In 1958, Congress created NASA, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration. The rationale for America's first venture into outer space was national security: to insure that the country could defend itself against any threat from space. The Soviets appeared to have a head start through Sputnik and similar short space flights. The United States quickly realized the invaluable military benefits of satellites and developed "smart" weapons using geosynchronous communication systems to deliver ordnance precisely. Thus, all the first astronauts were military officers.
Since that time, the space endeavor has devolved into just another federal program. The United States faces no threat from any nation on Earth that can outflank it in space. Though NASA conducts certain research projects, there is little reason to believe that philanthropies and private corporations could not accomplish this research just as easily. In fact, one of the major breakthroughs in cosmology was accomplished at Bell Laboratories almost 50 years ago when scientists there discovered microwaves. Background radiation consistently showed that the basic temperature of outer space was four degrees Kelvin, or four degrees above absolute zero.
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