The "space age" began on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union (USSR) launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. Some U.S. policymakers, concerned about the USSR's ability to launch a satellite, thought Sputnik might be an indication that the United States was trailing behind the USSR in science and technology. The Cold War also led some U.S. policymakers to perceive the Sputnik launch as a possible precursor to nuclear attack. In response to this "Sputnik moment," the U.S. government undertook several policy actions, including the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), enhancement of research funding, and reformation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education policy.
Following the "Sputnik moment," a set of fundamental factors gave "importance, urgency, and inevitability to the advancement of space technology," according to an Eisenhower presidential committee. These four factors include the compelling need to explore and discover; national defense; prestige and confidence in the U.S. scientific, technological, industrial, and military systems; and scientific observation and experimentation to add to our knowledge and understanding of the Earth, solar system, and universe. They are still part of current policy discussions and influence the nation's civilian space policy priorities -- both in terms of what actions NASA is authorized to undertake and the appropriations each activity within NASA receives. NASA has active programs that address all four factors, but many believe that it is being asked to accomplish too much for the available resources.
Further, the United States faces a far different world today. No Sputnik moment, Cold War, or space race exists to help policymakers clarify the goals of the nation's civilian space program. The Hubble telescope, Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, and Mars exploration rovers frame the experience of current generations, in contrast to the Sputnik launch and the U.S. Moon landings that form the experience of older generations. As a result, some experts have called for new 21st century space policy objectives and priorities to replace those developed 50 years ago.
The authorization of NASA funding in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-55) extends through FY2008. Congress may decide to maintain or shift NASA's priorities during the next reauthorization. For example, if Congress believes that national prestige should be the highest priority, they may choose to emphasize NASA's human exploration activities, such as establishing a Moon base and landing a human on Mars. If they consider scientific knowledge the highest priority, unmanned missions and other science-related activities may be Congress' major goal for NASA. If international relations are a high priority, Congress might encourage other nations to become equal partners in NASA's activities. If spinoff effects, such as the creation of new jobs and markets and its effect on STEM education are Congress' priorities, then technological development, linking to the needs of business and industry, and education may become NASA's primary goals.