50 years ago today, US president Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Act, sparking the birth of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – better known to us as NASA.

The first of nine objectives for NASA in that space act was "The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space". Here, Nature News looks back at triumphs and tragedies from the agency's history.