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NASA turns 55. What's next for the space agency?

Fifty-five years ago Monday, President Eisenhower signed the Space Act, authorizing the creation of NASA. Since then, the space agency has grown from its Sputnik-shaded beginnings to studying the full scope of the heavens. What will the next 55 years bring?

By Correspondent / July 31, 2013

Information from three telescopes was combined to create this image of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way located about 160,000 light years from Earth. X-rays from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue) show hot regions created by these winds and shocks, while infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope (red) outline where the dust and cooler gas are found. The optical light from the 2.2-m Max-Planck-ESO telescope (yellow) in Chile shows where ultraviolet radiation from hot, young stars is causing gas in the nebula to glow.

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/Reuters

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Fifty-six years ago, civilian pilots and military rocket scientists had little in common. And then, on October 7, 1957, came Sputnik.

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Within a year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began operations as a hastily cobbled-together mix of civilian aeronautics and military intercontinental ballistic missile research. Now, it's a federal agency examining the entire sweep of the sky.

From its hasty beginnings, NASA has flown 157 missions – 86 still ongoing – visiting almost every large heavenly body between the Sun and Pluto, monitoring Earth from space, peering into the heart of our galaxy's central black hole, and looking out to distant stars and galaxies. NASA has sent 301 astronauts into space, and is currently training another nine who will soon fly.

We have a permanent human presence in orbit and 12 men have left footprints on the Moon. NASA's satellites have orbited Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon, Mars, the asteroid Vesta, Jupiter, and Saturn; flown by Uranus and Neptune; and another is en route to Pluto. NASA's telescopes are listening to every corner of the universe and looking at billions of stars; they have found hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, plus countless pulsars, black holes, supernovae, and more. NASA and its sister organizations around the world are examining the secrets of the universe, from tiny grains of space dust to dark matter to unthinkably enormous galaxies.

"The 20th century was quite an amazing time for advances in science and technology, particularly in spaceflight," says Bill Barry, NASA's chief historian. Just 55 years before NASA's creation, in 1903, the Wright brothers flew the first airplane in Kitty Hawk, N.C. And now, 55 years later, we've visited the moon, "reconnoitered the solar system … and revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it," he says.

"Apollo, getting to the moon, developing industries and building infrastructure, exploring our solar system, the Earth, and the larger universe – that's a pretty good list of accomplishments for 55 years," says Dr. Barry. "It's a pretty good investment for the chunk of money we spent in the '60s plus the maintenance-level investment we've made since then."

The price of exploration

Space spending in 1957 had amounted to around $35 million ($282 million in 2013 dollars), but Sputnik fears loosened federal purse strings. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration officially began its mission October 1, 1958, after President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law on July 29. In its first year, NASA's budget was about 10 times the 1957 space budget, and it grew rapidly.

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