The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is an executive branch agency of the United States government, responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and aeronautics and aerospace research. Since February 2006, NASA’s self-described mission statement is to “pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”
NASA was established by the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29, 1958, replacing its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The agency became operational on October 1, 1958. NASA has led U.S. efforts for space exploration since, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and has been developing the manned Orion spacecraft. NASA is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches.
NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.
Left to Right: Saturn V, which carried men to the Moon, the Space Shuttle, and the canceled Ares I, Ares IV and Ares V launch vehicles
During much of the 1990s, NASA was faced with shrinking annual budgets due to congressional belt-tightening. In response, NASA’s ninth administrator, Daniel Goldin, pioneered the “faster, better, cheaper” approach that enabled NASA to cut costs while still delivering a wide variety of aerospace programs (Discovery Program). That method was criticized and re-evaluated following the twin losses of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999.
It is the current space policy of the United States that NASA, “execute a sustained and affordable human and robotic program of space exploration and develop, acquire, and use civil space systems to advance fundamental scientific knowledge of our Earth system, solar system, and universe.”NASA’s ongoing investigations include in-depth surveys of Mars and Saturn and studies of the Earth and the Sun. Other NASA spacecraft are presently en route to Mercury, Pluto and the asteroid belt. With missions to Jupiter in planning stages, NASA’s itinerary covers over half the solar system.
An improved and larger planetary rover, Mars Science Laboratory, is under construction and slated to launch in 2011, after a slight delay caused by hardware challenges, which has bumped it back from the October 2009 scheduled launch. The New Horizons mission to Pluto was launched in 2006 and will fly by Pluto in 2015. The probe received a gravity assist from Jupiter in February 2007, examining some of Jupiter’s inner moons and testing on-board instruments during the fly-by. On the horizon of NASA’s plans is the MAVEN spacecraft as part of the Mars Scout Program to study the atmosphere of Mars
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