Defense Advanced Research Projects AgencyAbout UsHistory and Timeline

Where the Future Becomes Now

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was created with a national sense of urgency in February 1958 amidst one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the Cold War and the already-accelerating pace of technology. In the months preceding the official authorization for the agency’s creation, Department of Defense Directive Number 5105.15, the Soviet Union had launched an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, and the world’s second satellite, Sputnik II… More

In its first months, ARPA (at first without the D for “Defense”) managed and funded rocket development programs that would prove to be long lived and far-reaching. Among these was a launch-vehicle program under the auspices of Wernher von Braun’s engineering team that would transfer to America’snew civilian space program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Initiated by ARPA in 1958 and transferred to NASA in 1959, the Television and Infrared Observations Satellites (TIROS) program became the prototype for the current global systems used for weather reporting, forecasting and research by the Defense Department, NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Solid state phased array radar system circa 1959.
Before DARPA was established, a President’s Science Advisory Committee panel and other experts had concluded that reliable ballistic missile defense (BMD) and space surveillance technologies would require the ability to detect, track, and identify a large number of objects moving at very high speeds. Responding to these needs, DARPA in 1959 initiated a competition for the design and construction of a large, experimental two-dimensional phased array with beam steering under computer control rather than requiring mechanical motion of the antenna.
In the 1960s and early 1970s ARPA funded Interdisciplinary Laboratories (IDLs) at a dozen universities, helping to create a catalytic new research field known as materials science and engineering.
Reconnaissance Satellite - NRO Image
One of the world’s earliest and most well-known spy satellite programs, the now declassified Corona photo-reconnaissance program, was jointly funded by DARPA and the Central Intelligence Agency.

ARPA launched the first satellite in what would become the world's first global satellite navigation system. Known as Transit, the system provided accurate, all-weather navigation to both military and commercial vessels, including most importantly the Navy’s ballistic missile submarine force.


With the goal of developing an astronomical-quality observatory to obtain precise measurements and images of satellites and payloads reentering the atmosphere from space and other space objects, the Agency initiated the ARPA Midcourse Optical Station (AMOS) program. By 1969, the quality and potential of AMOS had been demonstrated, and a second phase began to measure properties of reentry bodies at the facility under the Advanced Ballistic Reentry System Project. In the late 1970s, successful space object measurements continued in the infrared and visible ranges, and laser illumination and ranging were initiated.


DARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) was born in 1962 and for nearly 50 years was responsible for DARPA’s information technology programs. IPTO did not itself perform research, but rather invested in breakthrough technologies and seminal research projects that led to significant developments in computer hardware and software.