Viewport: NASA’s First 50
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, November 2008
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the February/March 2008 issue of Air & Space.
Just weeks after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began work, 50 years ago this month, it launched its first spacecraft, Pioneer 1. The spacecraft went farther than any had gone before—more than 70,000 miles—but didn’t achieve its goal of lunar orbit. A New York Times editorial called Pioneer a “glorious failure.” Very quickly thereafter of course, the agency did reach the moon, and the glories of Apollo made the failures along the way seem like necessary steps to finally getting it right.
This issue of Air & Space celebrates NASA’s 50th anniversary. The 50 photographs that curators in our space history division have chosen as NASA’s most memorable (p. 30) remind us that NASA’s first 50 years saw far more glories than failures. Looking at them, I’m struck by how many of NASA’s greatest moments are reflected in the National Air and Space Museum’s artifacts: the Mercury capsule Friendship 7 in which John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth; the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, which carried astronauts to lunar orbit and brought them home from the first moon landing; the Mariner, Pioneer, and Viking planetary explorers; a full-scale test model of the Hubble Space Telescope; and the space shuttle Enterprise. We also display the artifacts of NASA’s aeronautical research, including the North American X-15, the fastest winged aircraft in history.
We’ve been proud to host the exhibition “Space: A Journey to Our Future,” which has been visited by thousands in the months it has occupied a first-floor gallery of the Museum on the Mall (see In the Museum, p. 14). It shows young people the marvels in store for anyone who plans to make space exploration a career. I’m especially pleased that it has been here in the National Air and Space Museum, where it ties the promise of NASA’s next 50 years to the achievements of its first 50.
And that brings me back to the aptly named Pioneer. There were more than a dozen probes in the Pioneer series, and many of them performed brilliantly. When Pioneer 10 transmitted a last, faint signal to Earth in January 2003, it was more than 7.6 billion miles away—the second greatest distance that an object sent from Earth has ever traveled (only Voyager 1 has gone farther) and 100,000 times farther than its little 1958 predecessor. (Models of both Pioneers are on display in the Museum, by the way.) As NASA begins to build rockets, spacecraft, and an astronaut corps to return us to the moon (see “Fly Us to the Moon,” p. 48), it’s a good time to wonder how much more the next round of lunar voyages will accomplish, especially when we recall what the Pioneers achieved after the first glorious failure. What the space program reaches for today wouldn’t have been possible if the engineers of the early Pioneer program hadn’t had the sand to keep trying.