In its 33 years of existence, the pursuits of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have provided many pivotal and poignant moments–so much so that they seem to have punctuated many of our lives to the point where we can remember “where we were when.”
On this date in 1958, Congress officially created NASA, a civilian-run program that has taken the lead in exploring the final frontier via human and mechanical space expeditions. Covering the agency from its highs to its lows, the following six magazine covers commemorate the sometimes groundbreaking, sometimes heartbreaking moments at a time when what’s next for space exploration is yet to be determined.
1. Oct. 21, 1957, Life magazine, “The Satellite”: This cover predates the creation of NASA, but it was when the Soviet Union took a lead in the space race with the launch of the satellite Sputnik I that Americans were spurred into action. The first U.S. satellite was sent into space, Explorer I, just months after Sputnik, but before the U.S. space program was formally established.
2. August 1969, Life magazine, “On the Moon”: Almost 11 years after NASA was created, its efforts successfully sent the first humans, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, to the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, and this Life magazine cover said it all: The Americans had won this leg of the space race. The movie “Apollo 11,” named for this historic spaceflight, chronicles the events leading up to this major step in space exploration.
3. February 10, 1986, Time magazine, “Space Shuttle Challenger”: A dark moment in the U.S. space program came on Jan. 28, 1986, when disaster struck the Space Shuttle Challenger just 73 seconds into its flight. An O-ring failure ultimately led to the disintegration of the spacecraft and the deaths of all seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, the first participant in the “Teachers in Space Project,” a space program for non-NASA educators.
4. Oct. 10, 1988, Time magazine, “Whew! America Returns to Space”: After a 32-month hiatus in the space shuttle program alongside an investigation into the Challenger disaster, America ventured into space again with the launch of Discovery, the first shuttle mission since the tragedy. The headline on this cover accurately captures what was a collectively tense moment for the nation.
5. Feb. 10, 2003, Time magazine, “The Columbia Is Lost”: In nearly a repeat of the Challenger disaster, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated at the conclusion of its mission on Feb. 1, 2003, when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. And like the Challenger, the ensuing investigation cited technical and organizational issues as the cause.
6. July 2, 2011, The Economist, “The End of the Space Age”: With the return of the shuttle Atlantis on July 21, 2011, the space shuttle program came to an end. And, while there is disagreement on where to go from here in terms of space exploration, future plans are likely to be much more advanced, more expensive and, at least theoretically for now, an international collaboration instead of a singular nation’s pursuit.