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Rina Haimson

Magenta Group
NASA: Sputnik to Challenger

Over the years, NASA’s popularity has grown and shrunk. Although it has deviated from

its original purpose, and lost funding many times, the space program has remained one dedicated

to exploring the unknown. It was first created during the height of the Cold War, when tensions

between Russia and America were high. At first, it was originally founded as a weapon against

Russia, and a way to try and show America’s superiority. However, as time went on and the

program gained popularity, people began to view it as a symbol of pride, and were excited by the

missions. After a while, when the excitement wore off, the program almost fell apart, but the

Challenger Mission garnered interest. NASA’s goals changed over the years, from offensive to

exploratory, but it never lost sight of the goal to discover space and bring new knowledge to the

American people.

The original purpose of the space program was to beat the Russians to the moon, spurred

by the Russian’s success at getting into space. During the Cold War, everyone was aware that if

a county could send a rocket into space, it could also transport a missile. As a result, America

and Russia raced to fund space programs. However, when Sputnik was launched by Russia,

America realized that they had fallen behind. Sputnik was “about the size of a beach ball (58

cm.or 22.8 inches in diameter), weighed only 83.6 kg. or 183.9 pounds, and took about 98

minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path” (Steve Garber). It was the first successful

satellite, and it threw America into a panic. The government realized that they needed more

programs, directly funded by the government. In July 1958, Congress “passed the ​National

Aeronautics and Space Act (commonly called the "Space Act")​, which created NASA as of
October 1, 1958 from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and other

government agencies” (Steve Garber). This was the beginning of NASA, and the starting point

for many great discoveries. About ten years later, in 1969, the funding given to NASA paid off: a

man landed on the moon. As Neil Armstrong lands, “[w]ith more than half a billion people

watching on television, he climbs down the ladder and proclaims: ‘That's one small step for a

man, one giant leap for mankind’” (July 20, 1969). This moon landing was the beginning of a

new era, and inspired many young people to become involved with NASA, or with the


As years passed, however, people lost interest in NASA, but that interest was regained

when the Challenger Mission exploded. After the Cold War ended, there was no longer as much

of an incentive to create rockets for wartime purposes. As a result, demands for NASA went

down, and funding began to be directed away from it. Public interest in the program also

declined, forcing NASA to put out missions quickly, so people would still care. A study noted

that “by the 1980's NASA had taken on the characteristics of a more conventional government

bureaucracy,” had lost “a culture that ‘supported exceptionally high levels of performance for

tasks very difficult to perform” and had become the “NASA of the Challenger disaster and a

number of other technical failures" (John Krige). This climate of apathy was what caused the

Challenger disaster, as the space shuttle was not thoroughly tested before the mission. In 1986,

the Challenger shuttle exploded, killing all the astronauts who were in it. It was a tragedy that

shook the nation, but it did cause the public to become more involved in the space program. As a

result, "[s]afety margins were improved throughout... The concern for safety brought a number

of much-needed improvements in other areas of the Shuttle as well" (James R. Hansen). After
the disaster, NASA received more funds, as a result of the increased interest, and so was able to

continue with its goal. This goal had changed, as since there was no war, they had to focus on

something else. NASA settled on exploring. Although NASA lost some of its funding at one

point, the excitement and tragedy of the Challenger Mission brought it back, and the program

returned with a goal of discovering the universe.

When NASA was first created, its main purpose was to compete with Russian space

agencies. However, as time went on, it began to be used for exploration, rather than competition.

As a program started during a time of war, NASA has done a wonderful job of continuing to be

relevant, and interesting to the public. Although the interest in the program, especially in hard

times for the country, has fluctuated, the fact that it has stayed funded is a testament to

America’s passion for space and for exploring the unknown. NASA’s purpose, throughout the

years, remains consistent: to discover new frontiers.


Primary Sources

Hansen, James R., and Allan J. McDonald. ​Truth, Lies, and O-Rings - Inside the​ ​Space Shuttle

Challenger Disaster.​ UP of Florida, 2009

NASA Content Administrator. "July 20, 1969: One Giant Leap for Mankind." ​NASA​, Accessed 6 May 2019.

Secondary Sources

Garber, Steve. "Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age." ​,​

Accessed 6 May 2019.

Krige, John. "Inside NASA: High Technology and Organizational Change in the U.S. Space

Program, by H.E. McCurdy." ​SpringerLink​, Accessed 30 Oct. 2018

Paté-Cornell, Elisabeth, and Robin Dillon. ​Probabilistic Risk Analysis for the​ ​NASA Space

Shuttle: A Brief History and Current Work​. PhD thesis. ​ScienceDirect​, Accessed 30

Oct. 2018.