Sputnik kicked off an intensely competitive space race in which the two superpowers sought to outdo each other for the world's accolades. At a fundamental level a primary reason for NASA's emergence was because of U.S. rivalry during the Cold War with the Soviet Union—a broad contest over the ideologies and allegiances of the nonaligned nations of the world in which space exploration emerged as a major area of contest. From the latter 1940s the Department of Defense had pursued research in rocketry and upper atmospheric sciences as a means of assuring American hegemony. A part of the strategy required not only developing the technology for war, but also pursuing peaceful scientific activities as a means of demonstrating U.S. leadership worldwide. A major step forward came in 1955 when Eisenhower approved a plan to orbit a scientific satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) for the period 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958, a cooperative effort to gather scientific data about the Earth. The Soviet Union quickly followed suit, announcing plans to orbit its own satellite.
The Naval Research Laboratory's Project Vanguard was chosen on 9 September 1955 to support the IGY effort. The Eisenhower administration did so largely because the Vanguard program did not interfere with high-priority ballistic missile development programs—it used the non-military Viking rocket as its basis—while a U.S. Army proposal to use the Redstone ballistic missile as the launch vehicle waited in the wings. The Redstone was being developed by Wernher von Braun and a team of engineers as a response to ballistic missile advances by the Soviet Union and was designed to carry a warhead a distance of two hundred miles on a preplanned trajectory. Project Vanguard enjoyed exceptional publicity throughout the second half of 1955 and all of 1956, but the technological demands upon the program were too great and the funding levels too small to ensure success.
A full-scale crisis resulted when the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, as its IGY entry. This had a "Pearl Harbor" effect on American public opinion, creating an illusion of a technological gap and providing the impetus for increased spending for aerospace endeavors, technical and scientific educational programs, and the chartering of new federal agencies to manage air and space research and development.
Sputnik led directly to several critical efforts aimed at "catching up" to the Soviet Union's space achievements, among them: (1) a wide-ranging review of the civil and military space programs of the United States (scientific satellite efforts and ballistic missile development); (2) establishment of a presidential science adviser in the White House who had responsibility for overseeing the activities of the federal government in science and technology; (3) creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Defense and consolidation of several space activities under centralized management; (4) creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to manage civil space operations for the benefit "of all mankind" by means of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958; and (5) passage of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 to provide federal funding for education in scientific and technical disciplines.
More immediately, the United States launched its first Earth satellite on 31 January 1958, when Explorer 1 documented the existence of radiation zones encircling the Earth. Shaped by the Earth's magnetic field, what came to be called the Van Allen radiation belt partially dictates the electrical charges in the atmosphere and the solar radiation that reaches Earth. The Explorer 1 launch also began a series of scientific missions to the Moon and planets in the latter 1950s and early 1960s.
As a direct result of this crisis, NASA began operations on 1 October 1958, absorbing the resources of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics intact, including its 8,000 employees, an annual budget of $100 million, three major research laboratories—Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory—and two smaller test facilities. NASA quickly incorporated other organizations into the new agency. These included the space science group of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed by the California Institute of Technology for the U.S. Army, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama. Eventually NASA created several other centers and by the early 1960s had ten located around the country.
NASA began to conduct space missions within months of its creation, and during its first twenty years NASA carried out several major programs:
In no case were these cooperative ventures with other nations, because the Cold War patina that overlay everything done by NASA during its first thirty years necessitated that the United States demonstrate its unique technological capability vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.