This week NASA turns 59. The pioneering organization has taken man-made vessels to every planet of our solar system, advanced humanity’s understanding of the cosmos, and furthered our knowledge of how our own planet works. NASA was created by an Act of Congress “to contribute materially” to eight objectives outlined in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. These objectives chartered NASA with preserving the role of the U.S. as a “leader in aeronautical and space science and technology” activities for “peaceful and scientific purposes,” and dealt with issues that ranged from “developing vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space” to cooperating with other domestic agencies and other nations.
NASA established ten field centers across the United States—some new, some already in existence when the agency was created—to enable it to fulfill its mandate from Congress over the course of nearly six decades. To commemorate NASA’s 59th birthday this week, we explore the role that each of these field centers across the United States has played in the advancement of space exploration.
November 1963, Cape Canaveral. President John F. Kennedy tours the Saturn V launch system with Dr. Wernher von Braun.
Goddard Space Flight Center
Named after Robert H. Goddard, who is considered the “father” of modern rockets, Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) opened in 1959 in Greenbelt, Maryland as NASA’s first space flight center. This facility manages NASA’s unmanned exploration missions in Earth’s orbit, including the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the Explorer Program, the Discovery Program, the Earth Observing System (EOS), INTEGRAL, MAVEN, OSIRIS-REx, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and Swift. The center also plays an important role in furthering our understanding of our planet’s oceans and atmosphere, as it develops satellite systems for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Founded in 1936 at the California Institute of Technology and transferred to NASA’s administration in 1958, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) manages NASA’s planetary probes and operates a series of facilities around the world known as the Deep Space Network. JPL’s projects include the Mars Science Laboratory mission (which includes the Curiosity rover), the Cassini–Huygens mission orbiting Saturn, the Mars Opportunity Exploration Rover, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Dawn mission to the dwarf planet Ceres and asteroid Vesta, the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, the NuSTAR X-ray telescope, and the Spitzer Space Telescope.
Armstrong Flight Research Center
The Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC), located at Edwards Air Force Base in California, directs NASA’s aeronautical research and has historically operated some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. The center was instrumental in the Apollo Program by managing the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, which helped NASA learn how to operate the Apollo Lunar Module in the moon’s airless environment. The center was also home to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, which was the Boeing 747 that took the Space Shuttle back to Florida after it landed.
Glenn Research Center
Located in Brook Park, Ohio and named after the former NASA astronaut and Senator John H. Glenn, Glenn Research Center (GRC) supports all NASA missions by serving as the agency’s laboratory for aircraft engine research. Established in 1942, GRC was transferred to NASA after the agency’s formation. The International Space Station (ISS) relies on the center’s R&D in the areas of air-breathing, in-space propulsion and cryogenics, communications, power energy storage and conversion, microgravity sciences, and advanced materials. The center led research in the combustion processes for liquid rocket engines, which use hydrogen for propulsion.
Marshall Space Flight Center
Located near Huntsville, Alabama, Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) is one of NASA’s largest facilities, which oversees spacecraft propulsion research. The center developed the Saturn V rocket, which carried humans to the moon, and the propulsion rockets for the Space Shuttle Program. The Spacelab, America’s first laboratory orbiting Earth, and the American sections of the International Space Station were developed at MSFC. The center also contains the Huntsville Operations Support Center (HOSC), a facility that supports ISS launch, payload, and experiment activities in coordination with Kennedy Space Center.
Ames Research Center
Founded in 1939 under NASA’s predecessor, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Ames Research Center (ARC) was originally designed to conduct wind-tunnel research on the aerodynamics of propeller-driven aircraft. Its location, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has enabled ARC to expand its role and NASA’s leadership in Astrobiology, small satellites, robotic lunar exploration, the search for habitable planets, supercomputing, intelligent/adaptive systems, advanced thermal protection, and airborne astronomy. One of ARC’s most exciting roles is managing mission control for Kepler, NASA’s space observatory that has discovered thousands of planets orbiting stars in our galaxy.
Langley Research Center
Founded in 1917 in Hampton, Virginia as an aeronautics research center by the government, the 100-year old Langley Research Center (LaRC) is NASA’s oldest facility. Many of NASA’s initial missions were designed at LaRC, including the Apollo Lunar Lander. LaRC’s main focus is aeronautics where it conducts research for NASA in vital aerospace areas such as wake vortex behavior, fixed-wing aircraft, rotary wing aircraft, air safety, human factors, and aerospace engineering. The center also works closely with the National Transportation Safety Board to improve airline safety.
John C. Stennis Space Center
John C. Stennis Space Center (SSC) is NASA’s largest rocket engine test facility located in Hancock, Mississippi. NASA’s original spec for a rocket testing facility required the site to be located between the manufacturing facility for NASA’s rockets in New Orleans and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The ideal site also needed barge access, as the rocket motors tested for the Apollo Program were too large for land transport. Since the decommissioning of the Space Shuttle, NASA opened SSC to private and public organizations for engine testing.
Johnson Space Center
When audiences around the world follow the suspense before one of NASA’s manned spacecraft lands, they usually see the tension of the men and women working at Mission Control, located at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. Known as the Manned Spacecraft Center, it is NASA’s main facility for training astronauts, doing research on space conditions on human health, and where NASA controls the space missions that involve humans—from the moon to the ISS. In 1962, NASA Houston was selected from a shortlist of nine locations to house Mission Control. The requirements ranged from access to water and fair weather to having cultural and research facilities nearby.
Kennedy Space Center
The most historic and famous of all ten NASA field centers is Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. KSC is the epicenter of NASA’s manned space program and is the site where man set out to land on the moon on July 16, 1969. It is named after President John F. Kennedy, who in 1961 issued the Moonshot Challenge to put an American astronaut on the moon before the end of the decade and bring that person safely back to Earth. Since then, every human-manned NASA mission, dozens of space probes, and all the Space Shuttle Missions, which were instrumental in taking up the materials to build the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope, were launched from here. KSC is also home to many life sciences startups, including Joi Scientific.
Happy 59th anniversary NASA! Joi Scientific is proud to be located at one of these incredible field centers for the advancement of human activities “devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind,” as chartered by Congress in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958.
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