The Marshall Space Flight Center was activated on July 1, 1960, with the transfer of buildings, land, space projects, property, and personnel from the U.S. Army. Dr. Wernher von Braun became the Center's first director. The Center was named in honor of General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff during World War II, Secretary of State, and Nobel Prize Winner for his world-renowned "Marshall Plan."
In 1961, Marshall's Mercury-Redstone vehicle boosted America's first astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, on a suborbital flight. In the early 1960s the Marshall Center managed many other space projects successfully including Pegasus (1965), a series of three unmanned satellites to detect micro-meteoroids. Marshall's first major program was development of the Saturn rockets, the largest of which boosted humans to the Moon in 1969. The Center also developed the Lunar Roving Vehicle for transporting astronauts on the lunar surface on the last three Apollo lunar missions.
In 1973, Saturn rockets lifted Skylab, the first crewed orbiting space station. As part of Skylab Marshall had responsibility for many scientific experiments, the development of the Skylab Orbital Workshop, the Apollo Telescope Mount and the Skylab Multiple Docket Adapter. In 1975 a Saturn rocket lifted the Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit for the historic linkup with the Russian-Soyuz spacecraft in 1975. That mission also included experiments provided by Marshall Center scientists. Three High Energy Astronomy Observatories to study stars and star-like objects were launched in 1977, 1978, and 1979.
In the early 1970s, the Center was assigned responsibility for developing the Space Shuttle propulsion elements including the External Tank, Solid Rocket Boosters, and the Space Shuttle Main Engines. In 1978, the Space Shuttle Orbiter "Enterprise" arrived at Marshall for Vibration Testing. In 1983, NASA launched its first Spacelab mission. Spacelab was a scientific lab carried in the payload bay of the Orbiter. More than 20 Spacelab missions were conducted over the next 15 years.
The Solid Rocket Motor was redesigned in 1987 as part of return to flight following the Challenger accident. In 1990, the Marshall-developed Hubble Space Telescope was launched. In 1998, NASA launched the first U.S. Space Station element – the Unity node, built by the Boeing Company at Marshall. In 1999 NASA and the Boeing Co. entered into a $173 million cooperative agreement to develop a new experimental space plane called the X-37, which was to be ferried into orbit to test new technologies for reusable launch vehicles.
In August 2000, NASA and Alabama officials signed an agreement creating the National Space Science and Technology Center. The Chandra X-Ray observatory was launched in 1999. The new Block II Space Shuttle Main Engine helped lift Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-104 in 2001. Atlantis also carried the Space Station Airlock built and tested at the Marshall Center. In addition, the mission carried a crystal growth experiment sponsored by Marshall's Biotechnology Program. In mid-2000, the Payload Operations Control Center at Marshall began round-the-clock operations in support of science onboard the International Space Station.
In 2003, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board presented its final report on the causes of the Feb. 1, 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident to the White House, Congress and NASA. Marshall and other NASA centers dedicated their work to ensure that the Space Shuttle propulsion elements would perform safely in the future. Gravity Probe B, designed to test two important predictions of Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity lifted off in 2004 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Marshall is one of NASA’s largest field centers with over 4.5 million square feet of space including test, manufacturing and research facilities and some 6,000 civil service and contractor employees. Marshall is a leader in developing and integrating the space and launch vehicle systems that are critical for NASA’s space exploration, operations, and science endeavors. Leading NASA in rocket propulsion technology, Marshall has been launching spacecraft and explorers into space since the beginning of the U.S. space program. Marshall has managed the key propulsion hardware and technologies of the Space Shuttle to safely sustain shuttle operations through its historic last flight. Marshall is leading NASA’s development of a new heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System, which will launch astronauts on their way to other destinations in our solar system.
Marshall also develops and manages many robotic exploration systems in support of planetary and solar science and plays a key role in the development and testing of deep space observatories, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Because of Marshall’s unique flight research and test expertise, scientists and engineers also work in partnership with academic institutions and worldwide organizations to improve weather prediction and monitor climate change on Earth.
The Center has expertise in vehicle design and integration, design, development and testing of heavy-lift engines, large-scale manufacturing technologies, friction stir welding, and lightweight composites.