What Is NASA?
On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy stepped up to a podium at Rice University in Houston, Texas. It was a warm, sunny day. More than forty thousand people, many of them schoolchildren, were in the stadium to hear the president.
About halfway through the speech, President Kennedy made a bold statement. He announced, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Five years earlier, Kennedy and the country had watched the Soviet Union launch the first man-made satellite into space. (A satellite is an object—either natural, like the moon, or man-made—that revolves around a larger object in space.) In April of 1961, they had watched their Cold War enemy put a man in space. In 1962, the United States was losing the space race, and losing badly. The president knew that the space race would continue and that the United States had to be in it. And not just be in it, but win it.
President Kennedy’s words got the country excited. The United States was going to send a man to the moon. It was going to win the space race. It would be a big and important job to accomplish this. And that job would be up to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA.
Tragically, President Kennedy would not live to see his dream of putting a man on the moon fulfilled. A little over a year after he gave his speech at Rice University, he was assassinated. But the country and NASA did not give up on President Kennedy’s dream. The United States would be the first country to put a man on the moon.
Chapter 1: Looking to the Stars
From the earliest times, people have looked up at the sky and imagined what was there. They dreamed of traveling into space and exploring what was beyond Earth. The stars and planets in the nighttime sky captured humans’ imaginations. But how would human beings ever be able to travel up and out of Earth’s atmosphere? (Outer space begins about sixty-two miles above Earth’s surface.) How could we ever explore the moon, the planets, our solar system, our galaxy, and what lies beyond even that? These were questions that scientists, philosophers, and astronomers asked for hundreds of years.
By the end of the nineteenth century, some engineers and mathematicians in Russia and Germany had come up with ideas about how space travel might be possible. Rockets would be needed to launch anything—or anyone—into space. The engineers and mathematicians proposed that rockets could break the pull of Earth’s gravity and take humans to outer space.
In the 1880s, a Russian man named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky developed the basic theory of rocket propulsion. He figured out how much fuel a rocket would need and how fast it would have to go to get into space. In the United States, an inventor named Robert Goddard was also working on launching rockets into space. But he did more than just make calculations.
On March 16, 1926, Goddard launched the first-ever liquid-fuel rocket. The rocket flew to a height of forty-one feet and the flight lasted two and a half seconds. While that might not seem like a big deal today, at the time it was a huge achievement. The United States government was not really interested in developing Goddard’s ideas. However, scientists, engineers, physicists, and mathematicians in other countries continued to experiment with rockets.
The Germans took Goddard’s ideas and created their own rocket program. The man in charge of the engineering program was named Wernher von Braun. During World War II, von Braun and his team designed rockets that could carry bombs. More than 1,300 of these rockets were fired against Britain during the war.
When World War II ended, the US Army captured a large number of German rocket parts found in a factory. The rocket equipment was brought back to the United States to be studied. Some of the scientists who had developed the rockets, including Wernher von Braun, came to the United States as well. The military knew that the rockets had been used as weapons. But they also realized that these powerful rockets could help with the study of the upper layers of the atmosphere and what lies beyond them.
During the 1940s and 1950s, scientists and engineers continued to test rockets. At this time, the unmanned rockets were just being shot up into the air and coming right back down. But some of the scientists and engineers were interested in getting a rocket to orbit—or go around—Earth itself.
The United States was sure that it would be the first nation to do this. But Americans were shocked when the Soviet Union announced on October 4, 1957, that it had launched the first human-made satellite into orbit around Earth. The United States’ Cold War rival had beat them into space. The space race was on.
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