Since 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has brought the mysteries of the cosmos down to Earth, inspiring millions across the world to set their eyes on the final frontier. 

Its pioneering lunar missions, scientific discoveries, space-based observatories, and more have established it as the world’s leading-edge space program (see timeline).


In the mid-1950s, the US and Soviet Union sought to develop rockets powerful enough to launch satellites into low-Earth orbit, inaugurating the two-decade Space Race.

President Dwight Eisenhower signed a law establishing NASA in 1958 that consolidated several established programs. The new agency streamlined US civilian efforts following the Soviet Union's launch of the world’s first artificial satellite via an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The Space Race

As the Soviets charged ahead—launching a dog, then a scientific satellite, and finally a man into orbit—the US responded with Explorer 1, a satellite that discovered Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced expansive plans to land a man on the moon by 1970. His iconic speech at Houston’s Rice University helped unite the nation behind the burgeoning space program. An estimated 5% of the US workforce contributed to the Apollo program. 

Many Greco-Roman mythology-based programs were inaugurated to achieve key milestones: Saturn developed the rockets used for launch, Mercury and Gemini launched Americans into orbit, and Apollo landed men on the moon.

The Space Race officially ended in 1975 when a US Apollo spacecraft docked with a Soviet Soyuz and the two commanders shook hands. 

Space Exploration

Building off the Mariner program’s probes to study Venus, Mars, and Mercury, NASA sent Voyager 1 and 2 in the late 1970s to capture photographs of the outer gas and ice giants. They still operate today beyond the heliosphere, the region affected by our sun’s solar winds.

To reduce launch costs in the 1980s, NASA produced five partially reusable space shuttles. They conducted over 130 missions to launch satellites, deliver modules to orbital stations, and conduct experiments. The program was struck by tragic midflight explosions in 1986 and 2003, killing 14 astronauts. 

In the 1990s, NASA, in coordination with Russia, Japan, Canada, and Europe, built the modular International Space Station in low-Earth orbit to conduct space experiments. The station has been continuously inhabited for over two decades by nearly 300 people.

To observe the cosmos, NASA has launched several space-based observatories to peer into deep space using high-tech radiation-sensing tools. The most famous of these—the Hubble and the James Webb space telescopes—have captured some of the world’s most iconic space images.


NASA’s next big project aims to return a more diverse cast of humans to the moon via the Orion spacecraft atop the massive Space Launch System. The agency plans to explore more of the lunar surface and build the first permanent human habitation there before moving onto Mars. 

Dive Deeper

Relevant articles, podcasts, videos, and more from around the internet — curated and summarized by our team

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“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." On Sept. 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy set forth this argument for the effort to land humans on the moon’s surface, casting the Apollo mission in terms of historic human ambitions. Watch the entire address here.

A computer animation of the Sea Dragon rocket being towed out to sea.
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The Sea Dragon was conceived as a 500-foot-tall mega rocket designed to be towed out to sea and launched halfway underwater, a technique requiring little cost to support the rocket. Even larger than the Saturn 5, the Sea Dragon would have been the largest in history, exceeding SpaceX’s Starship—until funding cuts sank the ambitious effort.

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On the night of July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped down the ladder of the Lunar Module onto the surface of the moon, pronouncing one of the most famous quotes in human history: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." The whole world was able to watch via a camera Armstrong set up before taking his giant leap. Watch the entire three-hour walkabout in this restored footage.

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NASA scientists are on a mission to protect Earth from asteroid strikes. Right now they've found over 90 percent of the asteroids that could potentially destroy our planet. Unfortunately, so far, they've only found 40 percent of the smaller objects that could possibly "just" decimate a city or smaller area. But the work continues, as does speculation on what exactly we can do about stopping them.

An animation of a deep-sea submersible.
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Roughly 80 percent of the world's oceans remain unexplored, but as researchers learn more about these parts of the Earth, the more helpful they become to those looking to explore space. The hadal zone of the Earth's seas is one of the harshest environments on Earth, with massive water pressure, no light, and extremely cold temperatures. But NASA experts say such conditions are analogous to those on Jupiter's moon Europa, with its 100-mile deep ocean.

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NASA’s ambitious Artemis program aims to not only return humans to the moon, but establish a permanent outpost to sustain frequent activity and eventually act as a stepping stone for a trip to Mars. A key part of this massive undertaking is the Lunar Gateway—a space station orbiting around the moon, acting as a communications hub and way point for traveling astronauts.

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