If you heard champagne corks popping on August 6, it was for a good reason. That was the staff at NASA celebrating the first birthday of the Curiosity mission. The rover landed on Mars on August 6, 2012, and has been sending data back to Earth ever since.
The mission is an enormous (and ongoing) success, but it wasn’t always like this. After a good start, launching monkeys into space in 1948 and 1949, the U.S. lost the lead in exploring outer space. The Soviet Union launched the first communications satellite, Sputnik I, in 1957, and put the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. What followed was the headlong rush to the big goal. NASA launched Project Mercury, which consisted of short-duration suborbital and orbital missions in craft piloted by a single astronaut. The next mission, Project Gemini had longer missions with spacewalks, spacecraft rendezvous, and docking. All of this work culminated in the Apollo program, which sent teams of three astronauts to the moon. Six of these were successful, enabling 12 men to walk on the lunar surface. For many of us, even a passing mention of Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo stirs memories of NASA’s glory days.
While the U.S. was making headlines around the world for its supremacy in the space race, Nikita Khrushchev, the volatile premiere of the Soviet Union, did his best to remain relevant on this planet, mixing absurd buffoonery with wily strategy. He allegedly protested a speech at a U.N. meeting by banging his shoe on his desk, and separately played up the capabilities of Communism by threatening to bury every civilization that embraced capitalism. These sorts of statements were nothing short of laughable, but nobody laughed during the Cuban missile crisis or the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Eventually the U.S. and the Soviet Union met somewhere in the middle, both in geopolitics and space exploration. Leonid Brezhnev forced Khrushchev out of office, and the détente of the early 1970s led to the first cooperation between astronauts and cosmonauts in 1975.
The end of the space race brought NASA’s budget back to earth. It peaked in 1965 at $33.5 billion (adjusted for inflation in 2007 dollars), and in 2012 it was about half that. To put that into perspective, in 1965 NASA’s budget was 4.3 percent of the federal budget; these days it’s 0.5 percent. Despite the smaller budget, NASA manages to get quite a bit done. It works from 10 locations throughout the U.S. in areas as diverse as Earth science, planetary science, astrophysics, heliophysics, aeronautics, space technology, exploration, space operations, and education.
It’s too bad Khrushchev isn’t here. Nearly 60 years after he predicted a proletariat takeover, communism hasn’t yet proven itself capable of burying anything … or landing a rover on Mars, for that matter.