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Timeline: Celebrating 50 Years of Scientific Discovery and NOVA Moments

By Katrina Munichiello

For the past 50 years, NOVA has informed, educated, and inspired us. It has brought us deep inside the stories of some of the ages’ greatest scientific discoveries and advances, from the recovery of the Lucy skeleton in 1974 to advancements in artificial intelligence in 2024. GBH has produced more than 900 NOVA programs that help us see the wonder of the world around us. Check out our timeline below to learn about some of the big discoveries NOVA has shared with us and key moments in NOVA’s storied history.

Dark-haired man with light skin in plaid shirt, dark vest, and tie speaking while sitting in a chair in front of a bookshelf

NOVA in the 1970s
NOVA’s first episode, The Making of a Natural History Film, airs on March 3, 1974. NOVA earns the George Peabody Award (NOVA series), the Alfred I. duPont–Columbia Award (Incident at Brown’s Ferry), and an Emmy® Award nomination (outstanding informational series). Since then, NOVA has earned nine Peabodys, 13 duPont awards, and nearly two dozen Emmy® awards.

Hand removing cover from petri dish with red spots of bacteria growth

1970s Discoveries/Advances NOVA Covered
1974: Discovery of the Lucy skeleton: In Search of Human Origins: The Story of Lucy (1994)
1974: Charmed quark discovered: The Hunting of the Quark (1974) and Particles Unknown (2021)
1976: Viking Mars landing: The Search for Life (1974)

Other 1970s discoveries covered by NOVA: The Terracotta Army in China, the role of endorphins in the human body, hydrothermal vent ecosystems in the ocean, and the role of genetics in autism

Photograph of the surface of planet Earth as seen from outer space with rays of the sun from above

NOVA in the 1980s
NOVA’s first climate change production airs in 1983. Since then, NOVA has produced more than 30 climate films. NOVA releases its first giant-screen film in 1989. To the Limit tours IMAX theaters worldwide. It’s the first documentary of its kind to use inner-body photography and a new high-speed IMAX camera that slowed motion. NOVA also broadcasts one of its most popular films of all-time, The Miracle of Life, featuring Lennart Nilsson's stunning photography of the human reproductive process.

Three surgeons with masks, head coverings, and gowns looking down, standing closely and looking down, presumably at operating table.

1980s Discoveries/Advances NOVA Covered
1982: First permanent artificial heart transplant:
The Artificial Heart (1983)
1983: HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, discovered:
AIDS: Chapter One (1985)
1985: Scientists identify the hole in the ozone layer caused by CFCs: The Hole in the Sky (1987)
1986: Race to find higher-temperature superconductors begins: Race for the Superconductor (1988)

Other 1980s discoveries covered by NOVA: New imaging techniques that could capture human embryonic development and the emergence of scientific consensus around the role of greenhouse gasses in warming the planet

Large dark letters spelling out NOVA on a purple, white, and black swirling background

NOVA in the 1990s
NOVA celebrates its 20th anniversary in 1993 with The NOVA Quiz, hosted by Marc Summers. In 1996, NOVA publishes its first website and also receives the Carl Sagan Award for Public Appreciation of Science. NOVA releases its large-format film, Special Effects: Anything Can Happen, to IMAX theaters. It goes on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short Subject.

Mother sheep and three baby sheep in a meadow, with two of the baby sheep eating the grass

1990s Discoveries/Advances NOVA Covered
1991: Discovery of a 5,300-year-old body preserved in ice: Iceman (1992)
1993: Fermat’s Last Theorem solved: The Proof (1997)
1995: 51 Pegasi b discovered, the first planet outside our solar system identified as orbiting a main-sequence star: Hunt for Alien Worlds (1997)
1998: Discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe, leading to the proposed existence of dark energy: Runaway Universe (2000), Invisible Universe Revealed (2015), and Decoding the Universe: Cosmos (2024)

Other 1990s moments covered by NOVA: The mission to repair the Hubble telescope, evidence that whales evolved from land-dwelling mammals, landing the first Mars rover, cloning Dolly the Sheep, and the identification of the first human embryonic stem cells

Black and white photograph of the profile of a balding man with light skin in a dark suit with a very full white and gray beard

NOVA in the 2000s
The Elegant Universe, a Peabody Award–winning, 3-part series on the topic of string theory airs in 2003. NOVA scienceNOW premieres in 2005 and in 2006, NOVA posts its first YouTube video, The Cosmic Office with Neil deGrasse Tyson. In 2009, NOVA celebrates Charles Darwin's 200th birthday with new programs on evolution: Darwin's Darkest Hour, Becoming Human, and What Darwin Never Knew.

Photo of a Mars landscape with reddish dirt hills and a yellow-tinted sky.

2000s Discoveries/Advances NOVA Covered
2001: “Complete” human genome unveiled: Cracking the Code of Life (2001)
2004: NASA lands the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars: Mars Dead or Alive (2004)/Welcome to Mars (2005)
2005: Discovery of a planet-like object more massive than Pluto puts Pluto’s planet status into doubt:
The Pluto Files (2010)

Other 2000s moments covered by NOVA: A supermassive black hole in the Milky Way, the identification of genetic sequences in certain microorganisms that would eventually allow the development of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, identifying soft tissue inside a T. rex fossil, and the first landing of a spacecraft on a moon in the outer solar system

Black sky with black circular object in center and wispy white light radiating from behind the object.

NOVA in the 2010s
Making Stuff, hosted by David Pogue, premieres in 2011. More than 14 million viewers watched that year and NOVA Labs launches a year late. During the 2017 total eclipse, NOVA streams a Facebook Live event. Eclipse Over America aired that night with images shot just hours earlier.

NOVA Science Studios launches in 2018, engaging youth in telling science stories. The film Addiction also releases that year, with screenings across the country inspiring community discussions.

Photo of older man with white hair and light skin wearing a red hard hat, gray shirt, and dark blue jacket standing between two large metallic pieces of equipment.

2010s Discoveries/Advances NOVA Covered
2012: Higgs boson detected at CERN:
Big Bang Machine (2015)
2016: New elements, the heaviest known, added to the periodic table: Hunting the Elements (2012)
2018: Organic molecules discovered on Mars: Looking for Life on Mars (2021)
2019: First black hole “photographed”: NOVA Universe Revealed: Black Holes (2021)

Other 2010s stories covered by NOVA: The fact that some humans have Neanderthal DNA, the sequencing of an ancient man’s genome from a 4,000-year-old strand of his hair, the discovery of two ships that had vanished in the Northwest Passage in the 1840s, and the detection of gravitational waves that originated from the collision of two black holes


NOVA in the 2020s
In 2020, NOVA releases Decoding COVID-19, produced entirely from lockdown. The film receives a duPont-Columbia Journalism Award. In 2021, NOVA produces its 900th episode and in 2022, NOVA launches a TikTok channel.

In 2024, NOVA celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Also in the 2020s, NOVA Science Studio goes national and NOVA hires its first-ever science and equity editor.

Individual in white laboratory coveralls standing in large metal cylinder facing an array of six gold hexagonal panels in a honeycomb configuration.

2020s Discoveries/Advances NOVA Covered
2021: NASA launches the James Webb Telescope: Ultimate Space Telescope (2022)/New Eye on the Universe (2023) 
2021: Human footprints in New Mexico are dated to 21,000–23,000 years ago: Ice Age Footprints (2022)
2022: Ancient settlements in the Amazon rainforest discovered with LiDAR: Ancient Builders of the Amazon (2023)
2022: DNA from a 2-million-year-old ecosystem sequenced: Hunt for the Oldest DNA (2024)

Other 2020s events covered by NOVA: Work on mRNA vaccines and exploding “sinkholes” in the Arctic caused by methane from melting permafrost