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The Evolution of Commercial Space Flight (February 2023): The NASA Years

By Brian Shmaefsky

The NASA Years

As mentioned above, NASA was created primarily in response to the successes of the Soviet Union’s rocket program. The formation of the space agency placed US space travel under the federal government’s exclusive jurisdiction. In Orders of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915-1990, Roger Bilstein provides a comprehensive timeline charting how NASA actually supplanted the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which had been created by Congress in 1915. NACA had originally been charged with accelerating cultural and technological change related to aeronautics. NASA’s mission was designed by Congress to be more lofty and comprehensive, so NACA was integrated into NASA in 1958, providing the new agency with the wealth of resources it needed to hasten rocket development. But NACA already had many accomplishments in high-speed travel to its credit. As Bilstein explains, the formerly independent Committee was a major contributor to NASA’s early efforts toward designing large rockets, high-altitude flight, and communication satellites.

In 1959, President Eisenhower charged NASA with sending the first person into space with the ambitious Project Mercury initiative. In the translation from German of his Project Mercury, Eugen Reichl describes how the first astronauts in US history (Scott Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper, John Glenn Jr., Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Walter Schirra Jr., Alan Shepard Jr., and Donald Slayton) were trained to become the first humans in space, setting the stage for the big setback suffered by NASA when the Soviet Union launched its first astronaut into orbit around the Earth in 1961. In a subsequent work (The Soviet Space Program) Reichl outlines the Russian lunar effort from 1959 to 1976, focusing on the successful mission undertaken by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who made news by orbiting the planet first, a feat that measured up against those of other pioneering pilots such as Charles Lindbergh. NASA did successfully send Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom into space, but their accomplishment did not match Gagarin’s. Project Mercury finally achieved its goal in 1962, when John Glenn Jr. became the first US astronaut to travel around the Earth.

In American Moonshot, Douglas Brinkley explains how Russia’s record of “firsts” in space travel compelled President John F. Kennedy to give NASA the assignment of placing a person on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. As Brinkley observes, orbiting the Earth and flying to the Moon are not one and the same. To undertake this new charge NASA first had to improve on entry and reentry procedures to enable safe and effortless landing on the Moon and return to Earth. This was not as easy as had been portrayed in the fictitious flight of the 1902 French movie. In Project Gemini Technology and Operations, NASA authors James Grimwood, Barton Hacker, and Peter Vorzimmer explain how the Gemini Project, followed by a succession of other missions, helped develop the technologies that made manned flight to other planets achievable.3

From the 1960s to 1982, the rocketry used for manned space flight was completely designed and produced by NASA and the US Department of Defense. Any involvement by private companies in space flight was relegated to satellites used for telecommunication. But Michael Gorn, in his book Spacecraft, describes how the Telstar communication satellites produced by AT&T and Bell Television Laboratories inadvertently paved the way for commercial space flight operations independent of NASA. Initially, NASA’s rockets were built by aerospace corporations under contracts solely devoted to government projects. Any commercially produced satellites had to be launched using NASA rockets and mission control operations, and under NASA supervision. But this situation changed in the late 1970s when NASA began to prioritize its space shuttle program, as discussed by T. A. Heppenheimer in the first volume of his History of the Space Shuttle (The Space Shuttle Decision, 1965-1972).

3.  In addition to the publication prepared by the NASA History Division, a partial release of the Project Gemini Familiarization Manual may be commercially available from Periscope Film, LLC:

Works Cited