On 29 July 1958, Dwight David Eisenhower, the thirty-fourth president of the United States, signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, officially establishing America's civilian space agency. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which rapidly became known by the more familiar acronym NASA, would commence operations on 1 October that year. Primarily, it comprised around 8,000 employees recruited from a government research agency known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), based in Langley, Virginia.

There had been a lot of questions asked of the Eisenhower administration after the humiliating shock of the first Sputnik satellite launch, and then Sputnik II, which had carried a small dog into orbit. The president tried to be reassuring, but he fell short. A nation's pride in its accomplishments and abilities had been badly bruised. Privately, Eisenhower knew that America was already creating an impressive missile booster programme, a bristling arsenal based on captured wartime rockets and using German scientists. He also knew that the first generation of military spy satellites was under advanced development. However this was top-secret, classified stuff, and he couldn't reveal either programme to the public. One thing he could do to assuage public perception was to set up a civilian space agency - open and accountable, assigned to carrying out sophisticated manned and unmanned flight programmes, and steadfastly dedicated to the task of taking the new high ground of space.

The heads of President Eisenhower's Science Advisory Committee had argued that science should be assured of a place in setting up the new space agency. In its submitted report, Introduction to Outer Space, the committee aggressively argued that resolving scientific and physiological questions should be a priority, that the value of launching satellites and sending rockets into space had to be measured in scientific terms, and that the United States should not arbitrarily engage in some sort of long-term race into space with the Soviet Union.

James Killian was Eisenhower's chief scientific adviser and head of the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), and he strongly endorsed this position with the president. His views were shared by many of his colleagues, but overwhelmingly and ultimately it was not the popular choice. Quite simply, America was not prepared to adopt a subservient or secondary position in space flight technology and was intent on beating the smug Russians. A rational, objective schedule and a role for science played little or no part in many influential opinions.

Shortly after the creation of NASA, a search was initiated for suitable candidates interested in becoming the space agency's first group of astronauts. Several career skills were listed for evaluation early on in the process, including those that might have scientific or medical applications. But ultimately, it was decided to restrict the selection to military test pilots. The seven men eventually selected as NASA's Project Mercury astronauts unexpectedly became adored national heroes, even before they had left the Washington press conference that had announced their names to the world.

The characters and carefully polished images of those Original Seven astronauts set a superlative for the patriotic, hero test pilot, who would risk his life for God, America, the military and his family in order to conquer and explore space for the free world. These so-called "All-American Boys'' would become the nation's much-lauded Cold War warriors in an age of uncertainty, international tension and a highly unpopular conflict gathering ugly momentum in Southeast Asia. Years later, an appropriate new sobriquet would be thrust upon them by popular author Tom Wolfe; thereafter they would become known as members of an exclusive brotherhood with an almost indefinable quality, known as "The Right Stuff.''

Two years after the creation of NASA, the Democrats boldly threw themselves into the 1960 presidential election, their hopes riding on the shoulders of a popular young senator from Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. With his brother Bobby's support, Kennedy took up the daunting challenge of defeating Republican candidate Richard Nixon, employing innovative political tactics and shamelessly exploiting a receptive media. Kennedy's running mate Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Democratic majority leader in the senate, made competitiveness in space a big issue, and Nixon found he could not match Johnson's enthusiasm, or Kennedy's stirring rhetoric. Like Eisenhower, Nixon was unable to reveal what was really happening with America's military-based rocket and satellite programmes.

The election was extremely close, but Kennedy and Johnson prevailed. Now they had to make good on their promises to haul America squarely into the unknown frontier of a rapidly escalating space race.

As good as the Mercury Seven's flying skills and Right Stuff qualities might have been, these men were essentially trained, top-notch pilots, generally with sound mechanical or engineering backgrounds and skills. They were not scientists. Although several experiments were carried out during Project Mercury - mostly physiological -science was never at the forefront of mission planning, nor in the astronauts' minds. Their primary objectives were to survive each given assignment and to report on the engineering aspects of their flight into space. They would tolerate being plastered with sticky sensors, and having their body wastes retrieved for post-flight scrutiny under the microscopes of doctors, but they did not regard themselves as potential polyps or lunar lab rats. These were test pilots, aviators, fighter jocks - noble warriors for the working day. Science was the thing that got them where they had to go, and they appreciated this, but their job was to check out the mighty beasts of carriage, and to make them less dangerous for the next guy in the flight rotation.

On 12 April 1961, NASA stood proud and ready to send an American astronaut into space for the first time. The historic launch of US Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard, Jr., was a mere three weeks away. But this was the day that the United States narrowly lost the undeclared race, when the Soviet Union strapped a young Air Force lieutenant named Yuri Gagarin into a spherical Vostok spacecraft and launched him on a single, attention-grabbing orbit of the Earth.

Not only were the citizens of the United States shaken out of their complacency, but an influential media was unimpressed by the fact that the nation had been caught off-guard. Journalists and commentators began hammering home the point that this was not only a challenge to America's leadership by an old enemy, but also to the nation's perceived supremacy in space. Congressional advocates began campaigning for a competitive national effort to outdo the Soviets in space, as did many highly placed government officials.

In a bid to see what could be done, President Kennedy sought the advice of his vice president and also serving chairman of the National Space Council, Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was instructed to conduct a survey of the national space programme and to make a determination about creating a dynamic new project that would elevate the United States into a superior and possibly unassailable role in manned space flight. The vice president began consulting with the NASA hierarchy, key members of Congress, and Defense Department officials. This resulted in the promulgation of a lengthy report that finally reached the desk of the president. He read the report, and liked what he saw. On 25 May 1961, less than three weeks after America had finally launched Alan Shepard into space on a fifteen-minute sub-orbital mission, an inspired President Kennedy made a dramatic national commitment before a special assembly of Congress. The goal, he stated, would be nothing less than placing a man on the Moon and returning him to the Earth before the end of that decade. With this presidential declaration came the impetus to expand the space programme well beyond the short, one-man Mercury missions.

Although the objective was the Moon, there was no immediate call for a protracted programme of exploration, or even scientific research. Many interpreted the Kennedy plan as a simple mandate - to get American astronauts to the Moon and bring them back safely. No only that, but to do it before the Soviet Union. Science and exploration were incidental to the task. They would come later - perhaps.

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