Nasa's 10 greatest Achievements!

NASA scientists prepare a rocket for a space launch.
Robert W. Kelley/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
scientists prepare a rocket for a space launch. The administration
began in 1958 and quickly racked up technological achievements. See
rocket pictures.
When the satellite Sputnik orbited Earth in October 1957, Russia pulled ahead in the space race. The Cold War was on, and the United States scrambled to respond in kind. It had already developed a satellite
under another national program, but it became clear that a dedicated
space agency was in order. President Eisenhower and Senator Lyndon B.
Johnson led the drive. It took one year from Sputnik’s launch to get
the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) through Congress and into full operation. Not a second was wasted in eliminating Russia’s lead: Even before NASA was fully up and running, the United States sent a satellite into orbit. We were officially in the Space Age.
the start, NASA’s goals were lofty. It planned to expand human
knowledge of space; lead the world in space-related technological
innovation; develop vehicles that can carry both equipment and living
organisms into space; and coordinate with international space agencies
to achieve the greatest possible scientific advancements. In the last
50 years, NASA has achieved every one of those goals, and it continues
to seek answers to some of the biggest mysteries in science as it
evolves with a changing world.
The agency has always
reflected the changing values of U.S. society, focusing on
technological supremacy from its inception in 1958, and adding goals
like Earth observation­ in 1985, in the wake of climate-change
evidence. It amended its goals to include manufacturing preeminence in
1989, reflecting the ri­se of international players in the industry of
space-exploration equipment. But the most sought-after aspiration
remains the same: explore every corner of space to expand our knowledge
of the universe.
this article, we’ll look at some of NASA’s greatest achievements to
date. It’s hard to choose from among the incredible feats on NASA’s
résumé, but some of its successes are more monumental than others. This
list presents some of those great moments in science, beginning with
the launch of the first U.S. spacecraft. Explorer 1 encountered a major
discovery before it even reached its orbit.


Achievement 10: Explorer 1, the First U.S. Satellite (1958)

Anchorman Walter Cronkite.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
Anchorman Walter Cronkite uses models to explain America’s Explorer 1 mission to viewers on the CBS television network in 1958.
Immediately ­after the news of S­putnik’s success, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), soon to be the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, began designing the satellite that would follow Sputnik into space. It took three months for the JPL to finish Explorer 1.
The satellite rode into space onboard a rocket, and its mission was to study the cosmic rays in Earth’s
orbit. Explorer 1 measured 80 inches (203 cm) long and 6.25 inches
(15.9 cm) in diameter, and weighed 30.8 pounds (14 kg). The satellite
circled the planet 12 and a half times a day, its altitude fluctuating
from 1,563 miles (2,515 km) to 220 miles (354 km) above Earth as it
measured the cosmic radiation in its environment [source: NASA].
something happened even before it entered orbit, revealing a discovery
that would change our understanding of Earth’s atmosphere. Once
Explorer 1 made it into space, its instruments began collecting
information on the cosmic rays there. The first data scientists
interpreted from Explorer 1 showed cosmic-ray activity that was
significantly lower than they expected. One of those scientists, Dr.
James Van Allen, hypothesized that the cause of the anomaly was
essentially an interference with the satellite’s cosmic-ray detector.
He believed Explorer 1 had passed through a radiation belt that had
bombarded the detector with X-rays to the point that it was too full to collect much more when it was in orbit.
Another satellite, sent into orbit two months later, delivered data that backed up Van Allen’s theory, and the Van Allen radiation belts
surrounding Earth entered the science books. Explorer 1 dipped into
Earth’s atmosphere and burned up in March 1970, after orbiting Earth
56,000 times.
A satellite launched 20 years
later revealed an understanding of our world that went far beyond
science books. The payload on this satellite would deliver
high-resolution photos of space into our homes.

Achievement Nine: Hubble Space Telescope, the Universe Unveiled (1990-present)

Radiation from a stellar burst ricocheting off dust particles.
NASA/National Geographic/Getty Images
Hubble Telescope gave us never-before-seen images — like this picture
of radiation from a stellar burst ricocheting off dust particles.
Before ­1990, our view of space came from ground-based light telescopes.
The images were interesting, but not very clear, and the optics
couldn’t see far enough to give us the views astronomers had in mind. Earth’s
atmosphere, with all its clouds, water and gas vapors, isn’t terribly
conducive to conducting light, a requirement for capturing clear images.
solution was clear: Put a telescope on the other side of Earth’s
atmosphere, where the light would travel to distant objects and bounce
back unhindered. Named after astronomer Edwin Hubble, the telescope
offered the first clear views of the universe beyond our galaxy. Hubble
developed a theory based on the changing nature of stars light years
away. The Hubble Space Telescope would let astronomers prove his theory that the universe is expanding.
work began in 1975. It took 15 years to launch Hubble. Scientists spent
eight years assembling and testing the telescope’s 400,000 parts and
26,000 miles (41,843 km) of wiring. It would have been in orbit in the
late ’80s, but the Challenger disaster in 1986 pushed the launch date
back to 1990.
Hubble Space Telescope lets us watch the expansion of the universe in a
way never before imagined. Not only does it have 10 times the
resolution of a ground-based telescope and 50 times the sensitivity,
but another development around the same time made its unprecedented
views of the universe more accessible than any previous scientific
advance. With the advent of the Internet, people could sit at home and
watch the universe unfold in all hi-resolution, full-color glory.
Hubble revealed the world, going out billions of light years from
Earth, to anyone who cared to see it.
course, Hubble was only state-of-the-art for a short time. As is
typical with scientific innovations, it was outdated in less than a
decade. The Chandra telescope uses X-rays instead of visible light to capture the most amazing views of the universe to date.

Achievement Eight: Chandra X-ray Observatory, the High-energy Universe (1999- present)

Bright flares visible near the event horizon of a super-massive black hole in the center of the Milky Way.
NASA/CXC/MIT/F.K.Baganoff/Getty Images
Chandra X-ray Observatory has created amazing images — like this one
of bright flares visible near the event horizon of a super-massive
black hole in the center of the Milky Way.
In 1999, NASA launched the most sensitive X-ray telescope in the world. It can see­ things no one has ever seen before, such as the split second when space particles disappear into a black hole.
X-ray telescopes are different than light
telescopes. Instead of relying on visible light to form an image,
Chandra X-ray Observatory uses higher-energy particles, namely X-rays,
to record images based on energy fluctuations. This allows for far
greater sensitivity and clarity than Hubble, with Chandra focusing on the highest-energy portions of the universe. Add to that the fact that Chandra is orbiting the Earth
at 200 times the altitude of Hubble and it’s 25 times more sensitive
than any other X-ray telescope, and we’ve got ourselves the most
amazing astronomical sights we’ve ever seen [source: Harvard].
Chandra X-ray observatory has so far delivered clear images of supernova remnants, quasars, exploding stars
and events like the disappearance of matter into black holes. It has
shown us supermassive black holes, nebulae and dark matter. It has
recorded light that has been in existence for 10 billion years. With
this technological advancement, the possibilities are startling.
Chandra will contribute to our understanding of the origins of our
universe and of life itself.
Speaking of life
itself, how about the kind that might exist on other planets? Next on
our list of NASA successes is Pioneer 10, the first-ever interplanetary
space flight. But that’s not all Pioneer 10 accomplished.


Achievement Seven: Pioneer 10, Flight to Jupiter (1972-1997)

Pioneer 10 spacecraft
John G. Mabanglo/AFP/Getty Images
An artist’s rendition of the Pioneer 10 spacecraft as it passes the planet Jupiter.
1972, no man-made objec­t had made it to an outer planet. No one had
even tried ­it. Pioneer 10 changed all that with a mission that paved
the way for some of the most daring goals of the space program.
Pioneer 10 left Kennedy Space Center in 1972, bound for Jupiter, the farthest planet from Earth. Since there is a known asteroid belt
between Earth and Jupiter, astronomers had long believed it to be
impassable. This asteroid belt was blocking the path to the universe
beyond the outer planets. Pioneer 10 made it through the asteroid belt.
probe travelled onboard the Atlas launch vehicle, equipped with more
than 400,000 pounds of thrust. When it made it to Jupiter, it delivered
the first-ever direct observations of an outer planet. And then it
moved on. Pioneer 10 travelled farther in space than any other man-made
object when it left our solar system and entered interstellar space in
1983. When it sent its last transmission in 2003, it was 7.6 billion
miles (12.2 billion km) from Earth [source: NASA].
spacecraft, launched two years before Pioneer 10, also achieved the
seemingly impossible. This time, it wasn’t the successful navigation of
an impenetrable asteroid belt; it was the recovery of a crew that by
all logical reasoning should have been forever lost in space.

Achievement Six: Apollo 13, Brilliance at Mission Control (1970)

The Apollo 13 astronauts received a ticker-tape welcome upon their safe return.
Chet/Central Press/Getty Images
The Apollo 13 astronauts received a ticker-tape welcome upon their safe return.
Apollo 13 was headed for the moon.
On April 11, 1970, the spacecraft lifted off. Fifty-five hours and 55
minutes later, an explosion shut down almost every system necessary to
sustain life onboard.
The string of events
leading to the explosion began with one of the engines shutting down
two minutes early on liftoff. The string of events set off by the
explosion set into motion one of the most amazing collaborative rescues
in history. So many things went wrong on Apollo 13, it’s an engineering
miracle that the crew — astronauts James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Hayes — made it home at all, let alone alive and well.
Minutes after the crew completed a television
broadcast from space, telling America everything was going well, an
explosion shook the spacecraft. It was one of the two oxygen tanks, and
one disaster led to another. When the first tank blew up, the force
caused to second oxygen tank to malfunction. Immediately after, two of
the craft’s three fuel cells shut down. Apollo 13 was venting oxygen into space, and all of their life support and navigation systems — oxygen, power, water, heat and light — were offline.
ingenuity that followed is a testament to the genius of the human mind
and spirit. To conserve whatever power, food, water and oxygen was
left, the astronauts onboard Apollo 13 survived on almost no food,
water and sleep and in temperatures that dropped to near freezing. The
crew members lost a combined 31.5 pounds (14.3 kg) in less than six
days, due almost entirely to dehydration.
Meanwhile, the people on duty at NASA’s
Mission Control center from April 11 through April 17 found a way to
get the men home. They did months of calculation in days. They found a
way to get the lunar module to support the crew and get the spacecraft
back to Earth,
although it was never intended for that purpose. The canisters that
removed carbon dioxide from the command module didn’t fit the system in
the lunar module. So Mission Control found a way for the astronauts to
make them fit using tools they had onboard: cardboard, plastic bags and
Still, with no controls, no
extended life support and no navigation system, the biggest problem of
all was how to get the craft into a trajectory for an Earth landing.
Apollo 13 had already made the planned adjustments for a moon landing
before the initial explosion.
Mission control developed a plan. The onboard navigation was based on finding a key star. That system was out. In three hours, NASA found a way to use the sun
instead, a series of calculations that would normally take three
months; and they found a way to use the moon’s pull to get the craft
into the right position, because they had to save all of the power for
the trip home.
The calculations
based on the sun turned out to be accurate to within less than 1
degree. Apollo 13 rounded the moon and descended toward Earth. So much
condensation had built up on the walls of the lunar module from the
days of cold that when the spacecraft finally powered up — and heated
up — for the trip home, it rained inside the cabin [source: NASA]. Apollo 13 landed successfully on April 17 in the Pacific Ocean.
all of the astronauts were fine, the spacecraft, of course, was not.
But that was typical for the time. NASA didn’t have a working reusable
a spacecraft until 1981, when the first space shuttle, named Columbia, made history.


Achievement Five: the Space Shuttle, a Reusable Spacecraft (1972-present)

The Space Shuttle Columbia
Hank Morgan/Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images
The Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from Cape Kennedy in 1981.
In 1972, the Apollo program was winding down, and NASA was doing some technological soul-searching. The Apollo rockets
were sin­gle-use spacecraft. The cost per mission was astronomical. A
reusable spacecraft wouldn’t only save money, but it would also be an
amazing technological advance.­
After President Nixon
announced the plan to build a reusable spacecraft that would run
multiple, perhaps indefinite numbers of missions, NASA developed the
basic design: two solid rocket boosters attached to an orbiter module
and an external fuel tank.
There were considerable hurdles facing the project. Since the equipment that protected previous spacecraft from Earth’s
searing atmosphere essentially disintegrated during re-entry, NASA
needed an entirely new heat-shield concept. It came up with a method of
coating the craft with ceramic tiles that would absorb the heat without
degrading. The other major redesign had to do with the landing itself.
T­he old spacecraft basically plummeted through the atmosphere and
splashed down in the ocean. It’s tough to reuse equipment after a water
landing. The new spacecraft would land more like a glider, on an actual
landing strip.
It took nine years from the start of the project to the first flight. In 1981, the Space Shuttle
Columbia lifted off, and it was a successful mission. NASA had
succeeded in creating a reusable spacecraft, and the fruits of its
labor are still in use today.
­Many of the shuttle’s missions include a stay at the International Space Station (ISS), an amazing creation that at last marked a significant collaboration between the United States and Russia
to advance space exploration. The ISS has surpassed all expectations
and is now a true space destination, massive in size and technological
capabilities. And it’s not just for astronauts anymore

Achievement Four: International Space Station, Living in Space (1998-present)

The International Space Station.
NASA/Newsmakers/Getty Images
The Expedition One crew hosts a group of visitors in the International Space Station.
Missi­ons to space lasting several weeks can­ a­chieve some amazing results. We can reach the moon, service satellites and telescopes and test all sorts of equipment. But here’s the thing: Exploring other planets, or what’s beyond our solar system,
is going to require serious time — months, even years. The human body
isn’t designed to live in space. So getting us to the point of
exploring farther than ever before requires long-term tests on the
effects of space life on the human body. That’s where a permanent space station comes in.
The International Space Station isn’t the first space station, but it’s by far the most impressive. Russia launched Salyut 1 in 1971, which orbited Earth for less than a year due to a series of equipment failures. The United States
sent up Skylab in 1973, which failed as well, lasting less than two
years. Russia launched its second station in 1986. That was Mir, and it
was in operation until 2001, when it was purposefully decommissioned.
Mir measured 107 feet (33 meters) long and 90 feet (27 meters) wide and
weighed more than 100 tons, and it hosted astronauts almost continuously throughout its time in space [source: NASA].
But it was nowhere near the ISS in accommodations. The ISS is an
orbiting, top-of-the-line laboratory. When it’s done in 2010, the ISS
will measure 356 feet (108.5 meters) long and 238.8 feet (72.8 meters)
wide and weigh 450 tons [source: JAXA].
a feat of engineering unmatched by any other permanent home in space.
The first two modules of the station arrived in orbit in 1998, where
they were attached to form the initial structure. In 2000, the first
crew arrived to stay awhile. Since then, the U.S., Russia and 13 other
countries have sent additional modules, equipment and crews to the ISS,
and it’s now manned continuously. Several astronauts have spent
hundreds of days onboard.
the last eight years, occupants of the station have studied human bone
loss during extended time in microgravity, radiation levels in space
and how to protect against them, different techniques for doing
in-space soldering to repair equipment, and countless other
experiments, repairs, space walks and robotics innovations. They’ve
also studied the effects of space on several “space tourists” who pay tens of millions of dollars to experience life in orbit.
Everything we’re learning is getting us closer to a manned mission to Mars.
Without the ISS, we’d be stuck close to home, unsure whether astronauts
could survive a trip to the outer limits, let alone function well
enough after months in space to perform tests within the harsh
environment of Mars. And speaking of Mars…

Achievement Three: Mars Pathfinder, Robot on the Red Planet (1996-1997)

The Sojourner Rover, a component of the Mars Pathfinder.
Space Frontiers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Sojourner Rover, a component of the Mars Pathfinder exploratory mission, analyzes the Yogi Rock on the red planet’s surface.
The Mars
Pathfinder mission was supposed to prove the viability of unmanned
exploration of the red planet. Comprised of a lander module and a rover
module, the objective was to make it through Mars’ atmosphere, land
safely on the surface, a­nd set free a robot to roam the planet. All
this would be accomplished in an efficient and cost-effective way. The
rest — and there was quite a bit more — was gravy.

Pathfinder left Earth in December 1996, traveled the 309 million miles to Mars, and landed in July 1997 [source: Space Today].
No previous spacecraft had landed on a planet without first orbiting
it. The landing gear consisted of a parachute and a series of airbags;
the module landed on a bed of rocks unharmed, and the rover took off.
The mission was a success. Not only did Mars Pathfinder return a total
of 2.3 billion bits of data back to NASA (more than 17,000 photos among that mass of information), but it outlived its projected life [source: NASA].
The lander was supposed to remain in working order, recording data and
images, for about three months; it kept sending information for a year.
The rover had a projected lifespan of several days. It ended up roaming
Mars for a month [sources: Space Today, NASA].
Among other things, the Mars Pathfinder taught us that Mars was probably once warm, wet, and far more friendly, in human-survival terms, than it is now.
Pathfinder taught us that Mars exploration is possible. Someday, NASA
may even get a human there. But without the next achievement on our
list, astronauts wouldn’t be going anywhere at all.

Achievement Two: Freedom 7, the First American in Space (1961)

Astronaut Alan B. Shepard.
Time Life Pictures/NASA/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Astronaut Alan B. Shepard aboard the Mercury 3 space capsule on the Freedom 7 mission.
The first American astronaut to orbit the Earth
was named Alan Shepard, and he left Earth on May 5, 1961. He wasn’t the
first human in s­pace — a Soviet astronaut named Yuri Gagarin has that
distinction. But Shepard was NASA’s entry into the annals of human space flight.
was a nervous day for NASA. The countdown, divided for the first time
into two parts so Shepard didn’t have to spend an entire day on the
launch pad, took more than 24 hours. NASA halted it several times for
minor equipment checks, and finally it was T-15 minutes to liftoff.
Shepard was onboard, the pilots of the launch vehicle were ready, and
all systems were go. Then the clouds moved in.
The weather
wasn’t a problem for the launch. But it was a problem for the
photographer covering the biggest NASA event to date. So NASA postponed
the launch until the clouds cleared. During that hold, one of the
orbiter’s power inverters showed signs of trouble, and engineers fixed
the problem in 86 minutes. At T-15, NASA decided to double-check a
piece of navigation equipment.
The rest of the countdown
went uninterrupted, and the launch, at 9:34 AM, about 25 hours after
the start of the countdown, went off without a hitch. Shepard reached
Earth orbit at an altitude of 116.5 miles (187.5 km). He spent 15
minutes and 28 seconds up there, travelling 303 miles around the Earth
at 5,134 miles per hour (8,262 kph) [source: NASA]. When he splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, he had completed a perfect mission and led the way for every NASA manned mission to come.
manned mission that put NASA in the record books came eight years
later. It was so monumental that conspiracy theorists question its
validity to this day

Achievement One: Apollo 11, a Walk on the Moon (1969)

Man walks on the moon.
Time Life Pictures/NASA/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks near the module during Apollo 11’s extravehicular activity.
Just 20 days after Alan Shepard orbited the Earth, Pres­ident Kennedy announced the mission that would be NASA’s greatest achievement: America was going to the moon. NASA immediately initiated the Apollo program.
It took eight years from that announcement to get there. Apollo 1 in 1967 was a disaster — all three astronauts onboard died in a fire
on the launch pad. Over the next two years, NASA ran nine more
missions, testing various aspects of the operation. The work moved
quickly: When equipment delays came up, NASA just switched to other
But Apollo 11 was the first mission to actually
land men on the moon. When astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on its
surface on July 20, 1969, and spoke the words “One small step for man,
one giant leap for mankind,” the entire world was watching. The landing
was such a big event, there are those who believe it couldn’t have
happened — that the whole thing was staged.
Granted, it was an event of Hollywood proportions — it was both scripted and choreographed. But that’s because the lunar landing was NASA’s moment in the spotlight, a first for the record books and an almost inconceivable achievement in the space age.
were five more Apollo missions to the moon. The moon landing was such
an important accomplishment, President George W. Bush announced in 2004
that America would set about going back, 35 years after the initial
For more information on NASA, space and related topics, explore the links on the next page.

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