National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) boldly goes where few have gone before (about 560 astronauts and cosmonauts have been into space). The federal agency's Aeronautics division conducts research on new flight technologies while its Exploration Systems works on human and robotic exploration and its Science unit studies climate, gravitation, and the atmosphere. The Space Operations division mans and maintains the International Space Station (ISS) in conjunction with several other nations; it also ran the Space Shuttle program until that was retired in 2011.
NASA has around 10 centers and facilities located in Alabama, California, Florida, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.
In all, NASA has headed up more than 100 missions exploring everything from particles of comet dust to the composition of solar wind to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt at the edge of the solar system. Some missions investigate Earth's own atmosphere, oceans, and ice caps. A few missions are carried out with international partners, including space agencies from Japan, the UK, and Europe. Another trend is using private companies for much of NASA's propulsion research and rocket building.
NASA's operations are divided into nine segments and divisions: Aeronautics, Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration, Cross-Agency Support, Education, Exploration, Office of Inspector General, Science, Space Operations, and Space Technology.
In 2013 the agency had an estimated budget of about $17.8 billion. The segments of Exploration, Science, and Space Operations collectively account for 73% of this total amount.
In 2010 the agency's mission changed from returning to the moon to heading for Mars. NASA hopes to send astronauts to the Red Planet by the mid-2030s. To complete the mission, it needs to develop heavy-lift rockets for long-range spacecraft. In the meantime, the organization has been turning out lower cost Small Explorers in shorter time frames. The Explorers are part of the longest running series of spacecrafts and have investigated everything from x-rays and ultraviolet light to black holes and interstellar plasma.
In 2012 Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully launched a capsule that docked with ISS and was successfully sent back earthward to splash down in the Pacific. SpaceX's successful cargo flight opens the way for the company to provide 12 more flights with supplies for the station per a $1.6 billion contract with NASA, which has an option to order more service from SpaceX for a total cost of $3.1 billion. The contract with SpaceX for cargo service to ISS fills a hole left by the retirement of the Space Shuttle.
NASA Langley Research Center, the Department of Energy's Jefferson Lab, and the National Institute of Aerospace have developed a technique for synthesizing a high-tech material technology that was licensed by BNNT LLC in 2012. BNNT plans to make the material (fibril boron nitride nanotubes) available for scientific and commercial research and development. The materials create electricity from pressure and shields against neutron and ultraviolet radiation. NASA hopes that the energy-harvesting aspect of these new materials can make aerospace missions safer and longer by providing auxiliary power for health monitoring systems and other electronic devices.
NASA was founded in 1958, partly in response to Russia's launch of the Sputnik satellite, to research space and flight technology. It successfully landed two Americans on the moon for the first time in 1969.