What Does NASA Do?
NASA's vision: To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.
To do that, thousands of people have been working around the world -- and off of it -- for 50 years, trying to answer some basic questions. What's out there in space? How do we get there? What will we find? What can we learn there, or learn just by trying to get there, that will make life better here on Earth?
A Little History
President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958, partially in response to the Soviet Union's launch of the first artificial satellite the previous year. NASA grew out of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), which had been researching flight technology for more than 40 years.
President John F. Kennedy focused NASA and the nation on sending astronauts to the moon by the end of the 1960s. Through the Mercury and Gemini projects, NASA developed the technology and skills it needed for the journey. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first of 12 men to walk on the moon, meeting Kennedy's challenge.
Meanwhile, NASA was continuing the aeronautics research pioneered by NACA. It also conducted purely scientific research and worked on developing applications for space technology, combining both pursuits in developing the first weather and communications satellites.
After Apollo, NASA focused on creating a reusable ship to provide regular access to space: the space shuttle. First launched in 1981, the space shuttle flew more than 130 successful flights before retiring in 2011. In 2000, the United States and Russia established permanent human presence in space aboard the International Space Station, a multinational project representing the work of 16 nations.
NASA also has continued its scientific research. In 1997, Mars Pathfinder became the first in a fleet of spacecraft that will explore Mars in the next decade, as we try to determine if life ever existed there. The Terra and Aqua satellites are flagships of a different fleet, this one in Earth orbit, designed to help us understand how our home world is changing. NASA's aeronautics teams are focused on improved aircraft travel that is safer and cleaner.
Throughout its history, NASA has conducted or funded research that has led to numerous improvements to life here on Earth.
NASA Headquarters, in Washington, provides overall guidance and direction to the agency, under the leadership of the Administrator. Ten field centers and a variety of installations conduct the day-to-day work, in laboratories, on air fields, in wind tunnels and in control rooms.
NASA conducts its work in three principal organizations, called mission directorates:
- Aeronautics: pioneers and proves new flight technologies that improve our ability to explore and which have practical applications on Earth.
- Human Exploration and Operations: focuses on International Space Station operations and human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.
- Science: explores the Earth, solar system and universe beyond; charts the best route of discovery; and reaps the benefits of Earth and space exploration for society.
In the early 21st century, NASA's reach spans the universe. The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is still studying Mars after arriving with its twin Spirit in 2004. Cassini is in orbit around Saturn, as Juno makes its way to Jupiter. The restored Hubble Space Telescope continues to explore the deepest reaches of the cosmos.
Closer to home, the latest crew of the International Space Station is extending the permanent human presence in space. Earth Science satellites are sending back unprecedented data on Earth's oceans, climate and other features. NASA's aeronautics team is working with other government organizations, universities, and industry to fundamentally improve the air transportation experience and retain our nation's leadership in global aviation.
The end of the space shuttle program does not mean the end of NASA, or even of NASA sending humans into space. NASA has a robust program of exploration, technology development and scientific research that will last for years to come. Here is what's next for NASA:
- NASA is designing and building the capabilities to send humans to explore the solar system, working toward a goal of landing humans on Mars.
- The International Space Station is fully staffed with a crew of six, and American astronauts will continue to live and work there in space 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Part of the U.S. portion of the station has been designated as a national laboratory, and NASA is committed to using this unique resource for scientific research.
- Commercial companies are well on their way to providing cargo and crew flights to the ISS, allowing NASA to focus its attention on the next steps into our solar system.
- NASA is researching ways to design and build aircraft that are safer, more fuel-efficient, quieter, and environmentally responsible. NASA is also part of the government team that is working to develop the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, to be in place by the year 2025.
- NASA is conducting an unprecedented array of science missions that will seek new knowledge and understanding of Earth, the solar system and the universe.