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Decade-Defining Brands: NASA


In the 1960s, the national obsession was the final frontier.


Thank the late, unlamented Soviet Union for cordless tools, scratch-resistant lenses and precision global-positioning software.

Each is a commercial application of new technology developed by NASA following the mad rush to catch up after the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 -- the world's first artificial satellite -- in October of 1957.

Sputnik jitters can hardly be imagined today, but 52 years ago, Russia's basketball-sized satellite underscored what many then believed to be a failure of US science, technology and education.

All the political flapdoodle produced a new agency in 1958: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA grew out of concerns about national defense - rockets capable of launching a satellite were then wondrous things, and many remembered the V2 rockets that Nazi Germany launched against England in World War II. The fear: A rocket capable of launching a satellite could easily carry a nuclear warhead to strike the US and Western Europe.

The space race between the US and the Soviet Union came to parallel the arms race. After the usual bureaucratic squabbling between the Army's Explorer team and the Navy's Vanguard counterpart, Uncle Sam had a brainstorm: Develop both simultaneously by playing one against the other. Injecting competition into a government program? Amazing - and progress was swift. In January 1958, the US launched Explorer I, the satellite that discovered the magnetic radiation belts around the earth, named for lead investigator James Van Allen. It was a stunning achievement and underscored how little we knew.

With NASA coordinating efforts, the US soon built and launched the Echo, Telstar, Relay and Syncom satellites. In a deft public relations ploy, President Kennedy announced plans to put a man on the moon before 1970 - a decision that grabbed public interest and kept the tax dollars flowing to NASA.

The space program advanced in carefully planned steps. In May 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space - a 15-minute suborbital trip that filled the next day's newspapers. John Glenn became the first US astronaut to orbit the earth in February 1962. Dubbed Project Mercury, it showed that spacecraft could be put into orbit and safely retrieved at sea.
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