The Many Worlds of NASA, Part 1

Writing for “NASA” is a bit vague. It’s rather like working for Disney or even the Department of Defense–given the diversity of said organizations, you could be anywhere from the upper echelons of the organization to the front line. Today I’m going to go take a crack at explaining some of the different functions NASA performs and how it structures itself to carry out those functions. I will cover NASA Headquarters in  my discussion about the NASA centers. Apologies in advance for the length.

Mission Directorates

As of this writing (2017), NASA has four primary mission directorates, which cover the various activities the agency has been charged to perform. These directorates have been reorganized from time to time, but the following descriptions will do for now for explaining what NASA does. Every one of these organizations has a certain pride of place, and it is not uncommon for individuals from each directorate to believe that they are “the real NASA.” They’re all correct, as you’ll see, but only partially.

Aeronautics Research (AERO)

Before it became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958, the core of NASA was the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA, pronounced en-ay-see-ay, by the initials). Formed in 1915 to advance the state of aircraft technologies in the U.S. NACA was charged with researching, developing, and sharing useful technologies in cooperation with industry and academia. It would take another 43 years before President Eisenhower decided to kick things up a notch and increase the agency’s scope of responsibility to encompass space exploration. Up to that point, NACA was building wind tunnels and testing aircraft at places like Edward Air Force Base. Today, NASA has its own aeronautics research facility at Edwards, along with several other test facilities across the country, inherited from NACA (I’ll discuss the NASA Centers later). These aeronautics functions remain, with the agency continuing to research and develop technologies that improve aircraft safety, performance, efficiency, and environmental friendliness.

Human Exploration and Operations (HEOMD)

As part of the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, NASA became responsible for the United States’ peaceful efforts at space exploration (while the Department of Defense was given responsibility for long-range missile and military satellite development). Under this umbrella included human exploration, starting with the Mercury program and eventually leading to Gemini, the Apollo lunar missions, Skylab, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station (ISS), the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, and the current commercial crew efforts. That’s a lot of work and a lot of money, as this effort has included translating intercontinental ballistic missiles into vehicles safe enough to risk putting people on top of them. (Note: that whole process required inventing a whole new approach to management, not just technology, and is worth studying on its own.)

They also are responsible for developing the spacecraft, controls, spacesuits, life support systems, food, and other equipment necessary to keep humans in space. In the 21st century, they are also funding and helping ensure that commercially designed and built (vs. NASA-supervised) rockets are safe enough to carry astronauts to ISS. They are also developing SLS and Orion to eventually send humans beyond Earth orbit again. However, since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, a lot of my non-space friends have asked me, with a perfectly straight face and genuine concern, “Is NASA closed?” No. That said, they are in a preparatory phase, much like they were from 1975 to 1981, when Apollo was done and the Space Shuttle had not yet arrived. Commercial companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada are looking to launch NASA astronauts from U.S. soil again in the 2018-2019 time frame. For now, all of our astronauts on ISS are launched from and landed on the steppes of Kazakhstan, which is to say, our old Cold War rival, Russia.

Science (SMD)

In the process of getting people to the Moon, we sent robots first, to take close-up pictures of the surface, then landers to take samples and determine that it was not, in fact, made of cheese or quicksand, for that matter. Those early robotic explorers led to missions elsewhere in the solar system.

NASA can take pride in the fact that they are the only national space program (so far) to send spacecraft successfully to every planet from Mercury to Pluto, as well as some asteroids. The Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, as well as Voyager 1 and 2 have left the solar system; New Horizons, which flew by Pluto in 2015, will swing by a couple of outer solar system objects before it heads for the deep black. There are six active NASA missions currently on or in orbit around the planet Mars and a mapping satellite (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter or LRO) orbiting the Moon. The Juno mission is orbiting the planet Jupiter. The Cassini mission is making its final orbits of the planet Saturn before it eventually plunges into the ringed planet’s atmosphere.

Beyond the scouting of our local neighborhood, NASA-built telescopes on Earth and in space are collecting data about our Sun and the universe at large in a variety of wavelengths, from infrared to gamma rays. Hubble is the most famous telescope, perhaps because it looks at space in wavelengths we can relate to (visible, ultraviolet, near-infrared) and because it was launched and serviced by astronaut crews on the Space Shuttle. Hubble will not get another servicing mission but will be kept busy until it runs out of power or breaks down. Hopefully that won’t happen until its bigger cousin, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launches next year. Other telescopes are also observing long-term trends on Earth itself–its climate, oceans, clouds, cryosphere (ice/snow), dust, and lightning, among other things. Different government organizations are responsible for more near-term concerns:

  • Landsat, run by the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA, handles land use.
  • The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) series observes weather and long-term climate; those satellites are handled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
  • NOAA is also responsible for the Search and Rescue Satellite (SARSAT) series, which listens for mariners, aircraft, and other travelers in distress.

NASA’s Science Directorate, then, has the job of developing uncrewed telescopes, orbiters, and landers for collecting data about our sun, solar system, and the broader universe out there. They partner with industry and academia to build the various instruments aboard these vehicles and to process the data they collect.

Space Technology (STMD)

This organization is relatively new within the agency. As its name implies, it is responsible for developing “the crosscutting, pioneering, new technologies and capabilities needed by the agency to achieve its current and future missions.” Some of that requires performing or paying a company or academic institution to conduct pure research and development. Some of their work involves combing industry to see if something the agency needs already exists. “Crosscutting” technologies at NASA are those that could serve more than one purpose or multiple missions, including hardware, instruments, and software.

I’ll cover the NASA centers in the next post.


About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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