In the wake of Sputnik in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded to the Soviet challenge and to public concern and excitement by reorganizing the American space effort. One step was to create a new government agency to conduct civilian space exploration.
In 1958 congress established the new agency: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The armed services retained control of separate military space programs
Prior to the creation of NASA, ongoing studies in aeronautics and space science were conducted under the auspices of the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). NASA acquired many scientific and technical programs from these agencies after its formation.
When NASA formally started operations on October 1, 1958, the agency and its administrator had broad authority to select goals and implement programs of space exploration.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed T. Keith Glennan as NASA's first administrator in August 1958. As a new enterprise, space exploration confronted an array of difficult scientific and technical problems. Three challenges stood out:
1. developing rockets that could carry machines and humans into space
2. learning about the space environment
3. taking the first steps toward human exploration
Under Glennan's leadership, NASA made advances in all of these areas. Engineers started development of the Saturn family of rockets that would later carry astronauts to the Moon. In conjunction with universities, NASA began a variety of science missions. But the greatest public excitement came with Glennan's formation of the first human exploration effort, Project Mercury. With the first selection of Mercury astronauts in 1959, public fascination in space reached a fever pitch.
Even with Project Mercury in its infancy, NASA managers contemplated projects to follow its completion. They realized that a large booster rocket would be necessary for heavy payloads and an eventual Moon mission.
The Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), in Huntsville, Alabama, under the technical direction of Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), was already working on a new large rocket, the Saturn. In July 1960, the Department of Defense transferred the ABMA and its large booster projects to NASA. This formed the basis for the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. This transfer reflected President Eisenhower's policy that civilian and military space programs should be separately managed, but work closely together.
This excerpt from NASA Administrator Glennan's diary reveals the tensions surrounding the transfer of Wernher von Braun and his rocket team from the Army to NASA.
“I had not realized at that time how much of a pet of the Army's was Von Braun and his operation. He was their one avenue to possible fame in the space business.”
-NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan