Ever since its inception on October 1st 1958, National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been the United States of America Governments' civilian space agency. It was created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower who wanted a Government agency to spearhead space research. Before that date, space exploration and discovery had been carried out by National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics which was at the time more concerned with Aeronautics (planes). The employees of NACA were simply shifted across to the new organisation rather than being made redundant and having to re-apply for new positions. Although it was designed to be a civilian organisation, it incorporated many military sections such as the Naval Research Laboratory into the organisation. During its early days, they recruited Nazi war criminals who had worked on Hitler's V2 weapons that caused damage to London during the Second World War. The Americans offered criminals such as Wernher von Braun the chance of a new life in America helping space research or being handed over for justice, they chose America.1
The Headquarters of the organisation is not Cape Canaveral but it is in fact in Washington D.C. along with all the other Government Agencies. Cape Canaveral and Houston are the Administration's most famous sites because that is where rockets are launched and contact maintained with. The reason for their location is because its close to the Equator where there is less atmosphere to get through. A rocket fired in Maine would have more of a struggle to get into orbit that one in Miami. It is headed by an Administrator and probably the most famous of the Administrators is James Webb who was the third administrator and who the James Webb Telescope is named after. James Webb was the Administrator who oversaw John F. Kennedys vision of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely. Although James Webb wasn't the Administrator in charge at the time of Apollo 11, he played a major part in getting the Apollo off the ground.
It has had many successes such as the Apollo space missions and some disasters such as the Space Shuttles Columbia and Challenger. It has put into space two prominent space stations, the first was Skylab which was in space orbiting the Earth for six years from 1973 to 1979 before burning up on re-entry. The second being the International Space Station, it partnered with other organisation such as their one time rival, the Russian Space Agency.
Although the Russian Roscosmos agency beat the Americans on a number of occasions such as the first satellite, the first man (Yuri Gagarin) and the first woman (Valentina Tereshkova) in space, NASA was able to land the first man on the moon (Neil Armstrong). After NASA sent seven missions to the Moon, the project was cancelled, budgetary cuts and also that they had finally beaten the Russians to something. One of the missions, Apollo 13 nearly ended in failure when an oxygen tank exploded, the three astronauts had to cancel the objective and get back to Earth. The incident is immortalised in the film of the same name, Apollo 13. The American's lost appetite for the Moon and concentrated on near Earth missions.
NASA hopes to one day return to the Moon as a launch pad for further exploration and a stepping stone for visiting Mars, the second nearest planet to Earth. The nearest planet to Earth is Venus but Venus is extremely inhospitable and no human could ever get down to the planet and back again, they would burn to death from the heat. Venus hasn't been of much interest to NASA compared to Mars. NASA has sent numerous probes to the Martian landscape in the faint hope of finding life whether it exists now as a micro-organisms or it had once existed. Venus has been of more interest to the Russians whose probes known as Venera probes.
NASA's first successful mission into space was Freedom 7 piloted by astronaut Alan Shepard. It was the first in a series of one man missions into space known as the Mercury project. The Mercury project consisted of getting a solo person in to space and back again.
From 1981 to 2011, NASA had the use of a space shuttle which was a reusable vehicle for getting people from the ground into space. There were seven built for NASA, Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, Enterprise and Endeavour. Enterprise so called after fans of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701A from the television series star Trek lobbied hard for their name to be one of the Shuttles. Enterprise never actually made it into space, instead it was used as a prototype. The Discovery shuttle was the most active in terms of travelling into space and back. The shuttle mission was cancelled amid budgetary constraints and the remaining shuttles were delivered to museums across America such as Enterprise ending up at the New York USS Intrepid Sea and Air Museum. The Russians tried to copy the shuttle but theirs didn't make it into space. During its time, the space shuttle docked with Mir, the Russian space station in a sign of friendship and peace. Ever since the programme was cancelled, the design and build of a replacement re-useable space module has been put out to tender and commercial companies such as Boeing are building prototypes.
Along with international partners, NASA has been party to the International Space Station where the main way to get to the station has been via the Russian Soyuz space capsule that takes off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Onboard the International Space Station or ISS for short, there is an emergency Soyuz capsule should people need to evacuate in the event of disaster.
NASA has built and send space probes to the far reaches of our Solar system, none have gone further than the voyager space probes launched in the seventies and still going strong. The latest mission to the outer edges of the solar system is the New Horizons that on course to fly by the dwarf planet Pluto.
Although they are seen as a space agency, NASA are involved in Earth flight improvements which should be no surprise given their Aeronautics in their name. They are involved in finding ways to help develop greener and safer ways of travel. They do not regulate air travel, that is the job of the Federal Aviation Authority and the Department of Transport, totally separate and unconnected organisations. They have a whole section of their website dedicated to NASA Aeronautics division.
NASA critics might say we should be putting the ills of the world before venturing into space but through their work, we have fire-fighting gear, land mine removal, high way safety, artificial limbs, infra-red ear thermometer and water purification to name just a few of the items. For a more exhaustive list, you can visit the Spin-off page