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NASA's biggest moments since its establishment in 1958

Fifteen years ago on Feb. 1, 2003, NASA faced one of its biggest tragedies when the Columbia space shuttle broke apart before landing back on Earth, killing seven astronauts.

NASA's safety features were criticized afterward, but the accident was deemed not survivable.

Scroll down to read more about the Columbia space shuttle disaster, as well as some other NASA tragedies and accomplishments since its establishment on July 29, 1958.

Explorer 1

Explorer 1 was the first successful satellite launch
Photo Credit: NASA

Explorer 1 was the first successful satellite launch in the United States. It launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Jan. 31, 1958. This was seen as the start of the space race with the USSR, which had launched its own satellite about four months before.

The Explorer 1 satellite's primary role was to detect cosmic rays, according to NASA. It transmitted information until May 23 of the same year and eventually burned out in March 1970. NASA said the satellite orbited Earth 58,000 times.

Project Mercury and Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard was the first man to go
Photo Credit: NASA

Alan Shepard was the first man to go to space. His mission on May 5, 1961, was the first mission of Project Mercury, which sent a total of six Americans to space. Piloting the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule, Shepard's flight lasted 15 minutes, hit an altitude of more than 116 miles and traveled at up to 5,134 mph, according to NASA.

Friendship 7 and John Glenn

John Glenn became the first American to orbit
Photo Credit: NASA

John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth on Feb. 20, 1962. Glenn piloted the Friendship 7 three times around the planet, achieving the primary goal of NASA's Project Mercury. He was in space for four hours and 55 minutes.

Apollo 1

NASA suffered a tragedy on Jan. 27, 1967,
Photo Credit: NASA

NASA suffered a tragedy on Jan. 27, 1967, ahead of the planned launch for the first Apollo mission. A fire in the Apollo capsule during a prelaunch test killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, above. The Apollo program would eventually meet its goal of a manned lunar landing in 1969.

Apollo 11

Likely the most famous NASA mission, Apollo 11
Photo Credit: NASA

Likely the most famous NASA mission, Apollo 11 sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon. The launch occurred on July 16, 1969 and Armstrong took the first step on the moon's surface days later, proclaiming, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." The men returned to Earth on July 24, 1969, landing in the Pacific Ocean.

Apollo 13

Possibly the second most known NASA mission was
Photo Credit: NASA

Possibly the second most known NASA mission was Apollo 13. Many know the line "Houston, we have a problem," from the film that was made about the journey. An explosion of an oxygen tank two days after the launch on April 11, 1970, put the crew in danger, but the astronauts successfully made it back to Earth on April 17.

Sally Ride

Sally Ride became the first American woman to
Photo Credit: NASA

Sally Ride became the first American woman to go to space in 1983. She was on the space shuttle Challenger, as part of mission STS-7. The mission launched two communications satellites into space.

Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

Another tragedy struck on Jan. 28, 1986. A
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Bob Pearson

Another tragedy struck on Jan. 28, 1986. A booster engine failed in the Space Shuttle Challenger, causing it to explode just over a minute after it launched. The Challenger crew -- Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith A. Resnik, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Ronald E. McNair, Mike J. Smith and Ellison S. Onizuka -- was killed in the accident.

Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990
Photo Credit: NASA

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990 from Kennedy Space Center. It has given NASA the ability to capture images of Saturn's rings, Jupiter's moons, the Milky Way and more. The telescope takes pictures as it orbits Earth at around 17,000 mph, NASA said.

Mars Pathfinder

NASA got an up-close view of Mars when
Photo Credit: NASA

NASA got an up-close view of Mars when it successfully landed a rover on the planet in 1997, as part of the Mars Pathfinder mission. The Sojourner rover used airbags to land on the planet, the first to test that type of landing. The rover sent thousands of images and data on the rocks, soil and weather on the plant for three months, according to NASA.

International Space Station

The International Space Station launched in 1998 and
Photo Credit: NASA

The International Space Station launched in 1998 and serves as a laboratory for 15 nations to conduct research in space. The space ship is the size of a football field from one end to another.

Columbia space shuttle disaster

A tragic moment in NASA's history occurred in
Photo Credit: NASA

A tragic moment in NASA's history occurred in 2003 when the Columbia space shuttle broke apart before landing back on Earth, killing seven astronauts. The shuttle, the first reusable spacecraft, first launched from Kennedy Space Center in 1979.

On its 28th launch on Jan. 16, 2003, a piece of foam insulation broke off the spacecraft's external fuel tank and damaged some of the heat-resistant tiles on one wing. When the shuttle re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003, wind and heat entered the wing where the tiles were damaged and broke it apart. NASA's safety features were criticized afterward, but the accident was deemed not survivable.

Journey to Mars?

One of NASA's current goals is to send
Photo Credit: NASA

One of NASA's current goals is to send a human to Mars. Conducting research on the International Space Station, NASA has laid out a plan to achieve this goal, but it remains to be seen when and if it will be successful.

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