On October 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration became operational for the first time. Today, the agency celebrates its 55th birthday by being largely non-operational thanks to a federal government shutdown that's left all but about 600 of its workers furloughed.
It's a particular shame because NASA does have a lot to celebrate. Less than a week ago, the scientists behind the Curiosity Rover on Mars announced that they had found vast quantities of water in the red planet's soil. Meanwhile, a new batch of astronauts just made their way up to the International Space Station, where residents just can't stop doing science experiments and taking spectacular pictures of Earth.
However, government shutdown notwithstanding, the space agency's future remains somewhat uncertain. As commercial space flight becomes an exciting reality, the demand for NASA to ferry cargo and astronauts to and from orbit is dwindling. NASA's storied Space Shuttle program, meanwhile, has come to a close, leaving plenty of people eager about what's next for the agency.
There's a good chance that the $US650 million MAVEN mission right around the corner will be delayed due to the hiccup in funding, but other exciting plans remain. This includes a wild idea to start 3D printing in space, and a somewhat more perplexing plan to land on an asteroid. In the very long term, NASA does plan on sending a manned mission to Mars.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. Today is a day for NASA to celebrate over a half a century of sound science and exciting discoveries. If only the other 97 per cent of the staff were in the office to join the toast. [Forbes]