On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union had sent the satellite Sputnik to orbit around the Earth. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded in 1958 by President Eisenhower and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson so the United States could develop a state-of-the-art space exploration program that would outdo the Soviet Union's program. The U.S. was in the middle of the Cold War with Russia and wanted to achieve technological dominance.
It's not as if the United States was oblivious to the exploration of space and the Russians woke up our leaders -- it's more like the Russian successes gave American leaders the push they needed. There already were U.S. plans for satellites as part of the International Geophysical Year, but after Sputnik, the United States felt the need for more rapid development of space exploration and formal coordination under a national space agency.
There was some debate about whether the new agency should fall under the auspices of the military or remain a civilian operation. Both the Army and Air Force were working with missiles at the time, and some believed this related closely to satellite and space work. Congress -- led by Sen. Johnson -- and appointees of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, began researching and discussing how to form an agency. President Eisenhower's draft legislation originally named NASA the "National Aeronautics and Space Agency," but a consultant to Sen. Johnson suggested changing the last word to administration to give NASA more perceived authority when coordinating with many other government agencies.
Congress signed the Space Act into law in July 1958 with eight objectives that included expanding human knowledge of space, improving usefulness of aeronautical and space vehicles, preserving the United States as a leader in space science and technology and cooperating with other nations in the work included in the act. Keith Glennan was sworn in as NASA's first administrator on Oct. 1, 1958, just a few days short of the one-year anniversary of Sputnik's orbit [source: The Birth of NASA].
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