NASA’s 60th Birthday: 60 of the Space Agency’s Most Spectacular Images

From jaw-dropping pictures of interlacing galaxies to man’s first steps outside of Earth, these are NASA’s most incredible images so far. NASA

In 1957, the Russians did something that would change the course of American history. They launched the world’s first artificial satellite on board an intercontinental ballistic missile, called the Sputnik 1.

Although the U.S. government dismissed it as "useless hunk of iron,” they were frightened by the rapid progress of their Soviet enemies—especially when Russia launched Laika the dog into space the next month on Sputnik II.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower gathered his advisors and pushed for an American response to this technological development, which had become the pride of the Russian propaganda machine.

Patriotic pride aside, national security consultants were beginning to see the benefits of space exploration, which would improve navigational and communication abilities, as well as expand defensive range.

The U.S. entered the space race with the 1958 launch of Explorer 1. Later that year, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing NASA, which opened its doors in October.

The space agency has gone on to organize some of the most impressive interstellar missions in the world (and, possibly, the universe). Most famously, their Apollo missions ensured an American Space Race victory, which saw twelve men land on the moon between 1969 to 1972.

Other massive achievements include inventing a partially reusable space shuttle and the development of a permanent international space station orbiting Earth.

The next step for NASA is discovering more about Mars. The rover mission Mars 2020 is due to launch in July 2020. It aims to investigate the Red Planet’s astrobiology and settle the question of whether there was once life on Mars.

To celebrate the agency’s 60th year, we’ve put together 60 of their most stunning images. From jaw-dropping pictures of interlacing galaxies to man’s first steps outside of Earth, these are NASA’s most incredible images so far.

A huge, handle-shaped prominence erupts from the Sun in this image taken on September 14,1999. Prominences are huge clouds of relatively cool dense plasma suspended in the Sun's hot, thin corona. At times, they can erupt, escaping the Sun's atmosphere. ESA/NASA/SOHO
Star trails are seen in space, while cities and lightning storms create patterns as the Earth whirls around, in this composite image created by International Space Station Expedition 30 crew member Don Pettit on May 17, 2012. NASA

On Christmas Eve in 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders broadcast pictures of the Earth and Moon as seen from their spacecraft. This image became known as Earthrise. Lovell said, "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth." They ended the broadcast with the crew taking turns reading from the book of Genesis.

On February 12, 1984, space shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless ventured further away from the confines and safety of his ship than any previous astronaut had ever been. This space first was made possible by a nitrogen jet propelled backpack. After a series of test maneuvers inside and above Challenger's payload bay, McCandless went "free-flying" to a distance of 320 feet away from the Orbiter. This stunning orbital panorama view shows McCandless out there amongst the black and blue of Earth and space. NASA
07 Sombrero galaxy
Messier 104 (M104) has been nicknamed the Sombrero galaxy because of its resemblance to the broad-rimmed Mexican hat. As seen from Earth, the galaxy is tilted nearly edge-on. The galaxy is 50,000 light years across and is located 28 million light-years from Earth. NASA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
A swing high above Saturn by NASA's Cassini spacecraft revealed this stately view of the golden-hued planet and its main rings on October 10, 2013. This image, made from 36 shots with colored filters, is in natural color, as human eyes would have seen it. Saturn sports differently colored bands of weather. The bright, narrow wave of clouds around 42 degrees north latitude appears to be some of the turbulent aftermath of a giant storm that reached its violent peak in early 2011. The mysterious six-sided weather pattern known as the hexagon is visible around Saturn's north pole. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Cornell
04 Cone Nebula (NGC 2264)- Star-Forming Pillar of Gas and Dust
The Cone Nebula (NGC 2264) is a giant pillar in a turbulent star-forming region 2,500 light years away in the constellation Monoceros. Radiation from hot, young stars has slowly eroded the nebula over millions of years. Ultraviolet light heats the edges of the dark cloud, releasing gas into the relatively empty region of surrounding space. Over time, only the densest regions of the Cone will be left. Inside these regions, stars and planets may form. NASA, H. Ford (JHU), G. Illingworth (UCSC/LO), M.Clampin (STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), the ACS Science Team, and ESA
02 Cats Eye Nebula
The so-called Cat's Eye Nebula—formally cataloged NGC 6543—looks like the eye of Sauron from the film "The Lord of the Rings”. One of the first planetary nebulae to be discovered, it is also one of the most complex. A planetary nebula forms when Sun-like stars gently eject their outer gaseous layers. NGC 6543 has surprisingly intricate structures, including concentric gas shells, jets of high-speed gas, and shock-induced knots of gas, with a bull's eye pattern of eleven or even more concentric rings, or shells, around the Cat's Eye. NASA, ESA, HEIC, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
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These filigree "tattoo" patterns crisscrossing light-colored terrain on the Martian surface had presented researchers with a tantalizing mystery but are now known to be the work of miniature wind vortices, or Martian dust devils. Such spinning columns of rising air heated by the warm surface are also common in dry and desert areas on planet Earth. Typically lasting only a few minutes, dust devils become visible as they pick up loose red-colored dust leaving the darker and heavier sand beneath intact. Ironically, dust devils have been credited with unexpectedly cleaning the solar panels of the Mars rovers. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
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Speaking of dust devils, a towering one casts a serpentine shadow over the Martian surface in this image acquired by the HiRISE camera in 2012. The scene is a late spring afternoon in the Amazonis Planitia region of northern Mars. The length of the dusty whirlwind's shadow indicates that the dust plume reaches more than half a mile in height. The plume is about 30 yards or meters in diameter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

In perhaps the most famous space image of all time, astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the Moon near the leg of the Lunar Module "Eagle" during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on July 20, 1969. Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander, took this photograph.