The United States Congress passes legislation formally inaugurating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The establishment of NASA was a sign that the United States was committed to winning the “space race” against the Soviets.
In October 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world, and particularly the American public, by launching the first satellite into orbit around the earth. Called Sputnik, the small spacecraft was an embarrassment to the United States, which prided itself on its leadership in the field of technology. Sputnik also provided the Soviets with an important propaganda advantage in terms of reaching out to underdeveloped Third World nations that were looking for scientific and technological assistance. The initial U.S. response to this challenge was not altogether successful. The Eisenhower administration passed the National Defense Education Act that provided federal funds for improving the teaching of science and mathematics in America’s public schools. In December 1957, the United States attempted to launch its own satellite. Named Vanguard, the “spaceship” got a few feet off the ground and then blew up. America had better luck with Explorer I a month later–the satellite completed its orbit of the earth. It was obvious to many U.S. officials, though, that a more organized and focused effort was needed. In July 1958, Congress passed legislation establishing NASA as the coordinating body of the U.S. space program.
During the next decade, NASA became synonymous with the space race. In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States should set a goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Eight years and billions of dollars later, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module Eagle and onto the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969. The great space race was over.