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History of the Goddard Space Flight Center

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Title: History of the Goddard Space Flight Center  
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History of the Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Aerial view of Goddard
Agency overview
Formed March 1, 1959
Jurisdiction Federal government of the United States
Headquarters Greenbelt, MD

Goddard Space Flight Center is NASA's first, and oldest, space center. It is named after Dr. Robert H. Goddard, the father of modern rocketry. Throughout its history, the center has managed, developed, and operated many notable missions, including the Cosmic Background Explorer, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS), the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Solar Dynamics Observatory.


  • Origin of GSFC 1
  • Role of GSFC 2
  • History 3
    • 1959: The first year 3.1
    • 1960 - 1969 3.2
    • 1970 - 1979 3.3
    • 1980 - 1989 3.4
    • 1990 - 1999 3.5
    • 2000 - present 3.6
  • People 4
    • Center Directors 4.1
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Origin of GSFC

Photo from the opening day ceremony of the Goddard Space Flight Center on March 16, 1961.

On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. When it began operations on October 1, 1958, NASA consisted mainly of the four laboratories and some 80 employees of the government's 46-year-old research agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

GSFC was established on May 1, 1959 as NASA's first space flight center.

Its original charter was to perform five major functions on behalf of NASA: technology development and fabrication, planning, scientific research, technical operations, and project management. Even today, the Center is organized into several Directorates, each charged with one of these key functions.

Role of GSFC

Until May 1, 1959, NASA's presence in Greenbelt, Maryland was known as the Beltsville Space Center. It was then renamed the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), after Dr. Robert H. Goddard, the father of modern rocketry. Its first 157 employees transferred from the United States Navy's Project Vanguard missile program, but continued their work at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. while the Center was under construction.

On August 1, 1958, Senator J. Glenn Beall of Maryland announced in a press release that the new "outer space agency" (NASA) would establish a laboratory and plant at Greenbelt, Maryland. This was the first time public notice was drawn to what was to become Goddard Space Flight Center. Planning of the new Center continued through the rest of 1958 and by the end of the year events were ripening.


1959: The first year

On January 15, 1959, by action of the NASA Administrator, four divisions (Construction Division, Space Sciences Division, Theoretical Division, and the Vanguard Division) of NASA were designated as the new Beltsville Space Center. In a meeting held on February 12, 1959, for the purpose of surveying the organization and functions of the Beltsville Space Center, it was generally agreed that the Center probably would perform five major interrelated space science functions on behalf of NASA: Project Management, Research, Development and fabrication, Advanced planning, and Operations. On May 1, 1959, Dr. T. Keith Glennan, NASA Administrator, in a public release, formally announced that the Beltsville Space Center would be re-designated the Goddard Space Flight Center "in commemoration of Dr. Robert H. Goddard, American pioneer in rocket research." In May 1959, Leopold Winkler, who had transferred to NASA with the Vanguard program, was appointed Chief, Technical Services for Goddard. And in September 1959, Dr. Harry J. Goett was named Director of Goddard Space Flight Center. Goett came from Ames Research Center, where he had been Chief of the Full Scale and Flight Research Division.

On April 24, 1959, construction of the new space laboratory began on a site located on a 550-acre tract formerly part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Center at Beltsville, Maryland. By September 1960, Building 1 was fully occupied and other buildings were well underway. Although much of the occupancy was on a temporary basis and the personnel complement was widely scattered from Anacostia, D.C., to Silver Spring, Maryland, and points between, the Goddard Space Flight Center had become a physical reality.[1]

1960 - 1969

Goddard Space Flight Center contributed to Project Mercury, America's first manned space flight program. The Center assumed a lead role for the project in its early days and managed the first 250 employees involved in the effort, who were stationed at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. However, the size and scope of Project Mercury soon prompted NASA to build a new "Manned Spacecraft Center", now the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas. Project Mercury's personnel and activities were transferred there in 1961.

During the early manned space flight years, including the missions of Project Mercury, Project Gemini and the Apollo program, GSFC was responsible for the management and operations of the communication networks. In 1961, Goddard tracking and data engineers were given responsibility for designing and managing the Mercury Space Flight Network (MSFN), the first consolidated communication network to support manned space flight. Later, GSFC was responsible for the design, management, and operation of the Manned Space Flight Network (MSFN), Spacecraft Tracking and Data Acquisition Network (STADAN), and finally the Spaceflight Tracking and Data Network (STDN).[2]

In April 1962, NASA launched Ariel 1 - a joint effort between Goddard and the United Kingdom and the first international satellite. Researchers in the U.K. developed the instruments for the satellite, and Goddard managed development of the satellite and the overall project.[3]

1970 - 1979

The ending of the Apollo program brought a new era to Goddard. The drive to the Moon had unified NASA and garnered tremendous support for space efforts from Congress and the country in general. But once that goal was achieved, NASA's role, mission and funding became a little less clear. In some ways, Goddard's focus on scientific missions and a diversity of projects helped protect it from some of the cutbacks that accompanied the end of the Apollo program in 1972. Yet despite the cutbacks, the work at Goddard was still expanding into new areas, such as technology development and leveraging satellites to take advantage of the Space Shuttle.[3]

1980 - 1989

Goddard Space Flight Center remained involved in the manned space flight program, providing computer support and radar tracking of flights through a worldwide network of ground stations called the Spacecraft Tracking and Data Acquisition Network (STDN). However, the Center focused primarily on designing unmanned satellites and spacecraft for scientific research missions. Goddard pioneered several fields of spacecraft development, including modular spacecraft design, which reduced costs and made it possible to repair satellites in orbit. Goddard's Solar Max satellite, launched in 1980, was repaired by astronauts on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984.

1990 - 1999

The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, remains in service and continues to grow in capability thanks to its modular design and multiple servicing missions by the Space Shuttle. Early this decade, another mission Goddard managed, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory launched, which observed 2,700 gammy ray-bursts and definitively showed that the majority of gamma-ray bursts must originate in distant galaxies and therefore must be enormously energetic. A quote from the official history of Goddard states:

In short, Goddard's work in the early 1990s helped bring NASA out of the dark post-Challenger era and helped create in a new energy, enthusiasm and curiosity about both planet Earth and other bodies in the universe. We now had the technology to reach back to the very beginning of time and the outer reaches of the universe.[2]

2000 - present

Today, the Center remains involved in each of NASA's key programs. Goddard has developed more instruments for Solar System.[4] The Center's contribution to the Earth Science Enterprise includes several spacecraft in the Earth Observing System fleet as well as EOSDIS, a science data collection, processing, and distribution system. For the manned space flight program, Goddard develops tools for use by astronauts during extra-vehicular activity, and built and operates the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Solar Dynamics Observatory.


Notable scientists and engineers from GSFC include:

  • John C. Mather - an American astrophysicist, cosmologist and Nobel Prize in Physics laureate for his work on COBE with George Smoot.
  • James E. Hansen - The head the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. He is best known for his research in the field of climatology, his testimony on climate change to congressional committees in 1988 that helped raise broad awareness of global warming, and his advocacy of action to limit the impacts of climate change.
  • Orlando Figueroa - formerly, the Director, Applied Engineering & Technology at the NASA GSFC (as the "Director of Engineering" he manages the full scope of engineering activities at Goddard), previously the NASA Mars Czar Director for Mars Exploration and the Director for the Solar System Division in the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters
  • Marc Kuchner
  • Gene Carl Feldman
  • Robert Bindschadler
  • Fred Espenak - an American astrophysicist, best known for his work on eclipse predictions
  • Lissette Martinez
  • Beth A. Brown - astrophysicist [5]

Center Directors

Reference for table[6]
# Director Start End Term length Started with NASA Notable accomplishments
12 Christopher R. Scolese[7] March 5, 2012 Present Present Former NASA associate administrator and NASA's chief engineer at NASA Headquarters
11 Robert Strain August 4, 2008 March 4, 2012 4 years 2008
Arthur F. "Rick" Obenschain (Acting) May 7, 2008 August 3, 2008 ~3 months
10 Dr. Edward J. Weiler August 2, 2004 May 6, 2008 4 years 1978 Former Associate Administrator for NASA's Space Science Enterprise (1998-2004).
Former Chief Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope (1979-1998)
9 Alphonso (Al) V. Diaz January 12, 1998 August 2, 2004 6 years 1964
8 Joseph H. Rothenberg October 4, 1995 January 12, 1998 3 years 1983 Former Associate Administrator for Human Space Flight, NASA HQ
Former President, Universal Space Network, Inc.[8]
Joseph H. Rothenberg (Acting) April 30, 1995 October 4, 1995
7 Dr. John M. Klineberg July 1, 1990 April 29, 1995 5 years 25 years total Former Center Director, NASA Glenn Research Center, Ohio
Former Deputy Associate Administrator for Aeronautics and Space Technology, NASA HQ
Former CEO, Space Systems/Loral, California[8]
6 Dr. John W. Townsend, Jr. June 22, 1987 June 30, 1990 3 years 1958
5 Dr. Noel W. Hinners June 14, 1982 June 22, 1987 5 years 1972 Former Associate Administrator for Space Science, NASA HQ
Former Director, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Former Senior Vice President, Lockheed Martin[8]
4 Dr. A. Thomas Young February 1, 1980 March 22, 1982 3 years 12 years total
Robert (Ed) Smylie (Acting Director) June 2, 1979 January 31, 1980
3 Dr. Robert S. Cooper July 1, 1976 June 1, 1979 3 years 1975 Assistant secretary of defense and director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (1981–1985, during the Reagan administration's Star Wars initiative)
2 Dr. John F. Clark May 5, 1965 July 1, 1976 11 years 1965
1 Dr. Harry J. Goett[9] September 1, 1959 July 1965 6 years 1959


  1. ^ Venture Into Space, Early Years of the Goddard Space Flight Center, Alfred Rosenthal, NASA Center History Series, NASA SP-4301, 1968
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ a b "contents". Retrieved 2013-03-31. 
  4. ^ Planetary Magnetospheres Laboratory Overview:
  5. ^ "In Memoriam: Beth Brown". American Physical Society. Retrieved 20 February 2015. 
  6. ^ "NASA History - Center Directors". Retrieved 2010-08-19. 
  7. ^ "NASA - Christopher J. Scolese, Goddard Center Director". Retrieved 2013-03-31. 
  8. ^ a b c "14 Nobel Laureates Go to Bat Against House NASA Funding Bill". Parabolic Arc. 2010-09-01. Retrieved 2013-03-31. 
  9. ^ "NASA - Goddard Center Directors". Retrieved 2010-08-19. 

External links

  • Dreams, Hopes, Realities. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center: The First Forty Years Wallace, Lane E. (1999) NASA SP-4312
  • Venture into Space: Early Years of Goddard Space Flight Center Rosenthal, Alfred (1968) NASA SP-4301
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