73 Years in Space - A Timeline


The Naval Research Laboratory entered the realm of space soon after American forces entered Germany in 1945 and captured the huge underground factory for V-2 rocket production at Nordhausen. The Americans confiscated about one hundred rockets and shipped them to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, where the Army set about studying the propulsion system. The first American-launched V-2 flew from White Sands on April 16, 1946.

Seeing the opportunities for upper atmosphere research and solar astronomy, NRL took the lead in the Navy for conducting rocket research. The V-2 Rocket Panel was formed with membership from NRL, APL (Applied Physics Laboratory), California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, University of Michigan, and other organizations to oversee the allocation of space on V-2 rockets for high-altitude research, with NRL’s Ernst Krause as the first chair. The research goals included radio and sound propagation in the atmosphere, properties of the atmosphere, cosmic rays, solar ultraviolet radiation, and various biological investigations.

NRL’s V-2 experiments in 1946 and 1949 marked the beginning of a major space science program at the Lab. Within a decade, NRL had developed a base of rocket science that had formed into two distinct branches: one related to applications, including the development of scientific payloads; the other, the development of rocket technology.

This timeline highlights some milestones in NRL’s space program as it developed from those post–World War II years to the present.


Richard Tousey

Richard Tousey’s first V-2 rocket flight measured solar ultraviolet radiation.


Herbert Friedman
V2 Rocket

Herbert Friedman’s first V-2 rocket flight measured solar X-radiation. Friedman later made the first positive identification of stellar X-rays in 1963.

Viking Rocket

First flight of NRL’s Viking rocket, designed to replace the V-2 for scientific missions that required higher altitudes and pointing stability.


Hurricane image

1954 NRL’s photograph of a hurricane from an Aerobee rocket was the first time a major weather feature was seen from space and a convincing argument that space cloud imagery could be a valuable tool for meteorologists.


Vanguard 1

Vanguard I, the oldest man-made satellite in orbit, launched on St. Patrick’s Day.

NRL conducted Project Vanguard for the International Geophysical Year of 1957–1958. NRL designed and developed the three-stage rocket, the grapefruit-sized satellite, and the Minitrack network that tracked the satellite using radio interferometry. The Vanguard team was transferred in October 1958 to the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Extending the Minitrack concept, NRL developed the Naval Space Surveillance System (NAVSPASUR) from 1958 - 1964.



Launch of GRAB, the first U.S. “spy” satellite, along with SolRad which monitored solar X-radiation.

The month after a U-2 aircraft was lost on a reconnaissance mission over Soviet territory, GRAB I was launched and began transponding intercepted electronic intelligence signals to ground stations. GRAB demonstrated the value and viability of space-based intelligence platforms. The SolRad series of satellites studied the Sun’s effects on Earth on missions from 1960 to 1979.



First launch of the Low Frequency Trans-Ionospheric (LOFTI) radio satellite to study the propagation of radio waves through the ionosphere.


Launch of OSO-2, first in a series of Orbiting Solar Observatory missions for which NRL developed solar physics instrumentation.


Timation concept art

Launch of the first of four Timation (time and navigation) satellites, which demonstrated NRL’s new navigation concept that became GPS. Followed by Timation II (1969), Timation IIIA/Navigation Technology Satellite (NTS)-1 (1974), and Timation IV/NTS-2 (1977).


First observation of a coronal mass ejection (CME) from space, by an NRL coronagraph on board OSO-7.


NRL’s Lunar Surface Camera operated on the Moon during the Apollo 16 mission, obtaining images of the Earth and celestial objects.


NRL solar spectrometers operated on Skylab, America’s first space station.


First launch of the Multiple Satellite Dispenser (MSD), an upper stage for the Atlas F booster, which carried multiple satellites into precise orbits.



The first of five Space Shuttle flights of NRL’s Solar Ultraviolet Spectral Irradiance Monitor (SUSIM) which measured absolute solar UV irradiance and examined the impact of solar variability on the Earth’s ionosphere and climate. SUSIM also flew on the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) (1991– 2005) and produced the longest continuous absolute measurement of solar UV irradiance to date.


Launch of Living Plume Shield II (LIPS II) to demonstrate direct downlink of tactical data from a low Earth orbiting spacecraft.


NRL scientist Dr. John David Bartoe flew on the Space Shuttle as payload specialist for NRL’s High Resolution Telescope and Spectrograph that recorded UV spectra of the Sun.


The first Special Sensor Microwave Imager (SSM/I) was flown in DoD’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) to map water vapor and ocean wind speed. NRL pioneered this technique.


Launch of LIPS III provided a test bed for new space power sources.



NASA’s Compton Gamma Ray Observatory containing NRL’s Oriented Scintillation Spectrometer Experiment (OSSE) was put in orbit from the Space Shuttle. It operated for 10 years.


Launch of the Low-Power Atmospheric Compensation Experiment (LACE), a spaceborne target with sensors to characterize a laser beam emitted from a ground-based laser site.


Launch of the Japanese Yohkoh solar observatory with NRL instrumentation on board to measure high- energy solar phenomena. Yohkoh provided the first definitive observations connecting solar flares to the breaking and reconnection of magnetic fields.


NRL’s Polar Ozone and Aerosol Measurement (POAM) instrument was launched on the French Space Agency SPOT remote sensing satellite.



First flight of NRL’s Middle Atmosphere High Resolution Spectrometer Instrument (MAHRSI) on the German Space Agency’s Shuttle Pallet Atmosphere Satellite (SPAS) to make global measurements of OH in the mesosphere and upper stratosphere.


The DoD-NASA Clementine satellite, developed by NRL under the mantra of “faster, better, cheaper,” was launched to test lightweight miniature sensors and advanced spacecraft components, and to map the entire lunar surface.



NRL’s Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) and Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) launched on the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). These instruments help to understand the mechanisms that form CMEs and drive the solar wind, providing a genuine basis for predicting geomagnetic storms on Earth.


The ARGOS satellite contained five NRL instruments to measure the upper atmosphere, conduct astronomy experiments, and test new technology.

Project Starshine

First launch in Project Starshine, a science education project for measuring variations in the density of Earth’s upper atmosphere during solar storms. Students from all over the world helped to build the satellites and collected data from them.


The first in a series of NRL’s Special Sensor Ultraviolet Limb Imagers (SSULI) flew on a DMSP satellite, providing operational environmental data for the warfighter.


WindSat, the first spaceborne polarimetric microwave radiometer, launched on the NOAA/DoD/NASA Coriolis spacecraft to measure wind speed and direction at the ocean surface.



MISSE-5 launched to the International Space Station. The suitcase-sized experiment exposed hundreds of samples of materials and components to the harsh space environment for later analysis of the effects. Followed by MISSE-6 (2008), MISSE-7 (2009) and MISSE-8 (2011).


STEREO image

Launch of NASA’s STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory). NRL’s SECCHI telescopes provide 3-D observations of CMEs as they form at the Sun and traverse interplanetary space to Earth.

Atmospheric Neutral Density Experiment (ANDE) microsatellites deployed to monitor atmospheric density for improved orbit determination of space objects. ANDE-2 was launched in 2009.

Launch of the Taiwan-U.S. COSMIC/FORMOSAT3 mission with NRL’s Tiny Ionospheric Photometer (TIP) compact far-UV sensors on board to study Earth’s night-side ionosphere.

Launch of the Microsatellite Technology Experiment (MiTEx), with NRL’s Upper Stage, to test and evaluate small satellite technologies.

EIS image

Launch of the Japanese Hinode solar observatory with NRL’s Extreme-ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer (EIS) to measure temperature, density, and dynamics of the solar corona.


Launch of STPSat-1 carrying SHIMMER and CITRUS. SHIMMER measured OH in the middle atmosphere, and demonstrated spatial heterodyne spectroscopy for space-based remote sensing. CITRIS detected when and where scintillation and refraction adversely affect radio propagation, and provided global maps of ionospheric densities.


Herschel optical system

Launch of the ESA Herschel Space Observatory that measures terahertz radiation from astronomical and planetary objects. NRL contributed to the optical system of the 3.5-meter-diameter silicon carbide Cassegrain telescope.

Fermi image

Launch of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope to survey the high-energy space environment. NRL led the team that designed and manufactured the Large Area Telescope (LAT) calorimeter, which measures the energies of gamma rays from astronomical objects and the Sun.



HICO/RAIDS launched to the International Space Station. The Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean and Remote Atmospheric and Ionospheric Detection System collect useful environmental data for military and civilian systems.



Launch of TacSat-4 with its COMMx payload to support communications-on-the-move, data exfiltration, and Blue Force Tracking. It is designed to be reallocated rapidly to different theaters worldwide.



Launch of several of NRL’s space science and technology experiments on NASA’s Space Test Program - Houston-4 mission. Among them were the Small Wind and Temperature Spectrometer (SWATS) and the GLADIS – Global Awareness Data-Exfiltration International Satellite.


SpinSat assembly

Launch of SpinSat to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 resupply mission. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station later successfully deployed NRL’s SpinSat into orbit. SpinSat was a small, spherical satellite designed to demonstrate new thruster technology, calibrate the space surveillance network, and model the density of the atmosphere.



Launch of the Charged Aerosol Release Experiment (CARE II), an instrumented rocket launched in collaboration with universities and government laboratories. The launch, which was designed to study the effects of dusty plasmas, charged dust particles that can occur naturally in the mesosphere, generated an artificial plasma cloud in the upper-atmosphere.



Launch of two experiments on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station (ISS). The experiments were the Limb-Imaging Ionospheric and Thermospheric Extreme Ultraviolet (UV) Spectrograph (LITES) and the Global Positioning System (GPS) Radio Occultation and UV Photometer Co- located (GROUP-C). GROUP-C and LITES formed a suite of high performance sensors that produced two- dimensional and three-dimensional maps that display multi-scale plasma structures found in the ionosphere.


Parker Solar Probe

Launch of NRL’s Wide-Field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) instrument on the NASA's Parker Solar Probe, a revolutionary mission to go deep in the heart of the sun's corona. WISPR was designed to analyze evolving solar wind structures close to the Sun and derive the 3D structure of the solar corona to determine the sources of the solar wind.



Launch expected for NRL's Michelson Interferometer for Global High-resolution Thermospheric Imaging (MIGHTI) satellite instrument as part of NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) mission. MIGHTI is part of a suite of instruments on ICON designed to determine the conditions in space modified by weather on Earth and analyze the way space weather events develop. MIGHTI is designed to measure the neutral winds and temperatures in the Earth's low-latitude thermosphere.

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