On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed National Air and Space Act, establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a civilian agency in response to the challenge of the Soviet launch of Sputnik nearly a year before.
Before the establishment of NASA, American space efforts, such as they were, were divided among the branches of the armed services. The establishment of NASA gathered into one civilian agency, along with the aeronautics research efforts of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) that had been founded in 1915.
Even so, President Eisenhower was somewhat skeptical of funding a large space program and barely approved of the first American man in space program, Project Mercury. It would take another Soviet space feat, the successful orbital flight of Yuri Gagarin, and a new President for NASA to really come into its own.
The first space age, for NASA, was the Apollo program to land a man on the Moon. Born of Cold War necessity, Apollo was one of the greatest and, ultimately, most bitter sweet technological feats in human history. Even decades later, people who were alive when man first landed on the Moon remember it with a kind of heady nostalgia.
With success came a perverse and almost inevitable punishment by the political powers that be. For a time it seemed that publically funded space flight might end in the United States in the early 1970s. Fortunately Richard Nixon, who care less about space exploration than he did about votes and campaign contributions, tasked NASA to a more practical job than lunar voyages of exploration.
NASA was ordered to build a reusable space shuttle that handle all of the nation’s space flight needs, commercial, military, and NASA. The idea was that a reusable space vehicle would decrease the cost of space travel, making possible space stations, a return to the Moon, and maybe voyages beyond. NASA would also have roughly half the budget it thought it needed to do it. Thus the second space age was born.