IPAC was established in 1985 on the campus of the California Institute of Technology to provide expertise and support for the processing and analysis of data from the joint European-American orbiting infrared telescope, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, or IRAS.

In 1990, IPAC  built the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED), which quickly became an essential tool for extragalactic research. Today, NED is the world's largest database of cross-correlated multiwavelength data for extragalactic objects and services, which spans the entire observed spectrum, from gamma rays to radio frequencies.

In the mid-90s, NASA designated IPAC as the US science support center for their infrared  and sub-millimeter projects and missions.  In response, IPAC formed the NASA/IPAC Infrared Science Archive (IRSA)  in order to (1) curate and serve scientific data products, (2) enable optimal scientific exploration of these data sets by astronomers, and (3) support planning for, operation of, and data set generation from NASA missions. Since its founding,  IRSA has evolved to become the data center for a large number of  space missions, including ISO, MXS, Spitzer, WISE, Herschel, Planck,, as well as ground-based telescope facilities such as 2MASS, PTF, and ZTF.  IRSA continues to expand to better serve existing and future missions.

Already well established as a hub for science data, IPAC continued to expand its expertise to provide multiple mission operations as well as education and outreach services to NASA and the astronomical community. Today, IPAC is the administrative home of the Spitzer Science Center (SSC), the NASA Herschel Science Center (NHSC) and the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI), and the Euclid NASA Science Center at IPAC (ENSCI), which will support the US-based science effort of the Euclid mission, planned for launch in 2020.

IPAC continues to seek out missions and projects where the unique range of expertise developed over three decades can be leveraged to optimally support discovery and the advancement of the scientific frontier.  IPAC staff are currently involved in future large and high-priority mission such as WFIRST, TMT, LSST, and in mission studies to prepare for the US 2020 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey.