44 Historic NASA Photos From The Glory Days Of Space Exploration

Published April 28, 2015
Updated December 9, 2021

From the first Moon landing to jaw-dropping spacewalks, these classic NASA images will take you back to the early Space Age.

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44 Historic NASA Photos From The Glory Days Of Space Exploration
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The formation of NASA has its origins in the Cold War. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik — a 183-pound, basketball-sized satellite — in 1957, American leaders were caught off guard. Since the United States wanted to be a global leader when it came to technology, the country decided to expand the Cold War "battlefield" into outer space.

About one year after the Sputnik launch, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. This officially established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an agency that would help Americans catch up to — and hopefully surpass — their Soviet rivals in the so-called "Space Race."

In the following years, NASA launched a sequence of programs — Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo — that would systematically check off all the steps needed to explore space. Mercury focused on getting a man into orbit. Gemini put two-men teams into space to maneuver a craft and perform spacewalks. Apollo headed to the Moon — and our world would change.

These were the glory days of manned spaceflight. On July 20, 1969, the scientists at NASA completed one of the most amazing feats in human history when two astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. The gallery of NASA photos above celebrates the people who made that milestone happen, and who built on its success in the years afterward.

The Early Days Of NASA

Vintage NASA Photos

Huffington PostIn one of the most iconic NASA photos, Buzz Aldrin takes the first selfie in space while aboard Gemini 12 in 1966.

Even before NASA, Congress had already founded an agency to help the United States play catch-up when it came to technology. The National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) was an independent government agency brought together on March 3, 1915. This agency's primary purpose was to catch up with European airplane technology.

But NACA engineers were already dreaming of space travel. So when NASA began operations on October 1, 1958, they absorbed NACA intact: its 8,000 employees, and an annual budget of $100 million.

Other organizations also consolidated into NASA. One notable group was the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, which had just launched the first U.S. satellite — Explorer 1 — earlier that same year.

According to NACA engineer Robert Hendricks, "The transition between the two organizations was seamless... So in the early days, the attitude was still 'Let's get the job done.'"

This isn't to say there weren't issues. "We were having mostly explosions with our rockets, said Charlie Duke, an astronaut in the Apollo program. "It seemed like 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... blow-up more than lift-off back in those days."

Eventually, NASA got with the program — or, to be more precise, several different programs.

NASA Photos: Capturing The Space Age

Earth From Space

Huffington PostA photo of the Earth taken from space. July 11, 1969.

Project Mercury was NASA's first man-in-space program, and it began in 1958. Its objectives included orbiting a manned spacecraft around Earth, studying human function in space, and returning that human back home safely. A single Mercury capsule held just one astronaut, and a total of six manned spaceflights occurred during the Mercury project.

As one might expect, there were usually cameras around to document these exciting moments — capturing the attention of everyone from ordinary Americans to top leaders of the United States.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy set the stage for America's emerging space program before a joint session of Congress. He said, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Fueled by the president's enthusiasm and competition with the Soviet Union, NASA began to take shape. As they prepared for lunar missions, they established the Launch Operations Center in 1962. However, the name of that center would soon change. Shortly after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the center was renamed the John F. Kennedy Space Center.

Just a couple years later, Project Gemini took off in 1965 and lasted until 1966. Named after the constellation with the Latin name for "twins," a Gemini capsule held two astronauts instead of just one. This program boasted 10 crewed flights, a few more than the Mercury program.

The Gemini program saw its fair share of accomplishments. Gemini 4 showcased the first American spacewalk, and Gemini 11 flew higher than any NASA spacecraft had at that point. And all along the way, cameras were present to capture these exciting milestones, preserving them forever.

The Apollo program is of course known for its Moon missions. Perhaps the most famous was Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong made a "small step" onto the lunar surface in 1969. Not only was it the first time that mankind left the Earth's orbit to visit another "world," but it also set the stage for further exploration. Apollo put a total of 12 men on the Moon during its run.

Sadly, the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972 remains the most recent time that humans have been to the Moon.

After checking out these vintage NASA photos, read the true story of Apollo 13 and how it became NASA's most famous "successful failure." Then, learn some fascinating facts about space.

John has been writing for All That Is Interesting since 2014 and now lives in Madrid, Spain, where he writes and consults on international development projects in East Africa.
Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
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Schellhase, John. "44 Historic NASA Photos From The Glory Days Of Space Exploration." AllThatsInteresting.com, April 28, 2015, https://allthatsinteresting.com/vintage-nasa-photos. Accessed May 23, 2024.