kilograms in mass. The ISS is essentially two stations: the Russian Orbital module (the larger part), which is basically Mir mark 2, and the US Orbital Section, which is a mishmash of sections built by the other partners, though mainly comprised of elements meant for Space Station Freedom, plus the cancelled European station Columbus.
NASA's latest manned spaceflight project called for the Shuttle to be retired some time around 2010 and replaced by the Orion spacecraft, a semi-reusable capsule similar to the Apollo spacecraft. New rockets were being developed, Ares I and V. The Orion spacecraft, together with the Altair lander, would have been capable of manned lunar missions, near-Earth asteroid encounters, and potentially even interplanetary travel. The first test launch of the program, Ares I-X, took place on October 27, 2009.
In a development that has been controversial to say the least, the 2011 federal budget proposed by President Barack Obama (who was openly hostile towards Constellation, calling it "over-budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation") on February 1, 2010 does not include any elements of Constellation, effectively canceling the program to develop the boosters and redefining the Orion capsule as a "Multi-Purpose Crew Module." In its place, the administration has proposed a stronger focus on education and research to develop "game-changing technologies" before continuing with a manned exploration agenda, with American access to the International Space Station delegated to a rapidly-growing commercial spaceflight industry. This has garnered a mixture of both approval and criticism within NASA and within Congress (which has final authority over the budget)—some say that previous exploration goals were too ambitious for current technology, while others insist that if a clear-cut goal for exploration is defined, the required technology will be developed as it is needed (as it was during Apollo). Time will tell what the final outcome is.
The Artemis Program
To replace the Ares boosters as the primary launch vehicle for the Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Module, NASA is currently working on a new booster called the Space Launch System. Reusing as much Space Shuttle hardware as possible, including the solid rocket boosters and a five-engine configuration of the RS-25 main engines used by the Space Shuttle, the SLS continues the Ares concept with all flight-tested hardware. Many say the SLS needs a better name, one name kicked around by space enthusiasts being Neptune to follow up on Saturn (as a rocket named Uranus would probably spawn even more juvenile jokes than the planet already has).
In 2019, both Orion and the SLS were integrated into the new Artemis program by the Trump adminstration. The new goal is for a manned lunar landing by 2024 with at least one woman. Said mission, Artemis 3, will be accomplished using an as-of-yet unnamed reusable lander stationed at the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), a lander that will be designed by a private company.
Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and Commercial Crew Program
Considering the bureaucratic mess involved in developing any kind of American-operated flight hardware for getting to the International Space Station (or beyond) in the post-Shuttle era, NASA has smartly hedged its bets by developing the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, program to help support private companies to develop, build and launch cargo spacecraft for ISS. Basically, private companies take care of the ISS while NASA plays in space with spacecraft funded by taxpayers.
Three companies have contracts. One has a remarkable lead overall: SpaceX. Founded by Paypal and Tesla billionaire Elon Musk, the company has developed its Falcon launch vehicles and its crew/cargo module, the Dragon, and is the first private company to launch a spacecraft to the ISS on May 22, 2012, and dock their vehicle to the ISS. They started operational flights in October 2012. The Dragon and Falcon are designed to almost-fully reusable, with extremely cool recovery/abort modes that may ultimately bring a manned Dragon spacecraft or expended Falcon boosters back to Earth via a powered rocket landing, Space: 1999 style. Also on the first contract was Orbital ATK (formerly Orbital Sciences) and their Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Despite a catastrophic (and rather spectacular) crash of the ORB-3 cargo rocket in October, 2014, they continue sending supplies thanks to a United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch vehicle until Orbital returns to flight on their Antares rocket by mid 2016.
A second contract of the program has Cygnus and Dragon returning to supply the ISS, plus an unmanned winged vehicle back under NASA's fold: Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser Cargo spacecraft. Dream Chaser Cargo adds a second supply vehicle, after Dragon, capable of safely returning unneeded or completed experiments from its glide back to Earth. Unlike the Dragon and Cygnus (both use their own launch vehicle), the DC-Cargo will ride an Atlas V to the ISS.
Getting cargo to the ISS has been comparably easier than getting crew to the station. Until 2011 (with some downtime after the Columbia accident), the Space Shuttle program was the normal means for most Expedition crews to reach and return from the station. With the STS program's end in 2011, NASA rented seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the station, though this is becoming more difficult owing to deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia regarding the Ukraine Crisis and North Korea. It doesn't help that Russia has embargoed the sale of rocket engines for rockets launching military payloads.
To resolve this expensive and somewhat embarrassing hitchhiking, NASA introduced the Commercial Crew Program, a contract that would choose one or two private companies to build and supply new human-rated, reusable spacecraft with launch vehicles. Three companies competed for the contract: SpaceX (already handling cargo runs as well) with a new, sleek Dragon spacecraft, Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, and the CST-100, a Boeing-led project with a capsule similar in appearance to the old Apollo and Orion spacecraft.
By September 2014, NASA chose SpaceX's Dragon V2 (called by NASA as the "Crew Dragon") and Boeing's CST-100 (now also known as the "Starliner") as the new low-earth-orbit manned ferries to the ISS, leaving the SNC Dream Chaser snubbed as a manned vehicle (although SNC successfully picked up a COTS contract 2 with a smaller unmanned cargo variant noted above). The new manned ships start flying in earnest sometime in 2019.
There were quite a few proposals that lobbied to be selected. One of the most interesting came from the United Space Alliance, who wanted to keep Atlantis and Endeavor flying, only commercially instead of at taxpayers' expense; the two shuttles would fly twice a year between 2013 and 2017 (most likely, each shuttle would fly once per year), and would presumably be back to launching commercial and military satellites like they did in the 80s and 90s before the advent of the ISS (flights to the ISS with the commercial shuttles would probably involve crew transfer and resupply with one of the pressurized logistics modules, as the remaining modules can be launched on conventional rockets). As you can imagine, this proposal was not selected, but generally speaking, it was probably the most logical, since all of the Space Shuttle infrastructure was still in place when the proposal was made, and the technology was proven (unlike the other proposals).
There are lots of these, given that robotic probes are much better at traveling far and wide to explore the solar system, not needing any life support, fuel to accelerate astronauts and their support systems to reasonable speeds, more fuel to accelerate that fuel, protection from cosmic rays, landing craft that can take off from other planets/moons, methods of surviving on said other worlds, and usually, no need for return journeys. Also, no lives to be lost, of course. Since mindless robot explorers are not as glamorous or exciting to watch as astronauts, the probe fleet is obviously not as well known as, say, Apollo, but some of them have leaked into the public consciousness nonetheless.
- Mars Missions:
- A few of the early Mariner missions targeted Mars. (Mariner missions 4, 6 and 7 flew by; Mariner 9 orbited.)
- Mariner 9 was especially important because it disproved the idea that Mars was little more than a big moon, which had been cultivated by the barren, cratered landscapes imaged by the previous missions.
- Viking landed two big stationary probes on Mars in the mid-1970s. Looked for life signs, found nothing. Also had two orbiters which mapped the planet in more detail than the previous Mariner 9 mission, provided data on Martian weather, and looked at near-Martian conditions.
- After Viking, there weren't any more successful Mars missions until the mid-1990s, with Mars Global Surveyor, an orbiter (usually called MGS), and Pathfinder, a lander with a small rover called Sojourner. These reawakened interest in Mars exploration, leading to the large number of more recent probes: the European Mars Express and American 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiters, the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), and 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
- The Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity deserve a Moment of Awesome. Initially designed to last a minimum of 90 days and not expected to survive that long, as of April 2010, they were both still running, although Spirit became stuck in some sandy soil and was re-classified as a "stationary observational point" instead of a rover. Unfortunately, in May 2011, Spirit stopped working completely, but Opportunity was still chugging along just fine, with no sign that it was going to stop any time soon, Martian weather permitting, and as of May 16, 2013, Opportunity was also in second place for the longest distance driven on Mars or the Moon by a vehicle at 35.76 km. Just below it at 35.74 km is the Apollo 17 lunar rover (eg a vehicle actually designed for long-distance travel) and just above it at 37 km is Lunokhod 2 from the USSR in 1973.
- Opportunity was unfortunately knocked out by a planet-wide dust storm that took place from July 2018 onwards. The rover stopped communicating with Earth, and it was declared officially dead February 13, 2019.
"My battery is low and it's getting dark."— Opportunity's last transmissionnote
- There are currently plans to launch quite a few more probes to Mars, including sample return missions and more and bigger rovers. The Mars Science Laboratory or "Curiosity" rover landed on the planet in 2012. Its landing heralded a few remarkable "firsts", including the use of a "sky crane," a powered rocket frame that lowered the Mini Cooper-sized rover to the surface, rather than using previous landing methods. Oh, just go to the remarkable page on The Other Wiki for the grandeur of this rover.
- The cheap spider-bots they're currently building (not to be sent up for another decade, probably) can dance.
- After the rovers, the Phoenix lander program occurred during 2008. Due to landing near the polar locations, Phoenix was not expected to last very long as the harsh Martian winter would end up destroying or damaging much of its exterior. Nevertheless, as with Spirit and Opportunity, it provided volumes of data on the red planet. On November 2, 2008, Phoenix made its final message back to Earth, a single word in binary: Triumph.
- MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission) arrived successfully in Martian orbit in 2015 to study the Martian atmosphere. Notable for having its preparation halted due to the 2013 Government Shutdown just mere weeks before the launch window, which, if missed, meant that they would have had to wait two more years. An emergency measure was passed so MAVEN could launch on time. MAVEN was instrumental in confirming (with other data) that Mars still has flowing water, of a sort, and confirmed information about how Mars lost much of its atmosphere over the eons due to a very weak magnetosphere, allowing the solar wind to strip the planet.
- In Sight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is a lander that arrived in November 26, 2018 and whose objective is to study Mars' interior. As of late 2019, its instruments, that include a seismometer and a heat-measuring probe, have been deployed with no issues and are collecting data except the heat-measuring probe due to problems with the drill, as Martian ground is too coarse.
- Historically, most Mars missions were unsuccessful—in fact, it's a larger graveyard of failed spacecraft than successful ones. Two of the unmanned Mars probes—the Mars Climate Orbiter, and the Mars Polar Lander—have gone down in infamy as two of NASA's biggest failures. The Climate Orbiter burned up in the Martian atmosphere because of Unit Confusion: the output from one piece of Earth-based software was in pound-seconds and the program that used it as input expected Newton-seconds. The Polar Lander crashed on landing because on-board software detected a jolt while extending its landing gear, interpreted this jolt incorrectly as the landing pads touching the ground, and shut off the engines. Russia (as the Soviet Union) has had virtually no success in a soft-landing of any of its missions there.
- A few of the early Mariner missions targeted Mars. (Mariner missions 4, 6 and 7 flew by; Mariner 9 orbited.)
- Venus Missions: This was more the Soviets' thing, but the US did have a few notable Venus missions.
- Mariner 2 was the first successful interplanetary mission done by any human probe; it flew by Venus in 1962 and established that it was really really hot (about 450 degrees Celsius).
- The next Venus missions launched by NASA were the Pioneer-Venus probes in the late 1970s. There were two probes, one designed to go through the atmosphere and look at its composition, and another designed to orbit, relay telemetry from the landers, and make radar maps of the surface. The probes successfully mapped a large part of Venus's surface and gathered data about the atmosphere.
- The most recent American Venus mission was the Magellan probe, designed to map the entire surface of Venus using radar. Very successfully generated a high-res 3D map of almost the entire Cytherean note surface. Notable for being made on the cheap out of spare parts from Voyager, Galileo, Ulysses, and Mariner 9.
- Mercury Missions: The exploration of Mercury is quite difficult, as one has to get rid of a lot of the momentum provided by Earth's translation around the Sun explaining why just two probes, both from NASA, have reached itnote :
- The first one was the Mariner 10 probe, that back in the '70s after a visit to Venus managed to rendezvous to Mercury three times. Unfortunately, every time the probe flew by the same hemisphere of the planet was illuminated by the Sun, so more than half of its surface would be a mistery until:
- The MESSENGER probe, a much more ambitious mission than the former and destined to orbit Mercury. Given entering into Mercury's orbit is even more difficult than simply reaching itnote , said mission needed a complex trajectory involving to fly-by Earth once, Venus twice, and Mercury itself thrice before finally starting to orbit it in 2011. After four years extensively studying the planet and mapping almost all of its surface, MESSENGER was deorbited into Mercury in 2015 after running out of fuel to orient it.
- The Outer Solar System: The outer solar system probes, undoubtely one of NASA's specialities, are generally fly-bys, with a few orbiters and one lander to date. Five of them (The Pioneers, the Voyagers and New Horizons) have achieved escaped velocity for the solar system and are headed out into interstellar space, where they'll roam for millions of years unless picked up by a faster spacecraft at some far future date or, god forbid, extraterrestrials. None, however, are headed for any nearby star, and at the speeds at which they are traveling, they'd take tens of thousands of years to cover the distances to the stars anyway. Most of these probes rely on RTG note units to power themselves; however, the combination of more efficient solar cells and increasingly expensive nuclear fuel has lead to solar power becoming a viable option (such as with Dawn and Juno).
- Pioneers 10 and 11 gave us our first close-up looks at Jupiter and Saturn. Since their trajectories will take them into interstellar space, both Pioneers carry a plaque containing some information about Earth, just in case. They were followed by...
- Voyagers 1 and 2, some of the most famous spacecraft of all time, launched in 1977, the farthest and fastest machines ever built by humanity to date. They explored Jupiter and Saturn in greater detail than the Pioneers, using gravitational slingshots to propel them from planet to planet on their tour of the outer solar system. Voyager 1's mission ended at Saturn, but Voyager 2 went on to study Uranus and Neptune (on a extended journey that took the entire decade of the 1980s). Like the Pioneers, they are headed out of the solar system, so they carry golden phonograph records designed by Carl Sagan carrying the sounds of Earth, including music and greetings in dozens of human languages and one whale language, with them out into the great void. In 1991, at Sagan's request, NASA had Voyager 1 turn its cameras back on the solar system to take a family portrait of the planets, including the iconic Pale Blue Dot, an image of its home world the Earth from almost 4 billion miles out. In 1999, Voyager 1 became the most distant object ever created by the human race, a lead it is currently continually increasing. As of 2013, the Voyagers are still sending back data, taking readings of the solar wind as it drops away behind them. Currently, assuming nothing bad happens, Voyager 1 has enough available resources to power itself until around 20252030, giving it a mission life of about 50 years. (No, there were only two Voyagers. A sixth Voyager spacecraft will not get an incredible upgrade and come back to a future Earth as a solar-system-sized machine-cloud and try to assimilate us—we think.)
- Galileo, a dedicated Jupiter mission. Named for the famous Italian whose observations of Jupiter revealed its four largest moons (still called the "Galilean moons" in his honor), the first natural planetary satellites known to science (other than the Moon, of course) and who famously challenged Church teaching about the structure of the Universe based on his observations. Originally scheduled for launch in 1982, after delays in the Shuttle program and the Challenger disaster, it was finally released from the cargo bay of Atlantis in 1989. It arrived at Jupiter in 1995 after swinging by Venus, Earth (twice), and two asteroids (safety concerns after Challenger necessitated the use of a less powerful solid-fuel booster and multiple gravity assists), and it successfully carried out an extensive survey of Jupiter and its moons, despite its main antenna not opening properly. It dropped a probe into Jupiter's atmosphere (no cameras, sorry), found evidence for a liquid ocean underneath Europa, and observed a lot of volcanoes on Io and (fortuitously) the impact on Jupiter of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. After suffering years of cumulative damage from Jupiter's hellish radiation belts, it was intentionally de-orbited and burned up in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter in 2003 to avoid contaminating the Jovian moons with Earth bacteria (important because Europa in particular is thought to be one of the best candidates in the Solar System for extraterrestrial life).
- The Cassini orbiter (named for the Italian-French astronomer who make key observations about the structure of Saturn's rings, discovered four of its moons, and did much other early modern observation of the planet) studied Saturn, its moons and rings for an impressive 13 years (2004-2017) after seven years of journey since its launch in 1997. Cassini also detected active water ice volcanoes and a subsurface ocean on Enceladus. It was de-orbited into Saturn a la Galileo after a "Grand Finale" of risky but scientifically valuable maneuvers, as the probe ran out of fuel, but other options were considered.
- Cassini also deployed the European-built Huygens miniprobe (named for the Dutch astronomer who first proposed that the strange "horns" Galileo had observed around Saturn were actually a continuous ring, and who discovered Saturn's largest moon, Titan). Huygens did include a camera, and landed on the surface of the mysterious moon Titan. Huygens confirmed the presence of hydrocarbon lakes on that moon, as well as revealing a lot of other amazing surface detail.
- The New Horizons probe, launched in 2006, is the first to study dwarf planet Pluto and its moons when it arrived in July 2015; after its flyby, it can be potentially targeted to other nearby Kuiper Belt objects (three possible targets have been identified). The fifth spacecraft on a trajectory to leave the solar system, Horizons derives its velocity from a more powerful launch rocket and one gravitational assist from Jupiter. It carries the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. Cue jokes about how Tombaugh is powering up New Horizons by rolling in his box. Pluto's geology and appearance pleasantly surprised everyone, particularly the large heart-shaped ice formation that seemingly told its big blue brother, "I still love you, although you call me a dwarf.". After the Pluto flyby, it's expected to study Kuiper belt bodies that are within range of the spacecraft, the first one having been "Ultima Thule" that was flown by in December 31, 2019.
- The Dawn mission, a probe propelled by ion engines, to the asteroid Vesta (2011) and dwarf planet Ceres, where it arrived in 2015. The solar-powered ion engines have lower thrust than normal rockets but are very efficient and can fire continuously for long durations to achieve an overall greater velocity. Dawn is a hybrid of a fly-by craft and an orbiter, as its ion engines permit to enter orbit, then exit and head to a different location. Ceres has strange "bright spots" in the center of some craters that, thanks to study, have been determined as a type of magnesium salts from a subsurface layer, perhaps from sediment from water or other ices. Its mission ended in October 2018, when it ran out of fuel to orient its solar panels and is now (thought to be) orbiting Ceres and will keep doing so for decades.
- The Stardust-NExT mission, a comet-chasing probe that flew through the tail of comet Wild 2 and brought back samples to Earth before being sent on another mission to revisit and reanalyze comet Tempel 1, which had been hit by a kinetic slug several years earlier by another probe, Deep Impact.
- The Juno mission, launched in 2011, is on a mission to study Jupiter, and arrived in orbit in July 2016, before being de-orbited into Jupiter as Galileo had been 15 months and 33 polar orbits (to avoid Jupiter's radiation belts, which badly damaged Galileo) laternote .
- OSIRIS-REx, a sample return mission launched in 2016 to study an asteroid called Bennu and learn about its origins. The probe rendezvoused with Bennu in 2018, will study the asteroid for about 500 days, then collect a sample and return it to Earth in 2023.
- Solar Missions:
- Ulysses: A joint project with the European Space Agency, intended to look at the Sun from all latitudes—Earth-based observation can't observe the solar poles all that well. Launched aboard Discovery in 1990 because the planned launch aboard Challenger in May 1986 was nixed by the loss of Challenger that January. The process needed to get into a high-inclination polar orbit around the Sun was long and complicated—it involved flying by Jupiter so the probe could play with the giant planet's gravity—which is how it got its name (indeed, the original idea was to call it Odysseus until the Europeans insisted on the Latin term to reference Ulysses' appearance in the Inferno). Even after that, Ulysses's orbit was very wide—it never got closer to the Sun than the Earth does, and at its most distant it went to 5 AU (i.e. 5 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun). Ulysses survived for over four times its designed lifespan, with communications finally being terminated in June 2009 as its RTG heating units could no longer keep the hydrazine fuel for its attitude control system from freezing.
- Parker Solar Probe: A mission launched in the summer of 2018, that will approach to just 6 million kilometers of the Sun -just 1/25th of the distance between Earth and the Daystar-. Given that going into the very inner Solar System is very difficult, as one has to get rid of most of the momentum given by Earth's translation, it needed one of the most powerful rockets in existence to be launched and will make several flybys of Venus to arrive there in 2026, eight years after launch.
- Earth Science Missions: NASA also looks down at Earth. After all, the Earthrise is a major symbol of environmental protection. Although not as prominent as other unmanned probes, NASA's Earth science probes have contributed a lot to the climatologist community, looking at things such as deforestation, the ozone holes, ice cap melting, tracking hurricanes, etc. Here is a handy list of all of the Earth science probes.
The first "A" in NASA stands for Aeronautics, after all. Although NASA's manned space missions get most of the attention, and NASA's unmanned space missions get most of the attention not already garnered by the manned missions, NASA also engages in and/or encourages research into improving flight within Earth's atmosphere.
It was NASA's predecessor, NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), for example, who contracted the development of the Bell X-1 rocket plane to purposely break the sound barrier. NASA also led the way with research into the Scramjet for the (now cancelled) National Aerospace Plane, and is looking into laminar airflow to allow supersonic aircraft to cruise more efficiently. In other words, NASA is trying to restart the supersonic airliner industry.
Aeronautical research is mainly conducted in the original NACA centers—Glenn, Ames, Armstrong, and Langley. Chances are, if there is a modern aircraft buzzing overhead, it contains an airfoil from the NACA airfoil series. Famous figures such as Orville Wright and Charles Lindbergh once chaired NACA. A few years before the start of WWII, it was one of NACA's European "spies" that noticed Hitler was a little too suspicious with the constructions of new aeronautical laboratories, all of which had technology that greatly dwarfed NACA's ability. NACA applied to Congress for more research funding while the Great Depression was still rampaging, so that went nowhere until the war started. Nevertheless, NACA's research helped the development of warplanes during the war.
The geek side of The Internet likes to remind any willing audience that modern NASA doesn't just do spaceflight, manned or unmanned. And they're right—federal charters mandate NASA to perform bioengineering, renewable energy, and climate research, sometimes as complementary to spaceflight research. The details to those "other" researches are outside of this wiki's scope, so here is a brief rundown of what one would expect to turn up when modern "NASA" is mentioned on the Internet:
- Spinoff: The standard rebuttal to "NASA's a waste of money" argument. NASA defined spinoffs as "commercialized products that involves NASA technology in any ways", which in its broadest interpretation includes most post-1915 aircraft, all post-Apollo processors, modern weather prediction techniques, and all First Person Shooters, to name a few. Tang, Teflon, and Velcro are not NASA spinoffs, and NASA does not deliberately make spinoffs.
- NASA's budget, or the lack thereof: Another standard rebuttal, this time mentioning how little budget NASA has. For years NASA's budget has stayed at below 0.5% of the overall federal budget, and this isn't likely to change in the near future. Space advocates would like to raise it back to the Apollo-era level (4.41%), or lessen Congress's control over NASA's missions and strategies. Few would like to abolish NASA altogether.
Appearance in Media and Fiction
Anime and Manga
- In Twin Spica, Asumi trains hard to be an astronaut. NASA naturally comes up. Shu, Asumi's friend, was accepted to an internship program at NASA. However, he died before he got there. In the live adaption, Asumi took Shu's spot.
- In Uchuu Kyoudai, Mutta's brother Hibbito was a JAXA astronaut under training from NASA and the first Japanese to land on the moon. Mutta follows closely behind.
- Rocket Girls: Yukari met the ISS astronauts on a service mission.
- Robotics;Notes: NASA was involved in a mind control conspiracy. Except it was all made up.
- Jiro Horikoshi in The Wind Rises compared a fish bone to a NACA airfoil, and found that they are exactly the same shape.
- Orbiter, a comic by Warren Ellis, present a world where KSC is now an abandon fort. The aliens were so happy for the creation of NASA, but, well, scroll up.
- Brian Azzarello's Spaceman: NASA is abolished after a public outcry against their genetic engineering program.
- Carol Danvers worked for NASA as a security chief in her first appearances. In the early issues of the 2012 Captain Marvel series, she travels back to the Mercury program as part of a weird Time Travel mix-up.
- Wonder Woman was also an astronaut for a while, back in The Bronze Age of Comic Books.
- Condorito: Parodied it as "MASA" (which means "dough" in Spanish) in several jokes.
- Dante's Peak: The heroes are saved from starvation when a NASA beacon is activated. Made Harsher in Hindsight following the events of the Chilean miners.
- Capricorn One: The NASA administrator was forced to fake a Mars landing. Things didn't go well.
- As mentioned above, Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff are films based on NASA's real-life early history.
- They appear in SpaceCamp, as one might expect.
- A reinvigorated NASA appeared in Interstellar with access to some cool Space Planes.
- Space Cowboys is about a group of military pilots who were pushed out of the space program when NASA went civilian. Years later, as senior citizens, they have to pilot a Space Shuttle to an old malfunctioning Soviet satellite, since they're the only ones who understand its outdated guidance software.
- First Man, based on the book of the same name, a biopic about Neil Armstrong. The Apollo 11 mission of course gets the lion's share of the attention, but it also covers his earlier flights as a NASA test pilot and astronaut.
- Michael Cassutt's Missing Man trilogy portrait a NASA that is corrupted at best. The series is praised by former NASA employees for that factor.
- Stephen Baxter heavily criticized NASA in his The NASA Trilogy.
- The Cassandra Project: NASA is involved in a cover up. The main heroes try to uncover it and convince the president to abolish NASA. They succeed.
- NASA is the mastermind of a conspiracy in Deception Point. The conspiracy is led by William Pickering, a Well-Intentioned Extremist who wants to help out NASA. He is killed by the heroine in a pointless death, and NASA gets off scot free.
- In the YA romance series The Bar Code Tattoo, NASA, being the only organization that isn't mentioned by its full name, comes around at the end of the novel and kills most of the human population. Hm?
- Andy Weir's The Martian tells a Robinsonade where Mark Watney was stranded on Mars after a sandstorm forced NASA to abort a Mars mission and seemingly killed Watney. Upon learning of his survival, NASA ends up launching an ambitious operation to rescue him.
- The Big Bang Theory: Howard works as an engineer on several NASA projects, and eventually becomes an astronaut on the International Space Station.
- The Astronaut Wives Club, a miniseries based on the book by Lily Koppel, relates stories of the wives of the original seven Mercury astronauts. It aired on ABC in the summer of 2015.
- From the Earth to the Moon, a series about the Apollo program and the astronauts who flew in it.
- You play either as NASA administrator James E. Webb or Rosaviakosmo's chief engineer Sergei Korolev in Buzz Aldrin Race Into Space.
- NASA funded the development of Moonbase Alpha. The Internet got wind of this. Hilarity Ensues.
- The content of the Asteroid Redirect Mission package of Kerbal Space Program was developed with the approval and guidance of NASA to help promote a similar initiative for the real world.
- There are three NASA-based episodes in Angry Birds Space.
- They have their own website. Notable for horrible infrastructures note and one of the earlier websites. Go check it out.
- Keith Cowing's NASAWatch is a site offering a cynical view of news about NASA and its activities.
- The Onion has had many stories about NASA, including:
- NASA Scientists Plan to Approach Girl by 2018
- Slow-Witted Conspiracy Theorist Convinced Government Behind NASA
- NASA Launches David Bowie Concept Mission
- NASA Chief Under Fire For Personal Shuttle Use
- NASA Baffled By Failure of Straw Shuttle
- Modernized Space Camp Allows Kids To Simulate Frustration Over Lack Of Funding
- NASA is brought up quite often in True Capitalist Radio as a part of Ghost's conspiratorial beliefs. At first it started with him doubting the moon landings but it eventually evolved to him denying the existence of space as a whole and claiming that NASA spends its entire budget to fabricating evidence of celestial objects and helping government monitor its citizens better. Suffice to say, his listener base often likes to ridicule him for these beliefs.
- Quite a few XKCD strips reference various NASA programs and missions, given that the cartoonist is a former contractor.
- The original creators of the Techno-Trousers in The Wrong Trousers.
- Kim Possible's dad works for them.
- The Simpsons famously had NASA send Homer into space as a way of getting people more interested in their missions.
- According to Futurama, President Truman ordered the invention of NASA because Roswell couldn't be used to fake the moon landing.
- For a brief time during the eighties and again during the breakup in The Movie, Velma Dinkley worked as a NASA Research Assistant.