With activities ranging from a puppet show to a picnic to an inflatable space lab, NASA celebrated its 40th birthday today at centers across the country.
The space agency was inaugurated on 1 October 1958 amid fears that the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War in space. "Everything was new," recalls engineer William Green, who joined NASA 5 years after its inception and continues to work there in the office of space flight. "Everything was possible."
The Soviet and American space programs quickly achieved what had long seemed impossible. Just 6 days after it began operations, NASA launched Project Mercury, its first of many "man in space" programs. The vehicles were designed to shield astronauts from the low temperatures and vacuum of space; the new craft were tested on two monkeys and on Ham, a chimpanzee. All survived, and in May 1961, Alan Shepard took to the air, becoming the first American in space.
NASA has fallen on hard times of late, having to cope with shrinking budgets and struggling to convince a skeptical Congress that it can control rising costs of the International Space Station. But NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin remains upbeat: "NASA has had a great 40 years ... we're just getting started."