The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Headquarters

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Headquarters

On this daily bike ride I went to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) headquarters building. Although more frequently associated with the Kennedy Space Center in Florida or Edwards Air Force Base in California, their headquarters is actually located in downtown D.C., at 300 E Street (MAP) in Southwest D.C.

The destination for this bike ride was chosen in recognition of today’s anniversary of the agency becoming operational, which occurred on this day in 1958 after President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed and Congress passed legislation disestablishing its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and establishing NASA as the Federal agency responsible for coordinating America’s civilian activities in space. NASA has since sponsored space expeditions, both human and mechanical, that have yielded vital information about the solar system and universe. It has also launched numerous earth-orbiting satellites that have been instrumental in everything from weather forecasting to navigation to global communications.

NASA was created in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of its first satellite, which caught Americans by surprise and sparked fears that the Soviets might also be capable of sending missiles with nuclear weapons from Europe to America. The U.S. prided itself on being at the forefront of technology, and, embarrassed, immediately began developing a response, signaling the start of the U.S.-Soviet space race.

Just a few years later, in May 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared that America should put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. On July 20, 1969, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission achieved that goal and made history when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, saying “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Interestingly, Armstrong flubbed the scripted line, which was supposed to have included the article “a” before the word “man.” Fortunately, however, the tremendous scientific and cultural importance of Apollo 11’s achievements dwarfed Armstrong’s verbal slip-up. And despite his failure to deliver his line as planned, it remains one of the world’s most famous sentences.

NASA has continued to make great advances in space exploration since that first moonwalk. They include Skylab, the U.S.’s first and only independently built space station. There was also the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of the early 1970’s, which was a joint effort between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and declared the intent for all future international manned spacecraft to be capable of docking with each other. This set the stage and eventually led to NASA playing a major part in the construction of the International Space Station. Another one of the agency’s successes was the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The agency has also suffered tragic setbacks, however. The Space Shuttle Program became the major focus of NASA in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Planned as frequently launchable and mostly reusable vehicles, four space shuttles were built. However, disasters killed the crews of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986, and the Columbia space shuttle in 2003.

When NASA was founded, Congress said that the money being provided that goes up in the form of space exploration has to come back down in some practical and tangible forms. And it has done that and more. The miniaturization of electronics making cell phones and iPods possible was primarily developed during the race to get to the moon. The first integrated circuit — the forefather of the modern microchip making modern computers possible — was built by Texas Instruments but funded by the Apollo program. Cordless power tools are possible because of collaboration between NASA and Black and Decker in search of a stronger, longer-lasting battery. Even the “Jaws of Life” device that saves people from twisted metal wreckage in auto accidents was developed as part of the space program. In fact, everything from the padding in football helmets to scratch-proof lenses in eyeglasses, as well as composite golf clubs, ultraviolet sunglasses, the computer mouse, and baby formula were all developed in collaboration with NASA. For NASA to take credit for it all is not entirely accurate, but to say that it’s all part of a larger space economy is quite accurate.

Our space exploration program goes far beyond seeking a return on a financial investment though. Mankind has always been lured by a fascination with space, and the creation of NASA and our exploration of space are rooted in that fascination. But why is space so fascinating? I agree with Eric Hoffer, an American moral and social philosopher, who once said, “Our passionate preoccupation with the sky, the stars, and a God somewhere in outer space is a homing impulse. We are drawn back to where we came from.”

NASA02     NASA03     NASA04

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