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

Launch of first satellite ever by USSR, sparks creation of DARPA
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union (USSR) launched the first satellite ever, triggering events that led to creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) on February 7, 1958. Although it was well known that both the USSR and the United States were working on satellites for the international scientific collaboration known as the International Geophysical Year (an 18-month “year” from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958 and designed to coincide with a peak phase of the solar cycle), many in the United States never fathomed that the USSR would be the first into space. “Now, somehow, in some way, the sky seemed almost alien,” then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson recalled feeling on that night, adding that he remembered “the profound shock of realizing that it might be possible for another nation to achieve technological superiority over this great country of ours.” Ever since its establishment on February 7, 1958, ARPA—which later added the D for defense at the front of its name—has been striving to keep that technological superiority in the hands of the United States.
| History | Space |
DoD Directive Establishes the Advanced Research Projects Agency
On February 7, 1958, Neil McElroy, the Department of Defense Secretary, issued DoD Directive 5015.15 establishing the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), later renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Agency’s first three primary research thrusts focused on space technology, ballistic missile defense, and solid propellants
Saturn V and Centaur Rockets

In its first months, ARPA 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’s new civilian space program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). There, von Braun’s initial booster technology, Juno V, would lead to the cluster-engine Saturn V Space Launch Vehicle, famous for its role in manned spaceflight to the Moon.

Another DARPA-authorized program in 1958, development of a liquid oxygen/hydrogen (LOX/LH2) upper-stage rocket known as Centaur, also transferred to the fledgling NASA. After several failures, the Centaur booster achieved its first successful orbital flight in 1963 and its first successful mission in 1966. Centaur rockets improved the ability of U.S. launch vehicles to place sizeable payloads into geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) and helped pave the way toward future lunar and deep space missions. During its evolution, the Centaur LOX/LH2 upper stage technology has been used extensively on Atlas and Titan boosters for diverse missions. Centaur engine technology was also used in the upper stages of the Saturn rockets for the Apollo manned missions to the Moon and in the Space Shuttle’s liquid hydrogen-oxygen engines.

First Weather Satellite: Television and Infrared Observations Satellites (TIROS)

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). Moreover, TIROS helped define ARPA’s model of successfully bringing together scientists and engineers from different services, federal agencies, and contracting firms to solve vexing problems and quickly achieve a complex technical feat.

The program greatly advanced the science of meteorology by placing the first dedicated weather satellite in orbit, TIROS 1, on April 1, 1960. The mission swiftly proved the viability of observing weather from space. It took 23,000 cloud-cover pictures, of which more than 19,000 were used in weather analysis. For the first time, meteorologists were able to track storms over the course of several days.

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.

Known as the Electronically Steered Array Radar (ESAR) Program, the focus of the effort was to develop low-cost, high-power tubes and phase shifters, extend component frequency ranges, increase bandwidth, apply digital techniques, and study antenna coupling. DARPA pioneered the construction of ground-based phased array radars such as the FPS-85. This radar system had a range of several thousand miles and could detect, track, identify, and catalog Earth-orbiting objects and ballistic missiles. The FPS-85 quickly became part of the Air Force SPACETRACK system and was in operation from 1962 until the SPACETRACK unit was deactivated in early 1967.

Corona Reconnaissance Satellite
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. Withstanding a series of initial failures, the program scored its first success in August 1960 when a canister of film dropped back through the atmosphere was successfully recovered, delivering a trove of intelligence photos taken over Soviet territory. The Corona program continued to acquire crucial Cold War intelligence until the mission ended in 1972.
Interdisciplinary Laboratories and Materials Science
In 1960, ARPA helped establish what now is the burgeoning field of materials science and engineering by announcing the first three contracts of the Agency’s Interdisciplinary Laboratory (IDL) program. Following these initial four-year renewable contracts to Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania (which signed its contract on this day in 1960), and Northwestern University, the Agency awarded nine more IDL contracts around the country. The program lasted just over a decade when, in 1972, the National Science Foundation (NSF) took over the program and changed its name to the Materials Research Laboratories (MRL) program.
Transit Satellite: Precursor to Global Positioning System

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 U.S. Navy’s ballistic missile submarine force.

Transit, whose concept and technology were developed by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, established the basis for wide acceptance of satellite navigation systems. The system's surveying capabilities—generally accurate to tens of meters—contributed to improving the accuracy of maps of the Earth's land areas by nearly two orders of magnitude.

ARPA funded the Transit program in 1958, launched its first satellite in 1960, and transitioned the technology to the Navy in the mid-1960s. By 1968, a fully operational constellation of 36 satellites was in place. Transit operated for 28 years until 1996, when the Defense Department replaced it with the current Global Positioning System (GPS).