DARPA at 50

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency marked its 50th anniversary this month with a look back on the groundbreaking technologies the agency developed since its inception during the Eisenhower administration as a response to Sputnik and the Russian space program.

President Eisenhower created DARPA in February 1958 and tasked the new agency with maintaining the scientific and technological pre-eminence of the U.S. military by focusing on radically new and innovative research-and-development projects that the private sector and the more conservative branches of the armed services would be less likely to pursue.

For part of its history the agency dropped the word 'Defense' from its name, and the list of its scientific and technological contributions during a half-century of operations is studded with technologies that have advanced the quality of life of the civilian population and the world more than they contributed to U.S. military superiority.

Some highlights of DARPA's achievements during its first 50 years include:
  • The Saturn V rocket, which carried the Apollo missions to the moon;
  • The world's first surveillance satellites;
  • The ARPANET, the precursor to today's Internet;
  • Stealth aircraft, advanced precision munitions and unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Predator and Global Hawk;
  • New materials, such as gallium arsenide, now used in high-speed integrated circuits;
  • New metals such as beryllium, which is stronger than steel but lighter than aluminum;
  • Solid-state photon detectors that are the basis of current night-vision capabilities;
  • Microwave and millimeter-wave monolithic integrated circuits, or MIMICS, used today in cell phones and miniature Global Positioning System equipment; and
  • The computer mouse.

Today the agency continues its tradition of developing revolutionary technologies for use by the military. Current projects include the recent creation of the Command Post of the Future, which lets commanders and platoon leaders use computers as virtual command posts wherever they may be, DARPA Director Anthony Tether said.

Other projects include the Network Centric Radio System, which enables interoperability between previously incompatible radio systems, and the WASP micro-sized aerial vehicle that weighs less than a pound and that a soldier can launch with a hand throw.

Today, '[t]he urgency of maintaining technological surprise is as acute as ever,' Tether said in a statement released Feb. 7, the date of the agency's 50th anniversary. 'Everyone at DARPA feels a personal commitment to deliver revolutionary technologies in support of our men and women in uniform.'

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