Happy birthday Houston, do you copy?
This week, back in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, officially became operational.
When we think of NASA, we often think of the mythology of astronauts as American space adventurer, exploring frontiers beyond the clouds.
But in fact, the agency was launched as President Dwight Eisenhower mulled over ways of keeping the Cold War with the Soviet Union from becoming a third world war. But as Eric Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica writes, this anniversary serves as a reminder that we can thank then-Vice President Richard Nixon for NASA.
The debate in the White House under Eisenhower concerned whether the American space agency should be led by the military or by civilians.
“The president was leaning towards a military led action, that was his background. It was actually Nixon and the president’s new science advisor, James Kilian, who said ‘If we’re trying to win the hearts and minds not only of Americans but people around the world, it would be a nice contrast to have a program out in the open, a non-military peaceful purpose in space’,” Berger says.
By creating a civilian-led space agency, Nixon saw an opportunity “to differentiate the United States and put it back on a certain level with the Soviet Union at least in terms of morals,” Berger says.
The modern incarnation of NASA has faced some uncertainty in the wake of President Donald Trump’s proposed a space force, and the growth of private companies like SpaceX, which wants to make commercial space flights.
“NASA still has a future in exploration,” Berger says. “It’s just got some issues both from the military interest and the commercial side too.”
Berger says the space force is intended to have a military role.
“You could see Air Force astronauts at some point and kind of an erosion on NASA’s primacy as the center for putting Americans into space,” says Berger.
NASA would retain its role as civilian space agency, in charge of doing research and pursuing science.