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The Space Age: Overview

The 1960s were a time of social turmoil, marked by the civil rights movement, political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the antiwar movement. But it was a golden age for science, with ample funding and broad industrial and public support.

The launch of the satellite Sputnik I in 1957 precipitated the space race. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formed, and, in May 1961, President John F. Kennedy committed the nation to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. The U.S. space program required new measurements of the combustion of missile fuels and of rocket thrust in the million-pounds range, as well as the effects of extreme and sudden changes in temperature and pressure on materials and mechanisms of rocket engines. NIST was already working on such problems as a result of the Army's first supersonic flight in the late 1940s.

Measurement capabilities were extended to new realms. In the 1950s, NIST could measure temperatures reliably only up to 3000 OC; by 1964, thanks to improved instruments and techniques, it was routinely measuring in the 20,000 OC range. To calibrate the devices used to measure the forces on large rockets, giant machines were built, such as a 4.5 meganewton (1 million pound) force machine that was 29.3 meters (96 feet) tall. The device to be calibrated was set at the top of a loading frame, and weights as heavy as 23 metric tons (50,000 pounds) were loaded in increments; the applied force was calculated from the mass of the weights. NIST still has the nation's largest universal testing machine, capable of supplying 53.4 MN (12 million pounds) of force in compression.

Meanwhile, the Institute continued to provide leadership in measurements and standards. The National Standard Reference Data System, centered at NIST, was established by law to provide critically evaluated quantitative data on the properties of chemical substances and materials important to science and technology. A key feature of the program was the independent assessment of the accuracy of data published in the scientific literature.

In 1960, the international scientific community adopted a new standard of length, replacing the old platinum-iridium meter bar with a wavelength of a specific frequency of visible light. (An Institute invention of the 1940s was influential in demonstrating the precision and practicality of a wavelength standard of length.) The new measure was based on atomic properties and could be reproduced with great accuracy, whereas the meter bar could be damaged or change over time. Shortly thereafter, NIST designed and built one of the first fully automated measuring machines, an interferometer (which used wavelengths of light as the unit of measure) for calibrating the intervals on length scales. It reduced calibration time and cost by a factor of 10. Before the end of the decade, a new method of stabilizing lasers was discovered by NIST scientists, yielding a 1,000-fold improvement in reproducing measurements made with an interferometer.

universal testing machine
This universal testing machine has been used, for example, to test the performance of concrete columns under simulated earthquake conditions.

The growth of science, military and space requirements, and the explosion in communications traffic demanded ever more accurate time standards, beyond that provided by NIST's original 1949 atomic clock. In 1960, a clock called NBS II, based on the natural frequency of the cesium atom, became the national standard of frequency, supplanting a set of quartz crystal oscillators. It measured frequency and time intervals to an accuracy of one second in 3,000 years. Since then, six even more accurate cesium-based clocks-the latest is accurate to one second in nearly 20 million years-have taken over as keepers of official national time, which is determined through a coordinated effort with the U.S. Naval Observatory. NIST shifted from an astronomical to an atomic definition of the second in 1967, when the international community defined the second as 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a particular type of cesium atom. To reconcile differences between the atomic time scale and the Earth's rotation, "leap seconds" are added from time to time.

The proliferation of computers also demanded standards. NIST issued the first Federal Information Processing Standard in 1968, a coded character set called the American Standard Code for Information Exchange, more commonly known as ASCII. All computers procured by the federal government after mid-1969 had to be capable of using ASCII, which was originally developed by an industry standards committee chaired by an Institute staff member. Advances in computing and modeling technologies also led to new tasks for NIST, which began performing systems analyses and operations research for other federal agencies. It studied transportation patterns, modeled patent activities, studied earthquake prediction, helped the U.S. Postal Service with mail handling and processing systems, and evaluated the performance of the hurricane warning center.

Institutionally, NIST matured. The main Institute campus moved from its aging, urbanized site in the District of Columbia to a 227 hectare (560 acre) former farm in Gaithersburg, Md. Another important addition, in Colorado, was the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (later called JILA), which has been a model of interaction between government and academia. This cooperative effort of NIST and the University of Colorado went on to develop an international reputation in fields such as atomic physics (see Creating a New State of Matter).

NIST continued to perform research supporting industry. With U.S. highway fatalities exceeding 50,000 a year, the Institute also focused on auto safety. Working with the Society of Automotive Engineers, NIST prepared specifications for brake fluids and seat belts, either adopting or modifying existing standards. Through the use of a unique testing facility, a uniform quality grading system was developed for tire treadwear, traction, and temperature resistance. NIST also sought to improve the dynamic performance of the dummies used in crash testing. Once the fidelity of dummy tests was established, these tests were cited as justification for mandating shoulder harnesses in motor vehicles. Just as many other Institute efforts have been spun off to other agencies, this work eventually was transferred to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Important advances were made in materials science. NIST staff developed a reliable procedure for determining polymer melting points and proposed a new theory of polymer crystallization, both of which became mainstays of polymer science. In 1964, using the apparatus designed for one of NIST's most famous experiments, a NIST/University of California group showed that superconductivity (the disappearance of resistance to the flow of an electrical current) could occur in an oxide semiconductor, strontium titanate. This work foreshadowed Nobel Prize-winning research in the mid-1980s by two IBM Corp. researchers, who discovered an oxide material that was superconducting at much higher temperatures than was generally believed possible.

At least two major policy trends of the 1960s had long-lasting effects on NIST. First, a White House panel began encouraging the use of new technology in the civilian economy. The Department of Commerce was chosen to help spur economic growth, a formal mission that continues today: to find ways for government and science to interact in the realm of science and technology to stimulate economic prosperity. Second, the U.S. Congress became increasingly active with respect to environmental issues, passing laws and amendments recognizing various forms of pollution and requiring research and control efforts by both industry and government.


Notice of Online Archive: This page is no longer being updated and remains online for informational and historical purposes only. The information is accurate as of 2001. For questions about page contents, please inquiries [at] (contact us).
Created July 23, 2013, Updated February 14, 2023