EVERYONE who watched the TV coverage of the first landing on the Moon, in July 1969, has indelible memories of that day. Ed Fendell’s recollections are particularly vivid.

Fendell, a specialist in integrated communications at Mission Control in Houston, had, together with his colleagues, watched with pride as Apollo 11’s Lunar Module touched down on the moon’s surface.

“Eventually we did a shift change,” Fendell recalls in the documentary, Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo. He went to get something to eat for breakfast and stopped to buy a copy of a newspaper, which was full of news of the landing.

He said: “I sat down at the counter … Two guys walked in and sat down next to me and one of them said to the other, ‘You know, I landed in Normandy on D-Day … I was never prouder to be an American than yesterday, when we landed on the moon.”

Fendell, clearly moved by the memory, goes on to say: “It then hit me what we had done.”

The Apollo programme is just one of many that have been successfully launched by Nasa, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, over the decades. Sixty years ago today, on July 29, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law, and on October 1 that year, Nasa began operations.

In the years after the Second World War, a space race developed between the Americans and the Soviets. Both sides made steady progress but America was plunged into a crisis on October 4, 1954, when its Communist rival launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite the world had seen.

“This had a ‘Pearl Harbor effect' on American public opinion,” says Nasa’s official history page, “creating an illusion of a technological gap, and provided the impetus for increased spending for aerospace endeavors, technical and scientific educational programs, and the chartering of new federal agencies to manage air and space research and development.”

Nasa had been in operation for a few years when, in May 1961, President John F Kennedy famously asked his country to commit to putting Americans on the moon by the end of the decade. His statement came not long after the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first man to orbit the Earth. Kennedy, unwilling to see the US fall further behind in the space race, committed huge new sums to Nasa. It’s sometimes forgotten, though, as Nasa points out, that JFK had entered the White House thinking that space could be an area for co-operation with the Soviet Union that would lessen the tension between the two countries. It was a hope he never gave up.

It took Nasa eight years and three programmes – Mercury and Gemini had preceded Apollo – before it was able to meet Kennedy's dream of putting an American on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first men to leave footprints on the lunar surface, on July 20, 1969.

Pete Conrad and Alan Bean from Apollo 12 followed suit that November (the Command Module commander, Richard Gordon, died last year), but a planned third lunar landing, in 1970, almost ended in disaster when an oxygen tank explosion crippled the spacecraft. The crew were all brought back to earth safely.

Nasa’s many other programmes have ranged from robotic missions to Venus, Mars and the outer planets, the Skylab orbital workshop, remote-sensing Earth satellites, aeronautics research and of course the Space Shuttle, the first reusable spacecraft.

This shuttle programme itself suffered two great misfortunes – in 1986, when the main liquid fuel tank on the Challenger orbiter exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing the seven crew members, and in 2003, when the Columbia orbiter disintegrated 15 minutes before landing, killing its seven-strong crew.

It was, however, from the Discovery space shuttle that Nasa launched the Hubble telescope, in April 1990. It has more than lived up to the organisation’s description of it as “the most significant advance in astronomy since Galileo's telescope”, probing the mysteries of the cosmos and making more than 1.3 million observations as it circles the Earth at some 17,000mph.

Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine has been at pains to remind the public what the organisation has achieved in addition to space exploration.

In a recent speech marking the 60th anniversary, Bridenstine said Nasa had transformed people’s lives by blazing a trail in the way we navigate, communicate, produce food and energy, predict weather and understand the Earth. "All of these capabilities – that, in many cases, we take for granted as Americans – are available to us because of the trail that Nasa blazed,” he said.

Musician will.i.am added: “A lot of the technology we have today ... wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for a lot of Nasa’s work. A lot of the systems that we use today in our cellphones, if it wasn’t for that [research and development] that Nasa was doing back then, we wouldn’t have what we have today.”

Tycoons such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson have invested colossal sums in space adventure. Musk wants to reach Mars by 2020, Bezos believes the Moon can be colonised within a century, and Branson plans to take well-heeled tourists to space next year.

Nasa has its own ambitions, however, saying its future will continue to involve “human exploration, technology, and science”. It will return to the Moon to try to learn “what it will take to support human exploration to Mars and beyond".

Other priorities include aiding the development of a “vibrant low-Earth orbit economy” by building on the successes of the International Space Station, and inventing new technologies to boost air transport at home and meet the challenges of advanced space exploration.

“Our scientists,” it adds, “will work to increase an understanding of our planet and our place in the universe. We will continue to try to answer the question, 'Are we alone?'."