NASA turned 60 on October 1, 2018 and last weekend the Museum of Flight hosted a talk by the agency’s chief historian, Bill Barry, as part of the anniversary celebration. Since we all know about the Moon landing, the space shuttle program, explorations of the planets, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and various NASA research and discoveries, Barry focused his talk on six things you may not know about NASA.
#6: NASA science data saved us from disaster
In a day and age when there’s significant distrust of science, it’s interesting to note NASA’s role in solving a difficult environmental problem. Researchers as early as the late 1950s noticed that there was a depletion of ozone in the atmosphere above the South Pole, but it was difficult to document.
Barry explained that NASA used the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) on the Nimbus 7 weather satellite to confirm and map the hole in the ozone.
“It was pretty clear that the ozone hole was big and getting bigger,” Barry said, and that got people’s attention. Scientists postulated that the ozone depletion was caused by chemical reactions with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) such as refrigerants and spray-can propellants, but again it was tough to prove. Observations made from NASA’s ER-2 aircraft and DC-8 Flying Laboratory eventually confirmed that the CFCs were the culprit.
This led to an amazing act of international cooperation on an environmental issue. In the Montreal Protocol in 1987 nations agreed to phase out CFCs and other ozone depleting substances. It’s working; Barry noted that the ozone is gradually recovering.
“Demographers suggest that this action saved us at least two million cases of skin cancer,” since then, he said.
#5: NASA almost didn’t happen
At the dawn of the space age, after Sputnik, the military became keenly interested in spy satellites and possible space weaponry. US Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with the aim of collaborating with academic, industry, and government partners on military programs involving space.
In the meantime over at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) director Hugh Latimer Dryden had pushed the committee’s research agenda toward high-speed flight and space research. In January 1958 he wrote a key report suggesting that space efforts be a collaboration between the DOD, NACA, National Academy of Science, research institutions, universities, and industry. That’s pretty close to the ARPA mission, with a civilian bent.
Barry said that within about a month of the issuance of Dryden’s report, President Dwight Eisenhower went along with it, and sent Congress proposed legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. Congress soon approved it.
In the early days of the collaboration there was still arm wrestling over control. A memo from Eisenhower directed that NASA would run all programs “except those peculiar to or primarily associated with military weapons systems or military operations.” The DOD took a broad definition of that—figuring putting people in space was military and so that was within their bailiwick. Eisenhower intervened to clarify that the legislation made NASA a largely civilian organization.
“This key decision on Eisenhower’s part was really important,” Barry said. “NASA in some ways has become the world’s space agency, one of the most positive aspects of US international relations,” and the civilian nature of the agency is vital to that.
#4: NASA is a serial creator of new industries
There’s a common belief that Tang, Teflon, and Velcro were creations of the space program. Barry said those aren’t correct, but a lot of other stuff has NASA origins. Excimer lasers developed for ozone detection proved useful for laser surgery, for example, and the complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chips in your smartphone camera were originally developed to build a better camera for space probes. Oddly, those never flew, but they’ve taken off here on Earth. NASA’s annual Spinoff magazine highlights stuff that originated in the space program.
Beyond those, NASA has spun off entire industries. Weather satellites and communication satellites (now a $2 billion/year industry) came from NASA. Under COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) companies such as SpaceX and Boeing are building crewed vehicles and plan to begin testing next year.
“We hope by the end of next year to be launching US astronauts from Florida again up to the International Space Station and paying American companies to do it for us,” Barry said.
#3: NASA revolutionized the understanding of the universe
One’s first response to that is, “Well, duh!” but Barry said it’s easy to take for granted what has happened over the last 60 years.
“We don’t often think about how much things have changed since 1958 when NASA was created,” he said. Sixty years ago otherwise sane people thought there may be civilizations and canals on Mars and dinosaurs on Venus. They figured the outer solar system was just boring ice. There were nine planets; we now know that virtually every star has at least one. We had no idea the Van Allen Belts existed. Now we have a photo of the cosmic microwave background.
#2: Why did we go to the Moon?
President John F. Kennedy wasn’t actually that big on space; in early speeches after he was sworn in he kept proposing that the US and Soviet Union team up on space projects.
The Soviet Union wasn’t too keen on that. They were using the success of their space program to proclaim the superiority of their system and to recruit allies in a world that had been “decolonized” after World War II. The Soviets were winning the propaganda war. JFK wanted a way to beat them without breaking the bank.
Trailing in the game, Kennedy moved the goalposts and declared the race to the Moon.
“The Soviet Union’s success in space was a major strategic strategic problem for the United States,” Barry explained, “so investing money in going to the Moon was a way to prove that the western, capitalist model of government was, in fact, at least as good as if not better than the Soviets.”
#1: The race to the Moon was closer than you think
JFK made his speech to Congress about setting the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” in May of 1961, shortly after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It wasn’t until years later, with President Lyndon Johnson pushing the goal as Kennedy’s legacy, that the Soviets took notice.
“It’s really obvious by the summer of 1964 that the US was serious about going to the Moon and had the political will and the money to make it happen,” Barry said.
The Soviet response was the Zond program. They wouldn’t orbit the Moon, but would instead fling their spacecraft around it and then return to Earth.
The Soviets made five Zond launches in 1968 had a few successes. Zond 5 in September took some tortoises and other life forms along and landed back on Earth, though in the Indian Ocean rather than on land as intended. Zond 6 made the trip and landed on target in Kazakstan, but its heat shield failed. Tests weren’t going well on the N-1 rocket, the Soviet counterpart to the Saturn V that would be their way of launching people to the Moon. In December 1968 Apollo 8 and three US astronauts orbited the Moon.
“It was pretty clear they weren’t going to get their guys on the surface of the Moon before we did,” Barry said. But the Soviets didn’t give up. They sent up a Hail Mary.
The Soviets had been launching Luna spacecraft since the late 1950s, and in the space of six months they cobbled together a robotic craft that would land on the Moon, collect a few rocks, and bring them to back Earth.
A first launch attempt failed, but Luna 15 blasted off three days before Apollo 11. The Eagle got to the Moon first. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did their Moon walk and were catching a few winks before launching to return to the command module Columbia.
“While they’re sleeping in the lunar module the Soviets fired the retro rockets on Luna 15 and landed on the surface of the Moon. It crashed,” Barry said. But he added that if it had landed successfully, the Soviets may well have been able to get their Moon sample back to Earth first.
“The race to the Moon ends July 20, 1969 after the first Moon walk actually happened,” he marveled. “It was that close.”
Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.