On October 1, 1958, the U.S. space agency NASA first opened its doors. Fifty years later it still has its sights on space exploration, new worlds and distant frontiers.  In part one of a series, VOA's Paul Sisco takes a look back at NASA's manned space flight program.

America's space race with the Soviet Union was dramatically defined in 1961 when the nation's young president, John Kennedy, announced plans to go the moon.

But more than any other single event, it was the launch of Sputnik, the first satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 that ushered in the space era.

Soon afterwards,  NASA launched America's first successful satellite into space,  Explorer One.  And moving decisively, President Dwight Eisenhower establishes NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on October 1, 1958.

Six months later Project Mercury is announced. Seven men will carry the nation into space:  Slayton, Schirra, Cooper, Carpenter, Glenn, Grissom, and Shepard.  America's first astronauts were introduced to the nation on April 9, 1959.  In an interview before his death, Alan Shepard remembered the day.

"Of course that was one of the happiest days of my life," Shepard said. "That was the day in which we all congregated officially as the U.S. first astronaut group."

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space; a mere 15 minute adventure in a windowless capsule, called Freedom Seven.

Project Mercury met its primary objective on February 20, 1962.  On a flight lasting four hours and 55 minutes, astronaut John Glenn orbited the earth three times.

Project Mercury was followed by the Gemini program, complete with two man crews, spacewalks, and orbital rendezvous.  Gemini laid the groundwork for the more ambitious Apollo program that followed with three man crews, much more powerful rockets and lunar modules.

The Apollo years were marked by success and early tragedy. In 1967 three NASA astronauts were killed in a fire while testing Apollo one.

From this tragedy, NASA dedicated itself to space exploration with new vigor.
And on July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong realized President Kennedy's' vision and the primary goal of the program.

There were six more Apollo missions to the moon, ending with Apollo 17 in 1972.

The moon landings gave rise to an era of cooperation in space.  In July 1975, a Russian Soyuz and American Apollo craft linked in orbit.

It was the end of the Apollo era, but a new chapter in manned space flight was unfolding. The reusable spacecraft Columbia made the first shuttle flight in 1981.

The shuttle fleet has carried many satellites into space as well as the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble's many discoveries have captured world attention. A final servicing mission is scheduled for later this month. 

The shuttle program suffered two major setbacks.  In January 1986, Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven astronauts. And in February 2003, Columbia disintegrated on re-entry killing its crew of seven.

After substantial delays, NASA's shuttle program continues.  It has been essential to the largest, most ambitious scientific endeavor by mankind to date, construction of the International Space Station.  NASA has plans to retire the aging shuttle fleet in 2010,  America's space agency, established fifty years ago is hard at work, designing, building, and testing the next generation of spacecraft that will take humankind  back to the moon and beyond.

In the next report on NASA's 50th anniversary, we will look at the achievements of NASA's unmanned probes during the space agency's first half century.