National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
Image credit: NASA

Founded: July 29, 1958
Headquarters: Two Independence Square, Washington, D.C., US
Administrator: Jim Bridenstine
Budget (2018): $20.7 billion
Employees (2018): over 17,000

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent civilian-run agency of the US government. The agency is responsible for the country’s civil space program and has a significant influence on aerospace and aeronautics research.


On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. Alarmed at the Soviets apparent technological superiority, the US Congress pushed president Dwight D. Eisenhower to accelerate the country’s own efforts. This period of time in US history is often referred to as the “Sputnik Crisis”.

At the time, the country’s fledgeling space programme was being overseen by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). In January 1958, the NACA held a “Special Committee on Space Technology” to outline a way forward. The committee concluded that it would be essential both for national pride and military necessity to meet the Soviet challenge.

In February 1958, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was founded. The agency would be responsible for developing space technology for military applications. Later that same year, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act. The act established NASA with the aim to develop space technology for civil and scientific purposes.

The NACA’s 8,000 employees, an annual budget of US$100-million, three research laboratories (Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory), and two test facilities were all absorbed by NASA. In addition to the NACA’s assets, elements of the United States Naval Research Laboratory and Army Ballistic Missile Agency were incorporated into the fledgeling agency.


NASA is represented graphically by the insignia and the seal. The seal is used for more formal applications while the insignia is the NASA logo most are familiar with. The seal was designed by an unnamed NASA Lewis Research Center illustrator. In 1959, the design was simplified by the head of the Lewis Research Reports Division, James Modarelli. This would become the now iconic NASA insignia/logo.

NASA Branding.
Image credit: NASA

The insignia was designed to represent NASA’s mission. The blue sphere in the logo represents Earth/a celestial body, the red chevron or wing represents aeronautics, the stars represent space and the white ring a spacecraft orbiting the chevron.

Modarelli’s original logo would be utilized by the agency for just over 15 years. In 1975, Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn (founders of the design studio Danne & Blackburn) were awarded the right to design a modern update to the classic logo. The pair proposed the NASA Graphics Standard Manual that included a futuristic wordmark logo that would come to be known as “the worm”.

Almost from the outset, many in the agency resisted the new logo. The controversy would be referred to as “the worm v the meatball (the nickname given to the classic round logo)” with progressively fewer parties backing the modern contender. The simplified modern logo would be scrapped almost overnight in 1992 in favour of Modarelli’s original design.


NASA owns and operates several launch, monitoring, manufacturing, and research facilities throughout the United States. The agency also has a presence globally with facilities in Australia and Spain. All NASA facilities are structured under 10 field centres that each provide executive leadership. The 10 field centres are managed and directed by NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

NASA field centres and associated facilities:

  • Ames Research Center
  • Armstrong Flight Research Center
  • George C. Marshall Space Flight Center
    Michoud Assembly Facility
  • Goddard Space Flight Center
    Goddard Institute for Space Studies
    Independent Verification and Validation Facility
    Wallops Flight Facility
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory
    Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex
    Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex
    Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex
  • John C. Stennis Space Center
  • John F. Kennedy Space Center
  • John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field
  • Langley Research Center
  • Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center
    White Sands Test Facility

In addition to the dedicated NASA facilities, the agency also maintains a presence at a number of US military facilities including Vandenberg Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. These facilities are maintained and managed by both NASA and the US Air Force in the form of the Air Force Space Command.

Landmark Mission

After being founded in 1958, NASA hit the ground running. Just three years later, Alan Shepard became the first American man in space. A mere 7 years on from Shepard’s landmark mission and Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the surface of the moon. The agency’s progress over this first decade was unprecedented. It was a national effort that would see the United States catch up and surpass the efforts of the Soviet space programme.

Although the budget and national attention of that first decade has never been replicated, NASA has continued to conquer new frontiers. Today, the agency boasts a litany of historic achievements and continues to break technological boundaries in their pursuit of scientific understanding.

Historic NASA missions/programs:

  • Freedom 7 – The first of the manned Mercury missions. The mission would see Alan Shepard became the second man ever and the first American man to be launched into space on May 5, 1961.
  • Gemini 8 – The first spacecraft to successfully dock with another spacecraft in orbit. Commander Neil Armstrong and Pilot David Scott docked their Gemini 8 vehicle with the Agena Target Vehicle on March 16, 1966.
  • Apollo 8 – The first manned mission to enter a lunar orbit. Apollo 8 was launched on December 21, 1968. On December 23, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, William Anders successfully entered a lunar orbit.
  • Apollo 11 – The first mission to the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.
  • Mariner 9 – On November 14, 1971, Mariner 9 became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, Mars. The mission only narrowly beat the Soviet Mars 2 and Mars 3 orbiters.
  • Voyager 1 – Launched on September 5, 1977, Voyager 1 made history in August 2012 becoming the first manmade object to enter interstellar space. The spacecraft will be joined in interstellar space by its twin, Voyager 2 in the coming years.
  • Mars Pathfinder – The Pathfinder mission was the first to operate a rover (the Sojourner) on the surface of Mars. The mission was launched on December 4, 1996, and touched down on the surface of Mars on July 4, 1997.
  • Kepler – The Kepler telescope was NASA’s first exoplanet hunter and was launched on March 7, 2009. The telescope scanned over 530,00 stars discovered thousands of planets. It proved definitely that our solar system was not unique and that there are potentially thousands of habitable Earth-like planets throughout our galaxy.
  • Space Shuttle program – Between April 1981 and July 2011, 135 space shuttle missions were launched on the five orbiters (Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour). The shuttles travelled a combined 826.7 million kilometres (513.7 million miles) carrying 103,930 kilograms (229,132 pounds) of cargo and 833 crewmembers.

Over its 60 years of exploration, NASA has proposed, launched and completed more landmark missions than any other. The agency has, in many ways become the benchmark for space exploration efforts. Although in recent years their crewed space programme has struggled, their exploration divisions have continued to push technological boundaries with missions like the Mars Curiosity rover and the Parker Solar Probe.