Sixty years after its birth, NASA remains a rare unifying force.
The space agency opened for business on Oct. 1, 1958, two months after its creation by the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958.
During the ensuing six decades, NASA has managed to inspire people throughout the country and around the world without getting too bogged down by partisan politics or the conflicts and controversies that have affected other branches of the U.S. government.
“NASA is one of the best — I hate to use the word, but I’ll say it — brands that this country has,” said John Logsdon, a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.
“It’s projected an image of the United States that’s really positive, and that reflects how we want to see ourselves — as a country of people who accomplish difficult things.”
In terms of U.S. government activities, “there’s been much less controversy about NASA than almost anything else,” Logsdon told Space.com.
“There never has been, and is not now, an anti-NASA lobby or interest group or public group. At a minimum, people say about NASA, ‘Yeah, that’s a good thing.’ And a fair number of people say, ‘That’s great — that’s what we should be doing.’”
The next 60 years
NASA will continue to do groundbreaking robotic exploration for decades to come.
But the agency’s cultural and societal influence may wane in the future as private spaceflight matures and starts doing big things in the flashy realm of crewed exploration, Logsdon said.
Those big things may include helping to establish human settlements on Mars and other deep-space destinations, as both SpaceX and Blue Origin — which are led by the billionaire entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, respectively — aim to do.
But NASA is working to send humans out into deep space as well, something the agency hasn’t done since the Apollo 17 astronauts returned from their moon mission in December 1972.
This push really began in 2004 with President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, which called for NASA to retire the space shuttle program by 2010 and put boots on the moon again by 2020.
NASA’s current plan involves the construction of a small space station in lunar orbit by the mid-2020s. The outpost, known as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, will serve as a jumping-off point for missions to the moon’s surface, both robotic and crewed.
And, NASA officials say, the skills learned during the construction and operation of the Gateway will help humanity get to Mars, which the agency aims to do in the 2030s, in cooperation with international and commercial partners.
This journey to Mars could end up being the grandest adventure of the 21st century, one that future generations recall more clearly, and with even greater reverence, than the gray-haired among us regard the Apollo missions.
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