[January 27th marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy, one of many setbacks and challenges that didn’t deter from the US manned space program from making history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five moments or contexts for NASA’s early years. I’d love your responses and thoughts in comments, as always!]
Three moments and figures that (along with yesterday’s international influences) contributed to the space agency’s starting points:
1) NACA: NASA’s predecessor in the federal government, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), dated all the way back to March 1915, when it was founded as part of the nation’s responses to World War I (although President Taft had proposed a somewhat similar National Aerodynamical Laboratory Commission as early as 1911-2). After a few years of explicitly war-related activites, NACA began to expand and deepen its research interests in 1920, when President Woodrow Wilson appointed aviation pioneer Orville Wright to the agency’s board. Wright would serve on the NACA board for 28 years, helping bridge the period between these World War I origins and the post-World War II transitions into the atomic age and the origins of the space race. During that time, NACA was involved in a number of prominent and influential projects, including the supersonic research exemplified by test pilot Chuck Yeager’s famous 1947 flight.
2) Robert Goddard: Interestingly, the man who came to be known as the father of rocket propulsion was (as far as I know) never officially part of NACA. But over the same early twentieth-century decades that Wright and his fellow NACA members were expanding their pioneering efforts, Goddard was performing his, exemplified by his March 19, 1926 launch of the first recorded liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts. Goddard’s subsequent experiments were funded by both the government (in the form of the Smithsonian Institution) and the Guggenheim Foundation (thanks to the support of Goddard’s longtime friend Charles Lindbergh), reflecting the role that both public and private enterprises played in furthering these advances. Between them, the work done by NACA and Goddard in the 1920s and 30s not only led directly to the space program, but proved invaluable to the Allied cause in World War II.
3) Dwight Eisenhower: As I wrote in this Talking Points Memo piece, we tend to give presidents more of a central role in particular periods or histories than they necessarily deserve. But at the same time, expanding our histories to include other figures and influences shouldn’t mean forgetting or eliding the role that presidents can and do play, and Eisenhower’s contributions to the origins of NASA are a case in point (as is John F. Kennedy’s subsequent role, on which more tomorrow). In part that meant, as it often does (but as, now more than ever, we unfortunately can’t take for granted), agreeing with and supporting the recommendations of his scientific advisors and the wider research community. But as reflected in his signing statement for the July 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act (the law that established NASA), Eisenhower was also well aware of the significance of these efforts, both in continuing the work done by NACA and others and in moving closer to genuine global as well as national progress in the exploration of space. One more inspiring and influential figure and moment in the multi-decade origins of NASA and the US space program.
Next NASA post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other NASA takes you’d share?
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