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Space Race


During World War II (19391945) Germany developed the world's first long-range guided missiles, firing warheads into English cities. Upon Germany's defeat and the end of the war, the United States recruited German rocket scientists, including Wernher von Braun (19121977), to help begin the U.S. missile program. The United States and Russia had become engaged in an intense military global rivalry, the Cold War. The resulting arms race between the two "superpowers" included the development and stockpiling of thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Under supervision of the U.S. Air Force, missile testing began at Florida's Cape Canaveral launch facilities in the early 1950s. However, the Soviet Union, known to excel in large missile development, shocked the United States when it became the first nation to place a satellite, Sputnik 1, in orbit around Earth in October 1957. A second Russian satellite went up the following month carrying a dog. Suddenly, the "space race" was on and the United States, in desperation, greatly accelerated its space program. Not only did Americans feel vulnerable to direct foreign attack but the U.S. claim to scientific superiority was shaken.

The United States attempted an orbiting satellite launch in December 1957, but the Vanguard missile embarrassingly exploded on lift-off. The following month Explorer 1 blasted successfully into orbit. Through the 1950s the United States and Russia increasingly focused on manned space flight. The United States established the Project Mercury program with its original seven astronauts, a select group of daring Air Force test pilots. To oversee the civilian space program Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in October 1958, taking over control from the military.

In April 1961, a second jolt rippled through the United States when Russia placed the first human, Yury Gagarin (19341968), in orbit around the Earth. The United States responded on May 5, 1961, as Alan Shephard (1923) became the first American in space, riding the somewhat unreliable Redstone rocket into a suborbit trajectory.

With U.S. leadership clearly shaken by Russia's progress, President John F. Kennedy (19611963) on May 25, 1961 proclaimed a national goal to land an astronaut on the moon by the end of the decade and safely return him to earth. The pronouncement came as a surprise even to many in the space program. With the moon identified as the finish line for the space race, a clearly difficult goal was publicly set.

Later in 1961 John Glenn (1921) became the first American to orbit the Earth. Four more manned Mercury flights were followed by Project Gemini in March 1965. Gemini, in its brief existence, introduced twoman space capsules, the first space walks, docking exercises, and more extended flight times. Project Apollo, the heart of the U.S. lunar program, followed in late 1966. A tragic capsule fire in January 1967, killed the first of three Apollo astronaut crews while sitting atop a missile on the launch pad. No further manned space flights occurred until October 1968. Then on Christmas Eve 1968, the first Apollo mission to orbit the moon sent back spectacular pictures to Earth, again captivating the public. Soon afterwards, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (1930) and Neil Armstrong (1930) became the first humans to walk on the moon. An estimated half a billion people around the world watched the event 240,000 miles away on live television. The space race was won.

Five more Apollo missions led to extended walks on the moon and the use of lunar roving vehicles. American society, however, had changed radically since the 1961 Kennedy pronouncement. The United States was in the throes of a highly controversial foreign war in Southeast Asia and domestic unrest was at a peak. Urban riots were tearing apart the national social fabric. Many questioned the billions of dollars spent on a program of debatable scientific value when there were such pressing social issues at home. After the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972, the program came to an abrupt end as funding was curtailed, canceling three more planned Apollo missions. With the space race over, the U.S. space program turned to unmanned exploration, the space shuttle program, and even collaboration with Russia on the Mir space station program and other related projects.

The United States' effort in the space race is recognized as one of the greatest peacetime national efforts in history involving government, the military, science, and industry. In 1966 the $6 billion space budget constituted over four percent of the entire federal budget, exceeding amounts spent on housing and community development. The Apollo program alone cost over $25 billion. At its peak, over 400,000 people were employed in the effort. With public relations a major facet of the space race, the astronauts became public heroes of almost mythological proportions.

However, accomplishments stemming from the space race were largely political. Geologic research objectives were only partially met with the 841 pounds of moon rock collected. The limited scientific benefits went largely to the medical field with advances in digital imaging, biomedical telemetry techniques, and other technological developments. In all, however, an amazing technological feat involving tremendous political and economic commitments had been accomplished within a decade's time.

See also: Arms Race, Cold War


Breuer, William B. Race to the Moon: America's Duel with the Soviets. Westport, CN: Praeger, 1993.

Heppenheimer, T. A. Countdown: A History of Space Flight. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.

Kauffman, James L. Selling Outer Space: Kennedy, the Media, and Funding for Project Apollo, 19611963. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.

Lambright, W. Henry. Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Reeves, Robert. The Superpower Space Race: An Explosive Rivalry Through the Solar System. New York: Plenum Press, 1994.

on july 20, 1969, apollo 11 astronauts edwin "buzz" aldrin and neil armstrong became the first humans to walk on the moon. an estimated half a billion people around the world watched the event 240,000 miles away on live television. the space race was won.

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