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The Space Race

For two superpowers at the cutting edge of technology, the sky was not the limit. Let's see how the Space Race captured the United States and the Soviet Union and changed the horizons of humanity forever!

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The Space Race

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For two superpowers at the cutting edge of technology, the sky was not the limit. Let's see how the Space Race captured the United States and the Soviet Union and changed the horizons of humanity forever!

What was the Space Race?

The space race was a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War to see who could make the most progress in space exploration. This included launching satellites, putting people into space, and eventually landing on the moon. Both countries saw the space race as a way to demonstrate their technological superiority and political power.

The Space Race was a 20th-century competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to demonstrate their technological, military, and political superiority in space exploration.

The Space Race began in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit. It ended in 1975 with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a joint space mission between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Space Race is considered a major part of the Cold War and had significant impact on scientific advancements and international relations.

Causes of the Space Race

The Space Race emerged from the ideological polarisation of the Cold War. As the United States and the Soviet Union jostled for power, they each wanted to prove their supremacy by propelling mankind into the stratosphere.

The Arms and Space Race

The origins of the Arms Race and the Cold War lie in the dying embers of World War II. The secret Manhattan Project and the dropping of two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 led the Japanese to surrender and brought the war to a close. However, it was not only the atomic bomb that was a new formidable weapon.

German scientists had developed the V2 rocket which, although temperamental, had the potential to accurately hit targets across the world. Once Western powers and the United States occupied Germany in 1945, they handpicked the scientific talent that had worked on the V2 rocket and other projects so that they could further develop their nuclear arsenals.

The Space Race Anatomy of a V2 rocket StudySmarterFig. 1 - Anatomy of a V2 rocket

Technology was now intrinsically linked to military success and once the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union had grown to include Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) by 1957, hysteria in the United States was palpable. The US would not test ICBMs until 1959.

There was now a "missile gap" with United States cities within reach of Soviet nuclear warheads. Now the oceans that separated the United States from the Soviet Union were irrelevant and the early success of the Soviet space program, which made use of the same technology, only compounded these fears.

Space Race: Cold War

In the context of the Cold War, the Space Race presented the perfect opportunity to showcase the merits of each political ideology, capitalism and communism.

Capitalism

The political ideology of the United States, built on a free-market economy and individualism.

Communism

The political ideology of the Soviet Union, built on a state-controlled economy and equality of the collective, rather than the individual.

Fear of communism was high in the US after World War Two, especially during the Red Scare of the late 40s and early 50s. Therefore, when the Soviet Union sent the first satellite to space in 1957 - Sputnik I - fear in the US increased.

Technology was directly linked to military might, and for this reason, the US entered the Space Race, full throttle!

After the success of Sputnik I, this quotation from US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles described the fear of the Americans about Soviet progress:

Despotic societies which can command the activities and resources of all their people can often produce spectacular accomplishments, These, however, do not prove that freedom is not the 'best way'. 1

The Space Race: Timeline

The Space Race lasted almost 20 years. Let's now examine some of the important events that defined this era of technological innovation and competition in the Space Race timeline below. In 1955 both countries announced their intention to put a satellite into space. The race was on!

Table 1. The Space Race Timeline
YearAchievementDescriptionCountry
1957Launch of Sputnik IFirst artificial satellite launched into spaceUSSR
1957Launch of Sputnik IIFirst animal in space (dog Laika)USSR
1959Luna II reaches moon's surfaceFirst rocket to reach the moon's surfaceUSSR
1961First man in spaceYuri Gagarin becomes first man in space in Vostok IUSSR
1961First American in spaceAlan Shepard becomes first American man in spaceUSA
1963First woman in spaceValentina Tereshkova becomes first woman in spaceUSSR
1964First person to walk in spaceAlexei Leonov walks in space for 12 minutesUSSR
1965First American to walk in spaceEd White walks in space for 23 minutesUSA
1966Soft landing on the moonUSSR lands on the moon, no astronauts on boardUSSR
1969First man on the moonNeil Armstrong becomes the first man on the moonUSA
1975Joint space missionThe Apollo-Soyuz mission resulted in the docking of a US spacecraft to a Soviet space stationUSSR and USA

In 1957, the USSR achieved a major milestone in space exploration by launching the first satellite, Sputnik I. This was followed by Sputnik II, which carried the first animal, a dog named Laika, into space. The success of these missions allowed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to claim the superiority of communism. He even went as far as describing US satellites as "grapefruits" due to their smaller size.

The United States entered the Space Race in 1958 after the failed launch of Vanguard by successfully launching Explorer I. In the same year, the National Security and Defence Act and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were created to improve their space program and coordinate efforts to catch up to the Soviet Union.

In 1959, the Soviet spacecraft Luna II became the first rocket to reach the moon's surface, further establishing the Soviet Union's dominance in space exploration.

Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961 aboard the Vostok I spacecraft, marking another significant victory for the Soviet Union. Just three weeks later, United States astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American man in space. In response, US President John F. Kennedy announced a pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, which later became known as the Apollo program.

In 1963, the Soviet Union achieved another propaganda victory in the Space Race by sending Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman, into space. The following year, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first person to walk in space for twelve minutes, and the USSR launched the first multiperson aircraft into space.

The United States replied with their first spacewalk by astronaut Ed White in 1965, aided by the Gemini program that gave them the technology to implement the Apollo program. In 1966, the Soviet Union landed on the moon, but it was a "soft" landing with no astronauts on board.

Unfortunately, during the failed space missions in 1967, space travellers from the Soviet Union and the United States lost their lives. In response, both superpowers and the UK signed the Outer Space Treaty to regulate space exploration.

In 1969, the United States achieved its greatest victory in the Space Race when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step on the moon's surface from Apollo 11.

As tensions cooled during the period of détente in 1975, a joint space mission was carried out by the Soviet Union and the United States, called the Apollo-Soyuz mission. This mission resulted in the docking of a US spacecraft to a Soviet space station, and with the crews exchanging gifts, the Space Race officially came to an end.

The Space Race Yuri Gagarin statue StudySmarterFig. 2 - Yuri Gagarin statue in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

In stark contrast with the secretive Soviet Union which routinely denied that it had a space program, the United States was clear from the outset about its intentions to be dominant in the Space Race. The 1958 National Security and Defence Act put funding into science education and the learning of languages such as Russian and Chinese for spying purposes. NASA's creation and the Apollo mission were also financially backed to a huge degree:

  • In 1960 NASA spent 500 million dollars.
  • By 1965 this number had increased to 5.2 billion.
  • The total bill on the space program was 60 billion dollars by 1971 and 25 billion on Apollo alone!

Quotations from Cosmonauts and Astronauts

Interestingly, those directly involved in the Space Race did not seem interested in the weaponisation of the program for propaganda purposes. Let's look at a few of their quotations, starting with the most repeated one, used because "mankind" is represented by the United States flag. The others seem to be subverting the ideological reasons for the Space Race.

In the Soviet Union, space travellers were named "cosmonauts" from the Greek words "universe" and "sailor", but the United States named them "astronauts" from the Greek for "star sailor".

That's one small step for man, but one giant leap for mankind.

- Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon (20 July 1969)

I really believe that if all political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of let's say 100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. The all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument, suddenly silenced.

- Michael Collins, another astronaut on Apollo 11 2

Let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it.

- Yuri Gagarin (talking about the earth and the possibility of nuclear war) 3

The Space Race Michael Collin's quarantine suit StudySmarterFig. 3 - Michael Collin's quarantine suit after returning from Apollo 11

Facts about the Space Race

  • For both the United States and the Soviet Union, animals preceded humans in space. The US favoured primates due to their similarity to humans, but Soviet programs chose stray dogs because of their ability to withstand hunger. The first dog in space, Laika, died tragically of overheating, though this was not revealed until years after the launch of Sputnik II.

  • Soviet space helmets were made of 24-karat gold to protect their cosmonauts from sunlight.

  • The Soviet Union landed a rover on the moon in 1970 and set probes to Venus before the United States had put a man on the moon.

  • The Space Race provided many technological advancements that we use today. These include radiography in medicine, freeze-dried food, GPS from satellites and memory foam beds.

  • There is a consensus among those who have visited that the moon smells of gunpowder.

The Space Race: Summary

Historian Karsten Werth comments that the Space Race was an important visible factor in endorsing the ideology of each superpower during the Cold War. For him,

it gave more tangible proof of power to friend or foe than naked statistics of nuclear warheads or hardened military bases. 4

It is hard to disagree with this assertion as the Space Race, despite its military origins of the V2 rocket, created something for each country to be proud of. The moon landing was watched by 53 million different houses in America and the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin is still revered as a national hero whose accomplishment was treated with a huge ceremony.

All in all, when comparing the Space Race to the Arms Race its legacy has been overwhelmingly positive, adding knowledge and technology to humanity. It is impossible to say if such progress could have been made without the competitive race that Cold War conditions created.

The Space Race - Key takeaways

  • A combination of the Arms Race and the ideological polarisation that the Cold War created led to a Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union that ran between 1955 and 1975.
  • The first major achievement of the Space Race was the first satellite in space, sent by the USSR in 1957, named Sputnik I.
  • Whilst the United States replied, the Soviet Union enjoyed more success by making Yuri Gagarin the first man in space aboard Vostok I.
  • The United States stepped up their space program with huge investment, keeping President Kennedy's promise of putting a man on the moon with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.
  • The Space Race ended in 1975 when a joint Apollo-Soyuz mission symbolised the renewed collaboration of the two superpowers.

References

  1. John M. Logsdon et. al, 'Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S Civil Space Program, Vol 1: Organising for Exploration', NASA (1995).
  2. Twitter, 'Michael Collins', twitter.com (2019).
  3. Kiona N. Smith, 'What Yuri Gagarin Saw From Orbit Changed Him Forever', Forbes (online) (2021).
  4. Karsten Werth, 'A Surrogate for War—The U.S. Space Program in the 1960s', Amerikastudien / American Studies, 49.4 (2004), pp. 563-587.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Space Race

It is difficult to say who won the Space Race. The Soviet Union achieved many of the firsts in terms of space travel but the United States put the first man on the moon in 1969.

The Space Race lasted for twenty years between 1955 and 1975.

Spawned out of the nuclear Arms Race, the Space Race was a race for supremacy in space exploration and technology related to space between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Space Race was important as technological superiority acted as an endorsement of Soviet communism or United States capitalism.

The Space Race led to an immense number of scientific breakthroughs and understanding of the moon and other planets. Many technologies that originated in space are also now used every day.

The launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, is considered the starting point of the space race.

The Space Race technically ended on July 17, 1975, with the launch of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a joint mission between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What was the space race?

Why did the US and USSR decide to start a space race?

What happened in 1967 for both the US and the USSR?

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