From landing astronauts on the moon to flying helicopters on Mars, the history of NASA is full of awe-inspiring moments. After its founding in 1958 — in response to the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik — NASA developed technology that allowed humans to survive in space and set foot on another world. Today, its telescopes, orbiters, and rovers transmit vital data that expand our understanding of the universe. Here are just a few of the memorable events in the agency’s history.
1965: Corned Beef Sandwich Snuck Into Space
For the Gemini 3 mission — the first spaceflight crewed by two astronauts — NASA engineers developed a variety of dehydrated meals in plastic bags. The experimental foods were reconstituted with water before astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young somewhat reluctantly slurped them down. As a prank, Young decided to smuggle a corned beef sandwich on board in his space suit. When he tried to eat it in microgravity, bread crumbs began floating around the cabin, which could have gotten stuck in the machinery. At a congressional hearing about the stunt, a NASA official said, “We have taken steps … to prevent [a] recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights.”
1968: Earth From a Brand New Perspective
Apollo 8 was the first NASA mission to orbit the moon. It’s also known for “Earthrise,” an incredible image taken during the flight. As Commander Frank Borman rotated the command module on one of its last lunar orbits, crew members William Anders and Jim Lovell observed the moon’s surface out of the spacecraft’s windows with cameras. Anders captured the iconic image of Earth rising over the gray lunar horizon only after Lovell tossed him the color film. The picture offered an unprecedented glimpse of Earth from space, and revealed its fragility for the first time in human history. Lovell later said “Earthrise” showed our home planet as “a grand oasis to the big vastness of space.”
1969: Mankind Makes a Giant Leap
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” President John F. Kennedy vowed in a 1961 speech to Congress. Eight years later, in July 1969, Apollo 11 lifted off with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins prepared to make history. As Collins piloted the command module Columbia, Armstrong and Aldrin touched down in the lunar module and set foot on the moon —"one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” in Armstrong’s indelible words. A few days later, Columbia landed safely in the Pacific Ocean, fulfilling the second half of Kennedy’s challenge.
1971: Golf Balls on the Moon
Alan Shepard was NASA’s first man in space when he piloted the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission on its 15-minute flight in 1961. But he’s also remembered as the astronaut who played golf on the moon 10 years later. On the Apollo 14 mission, Shepard not only walked on the moon, but also swung at a few balls during the live TV broadcast. He picked up “more dirt than ball” on his first swing, but after a few more tries, he said the ball sailed for “miles and miles and miles.” (Actually, it went about 200 yards.)
1977: Voyager 1 and 2 Visit the Gas Giants
In 1965, NASA scientists calculated that a rare planetary alignment would make it possible for a spacecraft to visit our solar system’s four gas giants — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — in the late 1970s. Voyager 1 and 2 began their missions in 1977. Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter in 1979, observing the colossal storm circulating at its Great Red Spot and live volcanoes on its moon Io — the first active volcanoes ever seen beyond Earth. By 1980, it was on to Saturn, where Voyager 1 found a nitrogen-based atmosphere on its moon Titan, hinting at the possibility of liquid oceans. Voyager 2 followed, making additional observations of Jupiter and Saturn before flying by Uranus. The spacecraft discovered 11 new moons (which were named for Shakespearean characters), among other finds. Next, Voyager 2 visited Neptune, where it discovered its ring system, six new moons, and the Great Dark Spot — a massive, rotating storm.
1981: NASA Launches the Space Shuttle
On April 12, sandwich-sneaker John Young and astronaut Robert Crippen lifted off in Space Shuttle Columbia, NASA’s first reusable spacecraft. The launch marked a new era in space exploration, with vehicles that could glide to a landing just like an airplane and be used for further missions. The shuttles ferried satellites, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the parts and machinery to build the International Space Station. NASA’s fleet of five operational shuttles accelerated scientific work and international cooperation in space, but also saw tragedy, including the Challenger disaster in 1986 and Columbia disaster in 2003.
1983: First American Woman Sent to Space
For its first two decades, NASA’s astronaut corps was a boys’ club. That started to change when the first women — Shannon Lucid, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, Judith Resnik, Anna Fisher, and Sally Ride — were accepted into its astronaut class in 1978. After a high-tech training program and service as a capsule communicator on Space Shuttle Columbia’s second and third flights, Ride was picked for Space Shuttle Challenger’s STS-7 as a mission specialist, becoming the first American female astronaut in space.
1990: Hubble Hints at Never-Before-Seen Worlds
Like “Earthrise,” the images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope changed the way we looked at the universe. Deployed in 1990 and still orbiting Earth today, Hubble is equipped with a 92-inch mirror and instruments to photograph objects that are visible and invisible to the human eye. In 1996, the “Hubble Deep Field” image of more than 1,500 galaxies, tens of billions of years old, populating what was thought to be empty space, transformed our view of the cosmos. With Hubble’s data, scientists have been able to determine the universe’s age, probe distant galaxies, prove the existence of supermassive black holes, and learn how planets and stars form.
2015: NASA Conducts the “Twins Study”
Identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly presented NASA with an unmissable opportunity: to study the long-term effects of spaceflight in two genetically similar people. While Mark remained on Earth as the control, Scott spent a year aboard the International Space Station. When he returned to Earth, both were examined for physiological differences. Among the significant findings: Scott’s telomeres (the protective endcaps on chromosomes, which may relate to aging) lengthened in space but returned to normal on Earth; Scott’s immune system functioned normally in space; and some of Scott’s genes increased expression but mostly returned to baseline after the mission. Research into long-term human spaceflight continues.
2021: Ingenuity Takes Flight on Mars
In the beginning, NASA strove to put a man on the moon. Now, it’s trying for Mars. Recent missions have sent rovers and orbiters to sample the Red Planet’s environment, sending back data that may help NASA and private spaceflight companies eventually launch crewed spacecraft to Mars. Perseverance, a super-advanced rover, landed gently on Mars in February with a small helicopter named Ingenuity attached to its underside. In April, Ingenuity lifted off in Mars’ tricky atmosphere — NASA’s first controlled flight on another planet. The successful experiment demonstrated that small, autonomous flyers could be important tools for future exploration.