“I grew up wanting to be a lieutenant commander in the Navy Air Corps,” Cunningham said. “I attained that fairly early in my life,and I never even thought about ever being afraid of flying. It was one of the most natural things I ever did,one of the easiest things I ever did.”
Flying was something unattainable then,Cunningham said – a “peak thing to accomplish,” and as a young boy yearning to fly airplanes,he never dreamed he would have the chance to travel in space.
“I always wanted to fly airplanes,and this was just a better airplane,” he said.
Cunningham worked for NASA during its glory years and witnessed the organization rise from a agency with a $100 million budget (the equivalent of $700 million today) and three laboratories into a $17 billion-budget operation with facilities across the country.
Now,as NASA celebrates its 50th anniversary,Cunningham and other veteran employees,including former astronaut John Glenn,senior explorations official Doug Cooke and retired design engineer David Sias look back on years of accomplishments and challenges,and ahead to future endeavors.
On July 29,1958,President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act that created NASA. The organization began operations on Oct. 1,1958,three days less than a year after the Soviet Union shocked the world by putting Sputnik,the world's first artificial satellite,into orbit.
Since its creation,NASA has made discoveries across a wide range of scientific fields,including aeronautics,Earth science,astrophysics,satellite communications and planetary exploration.
“I think it's been one of the most successful government agencies in history,” said Cunningham,lunar module pilot of the Apollo 7 mission in 1968.
Throughout the past 50 years,NASA spacecraft have studied planets,moons,comets,asteroids and bodies outside our solar system. They have probed the rings of Saturn and observed radiation from the early universe,confirmed the Big Bang theory and found evidence of a mysterious “dark energy” propelling the expansion of the universe.
Most recently,the Phoenix Mars Lander has discovered vast reservoirs of sub-surface ice,possibly removing a critical barrier to human exploration of the planet.
And in two years,work on the International Space Station will be completed,making the 925,000-pound research lab the largest manmade object to orbit Earth.
“I think it's one of the most significant events in history,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham's mission,Apollo 7,was the first successful project in the Apollo program, an 11-day orbit of Earth to test the Apollo command module.
“While we didn't fly a historic mission,we had a part in history,” Cunningham said. “I think of it as a little footnote in the program where we landed a man on the moon.”
After the first lunar landing in 1969,NASA landed another five missions – another 10 men – on the moon.
The Hubble space telescope could be another of NASA's greatest accomplishments. The orbiting observatory,launched in 1990,has revealed never-before-seen images of our own solar system as well as galaxies spread across the universe,some as far as 12 billion light years away.
“The excitement over Hubble is unbelievable,” Cunningham said. “It has changed the way we look at the universe.”
David Sias,a retired NASA design engineer who helped build the shipping container for the telescope's trip from California to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida,agreed that Hubble's benefit to mankind has been “tremendous” and said working on the project was the high point of his career.
Challenges along the way
NASA's 50 year-history,however dazzling,has not been without tragedy.
The nation's first space disaster occurred in 1967,when the three-man crew of Apollo 1 died in a fire in the rocket's command module during a training exercise.
Cunningham said his most meaningful work at NASA was serving as the backup crew for Apollo 1. His team inherited the mission,and worked for 21 months to prevent a similar tragedy on their own mission,Apollo 7.
“It was very satisfying having done that,after seeing what happened to the prior mission,” Cunningham said. “We were worried that an unsuccessful flight or something that went wrong could cause the public to sour on spaceflight.”
In 1986,however,the public was shaken by the Challenger disaster. Carrying a crew of seven,among them Christa McAuliffe,the intended first teacher in space,the Challenger exploded 72 seconds after its launch due to an O-ring failure in one of the craft's solid rocket boosters.
“Every NASA employee feels that they killed seven astronauts on that mission,even though we had nothing to do with it,” Sias said.
Sias had stepped outside at the Kennedy Space Center to watch the shuttle launch.
“As soon as it happened,I knew,” Sias said.
Seventeen years later,tragedy struck again,when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere after its 28th mission. A large piece of foam broke off the shuttle's main fuel tank during launch and struck the left wing,rendering the shuttle fatally vulnerable to the heat of re-entry.
Sias was at a restaurant near Kennedy Space Center,the intended landing site,on the day of Columbia's tragic accident.
“I was listening for the boom and I didn't hear it,and it's not like an airline that is going to be five minutes late,” Sias said. “If you don't hear the boom,something's wrong.”
To the moon and beyond
One of NASA's most exciting future projects could be its plan to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020.
“As we see people going to the moon and finding new features and discoveries,I think exploration of a planetary body is going to be exciting,” said 35-year NASA veteran Doug Cooke,deputy associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.
And this moon mission will not be a simple re-run of the famous Apollo landings of the sixties.
“The areas that we're looking at for an outpost are dramatic in nature,” Cooke said. “It's not like the Apollo sites,where they landed in smooth terrain. These areas will be very dramatic in their elevation,and I think they'll be very exciting.”
Scientists are interested in landing near the moon's polar regions,where large,dark craters could hold ice.
Ultimately,NASA hopes to create a long-term lunar outpost that will allow for more extensive scientific experimentation.
“There's still much to be learned at the moon that we weren't able to do in three-day missions,” Cooke said.
The moon's lack of atmosphere has left its surface unchanged by erosion,which means the soil could shed light on the 4.5 billion year history of the near-Earth part of the solar system.
The moon also provides NASA scientists with a place to test systems that could eventually be used during manned missions to Mars.
“Part of the reason we're going to the moon is to learn to operate in a hostile environment on a planetary body,” Cooke said.
Though NASA has not yet made a Mars mission official,Cooke said that it is an ultimate target for exploration.
“Everything that we're doing is a step in that direction,and so we look forward to that in the future,” Cooke said.
Also on NASA's plate is completing a replacement vehicle for the space shuttle program,which is set to end by 2010. The retired shuttle's replacement,due for completion by March of 2015,will be a single rocket,Ares,capable of launching a six-person crew vehicle called Orion.
At a July 30 House of Representatives hearing on NASA,former Ohio senator and first American to orbit the Earth,John Glenn,noted that this timeline leaves the United States with no capacity for human spaceflight for five years,meaning American astronauts will have to be launched into space aboard Russian rockets.
“For five years,we will depend on the Russians,” said Glenn,who returned to space in 1998 at age 77. “I don't think that's a very pretty picture.”
Cunningham cited another challenge facing NASA: The administration has been forced to become more conservative and less entrepreneurial as its budget gets tighter and Congress becomes less accepting of risk.
“I don't think that NASA is what it was in the golden age,” Cunningham said. “NASA has become a whole lot more risk-averse.”
Glenn said Congress should take a long-term view of the good that may come out of NASA's research.
“Money spent on research has a way of paying off in the future,” he said.
Cooke said he hopes that NASA's upcoming moon mission will generate a great deal of public interest in the program,which could lead to even bigger projects.
“We'll be on a road to planetary exploration with people that will be very exciting,and which will lead to different destinations and new discoveries and exploration,” Cooke said.