Spotlight: NASA

In honor of the Mars rover Curiosity’s successful landing on the Red Planet early yesterday morning (Monday, August 6), we’ve decided to take a look at the agency behind that impressive feat: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Its vision—“to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind”—is as lofty as its missions.

President Dwight Eisenhower established NASA on July 28, 1958, partially in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite the year before. The agency is responsible for our nation’s civilian space program and for its aeronautics and aerospace research; it grew out of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, which had been researching aeronautics technology since 1915. Well-known NASA programs include the early Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs; the Skylab space station; the space shuttle; and the U.S. role in building and operating the joint U.S./Russia International Space Station (ISS). NASA’s ongoing investigations include in-depth surveys of Mars and Saturn as well as studies of the Earth and Sun and unmanned spacecraft missions to Mercury, Jupiter, Pluto and beyond. President Obama’s FY 2013 budget request for NASA was $17,711 million (a level that NASA anticipates maintaining through FY 2017), down slightly from the $17,770 requested in FY 2012 and a significant decrease from the actual FY 2011 budget of $18,448.

With the retirement of the shuttle program after its final flight more than a year ago, NASA has shifted its focus toward stimulating the commercial aerospace industry. The Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, which is funded by the federal government and administered by NASA, is intended to stimulate development of privately operated crew vehicles. One of its primary aims is to select at least two commercial providers to deliver crew to the ISS. In April 2011, NASA announced awarded nearly $270 million to four companies to develop plans for ISS crew vehicles; last week (August 3, 2012), it awarded almost $1.1 billion to three companies to further develop their plans. At the same time, the agency is planning for the first test flight of its Orion deep space crew vehicle in 2014, and expects this vehicle to travel farther into space than any spacecraft designed for humans has flown in the 40 years since U.S. astronauts returned from the moon.

NASA Headquarters, located at 300 E Street, S.W., in Washington, D.C., provides overall guidance and direction to the agency, whose 18,800 employees work there and at ten field centers and a variety of other installations throughout the country. John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), one of the best-known NASA facilities, has been the launch site for every U.S. manned space flight since 1968, and continues to manage and operate unmanned rocket launch facilities from three launch pads at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (KSC’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building, completed in 1965, is the fourth-largest structure in the world by volume.) Another prominent NASA facility, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is headquartered in Pasadena, Calif., was one of the first agencies to become part of NASA; its primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft like Curiosity.

As NASA has shifted its priorities, it has begun disposing of no longer needed facilities. Last month, GSA opened an online auction to sell two commercial buildings deemed “excess federal property” in Fairview Park, Ohio, that once were part of NASA’s Glenn Research Center there. Built in during the Apollo era of the 1960s, the 160,000- and 40,000-square-foot buildings provided office space for engineering and administrative staff.