The Space Race and the Cold War

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The Space Race and the Cold War


At the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union began a decades-long battle for political, military, and technological superiority. In the absence of any real fighting, space exploration provided a focus for the competition between the two superpowers. From the 1950s to the 1970s the United States and the Soviet Union raced to conquer space, but when tensions eased between the two nations in the 1970s, the urgency of winning the race declined and the race ended with the superpowers cooperating on several projects.


The United States and the Soviet Union emerged from World War II as adversaries in the Cold War—an open rivalry in which the two nations vied for political power and standing in the world without ever fighting an actual battle. Instead, they fought with propaganda and scientific and technological achievements.

Much of the technology that led to space exploration had military beginnings. World War I and World War II resulted in the development of government scientific research facilities charged with designing military airplanes. World War II had provided the motivation for rocket development in the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and other countries. But the Germans were by far the most advanced rocket designers: their V-2, a liquid-propellantfueled rocket, was the ancestor of the rockets that would eventually reach space. Recognizing this, the United States brought several V-2s back for research after the war, and launched "Operation Paperclip," an effort to recruit as many top German scientists as possible to the United States to continue their research.

At the end of the war, it appeared that the United States was the clear technological giant in the world—they had detonated the first atomic bomb in 1945 and the first hydrogen bomb in 1952. Despite this advantage and the presence of German scientists in the United States, the Soviet Union quickly made great advances in rocketry. During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) both countries announced plans to launch satellites into space. But the United States was still working on a launch vehicle when the Soviet Union stunned the world by announcing that it had successfully placed a satellite, Sputnik I, in orbit on October 4, 1957.

A month later, on November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik II, carrying a dog named Laika. The United States tried to catch up, but its first attempt at a launch, on December 6, 1957, failed when the Vanguard rocket rose four feet and crashed back to the launch pad. It was instantly called "Flopnik," or "Kaputnik." Finally on January 31, 1958, the United States launched its first satellite, Explorer I. The space race had officially begun.


The early Soviet successes in space dealt a blow to American pride and confidence. Serious attempts to reach space had been neglected in the United States, where military officials preferred to concentrate on weapons development, and where the Eisenhower administration had been so concerned with keeping the nation's budget balanced that it had cut funding to all scientific efforts.

The launch of Sputnik was a wake-up call. Americans feared that the world would see the Soviet system as superior, and many questioned whether the free and open society of 1950s America was as dominant as they had thought. The U.S. space program, previously a concern only among scientists and engineers, was suddenly important to everyday people as well. Military experts, meanwhile, took the satellite launch as proof that the Soviet Union was probably ahead in ballistic missile development as well. The feeling was that if the Russians could get a satellite into space, then they could probably land a warhead on American soil as well.

With this fear spurring them on, U.S. officials scrambled to piece together a space program in an attempt to salvage some national pride and international prestige. President Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 to oversee the space program and to make sure the United States caught up to the Soviet Union. The space race continued though the 1950s and 1960s, with the United States and the Soviet Union competing for each progressive step of space exploration.

Having lost the initial leg of the race, the United States aimed to be the first to reach the moon. But the first attempt to launch, in August 1958, failed when the rocket carrying the Pioneer 0 moon probe exploded on the launch pad. That same year the launches of Pioneer probes 1, 2, and 3 were also unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the Soviets were also working on a moon launch. As in the United States, the first attempt failed when the Luna 1 probe launched but did not reach the moon in early 1959. But the Luna program soon got off the ground, and the Soviets racked up more firsts—the first solar orbit, the first impact on the moon, and the first photographs of the moon from a lunar orbit (which allowed the Russians to name many of the moon's geological features).

American pride was at a low. The nation that had emerged from World War II as the most powerful on earth was being humbled and technologically crippled by its enemy. In the face of this seeming defeat, the United States decided to aim for the ultimate prize—a man on the moon. With that in mind, Project Mercury was begun in 1958 with the goals of orbiting a manned spacecraft around the earth, studying man's ability to function in space, and recovering both man and spacecraft safely. But once again, the Soviet Union did it first. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968), a Russian cosmonaut, became the first man in space. This time, the United States was not so far behind. On May 5, 1961, Commander Alan Shepard (1923-1998) of the U.S. Navy became the first American in space, orbiting earth in the Mercury 7 capsule.

American officials scrambled to find a way to catch up. President John F. Kennedy met with advisers who felt that the only way to win the space race was to get a man to the moon first. So in a speech given on May 25, 1961, Kennedy rallied the nation around the space program. "If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny," he said, "now it is the time to take longer strides—time for a great new American enterprise—time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth." Then he issued his famous challenge: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."

Kennedy's challenge restored national interest in space. The U.S. space program accelerated, and the race to space with the Soviets intensified. On August 6, 1961, the Soviets struck again. Cosmonaut Gherman Titov (1935- ) and the Vostok 2 capsule spent more than 25 hours in space, orbiting the earth 17 times. The next year, on February 20, 1962, John Glenn (1921- ) became the first American in orbit. For the next seven years, the United States and the Soviet Union raced to get to the ultimate prize first. The Soviets put the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova (1937- ), in space in 1963, and a cosmonaut took the first spacewalk in 1965. The first American spacewalk came just a few months later, but then the Soviets racked up a series of other firsts—the first impact on Venus, the first soft landing on the moon, and the first orbit of the moon with a safe return.

For all its earlier second-place finishes, the Unites States managed to cross the finish line first when it counted. The first man on the moon was an American, Neil Armstrong (1930- ), and he walked on the moon before the end of the 1960s, just as Kennedy had promised. But soon after this victory, in the early 1970s, the United States' interest in conquering space waned, as sociopolitical issues preoccupied the nation's interest.

Simultaneously, the Soviet program began to falter. In 1971 the Soviet Union announced that it was shifting the focus of its space program to long-term living in space; later that year the Salyut program began, launching a number of stations that conducted experiments in space and hosted astronauts from other nations. Not to be outdone, the United States sent up the space station Skylab in 1973. But by this time, further détente between the Unites States and the Soviet Union cooled any chance of starting a new space race. The Cold War was coming to an end and the hostilities of the 1950s were being forgotten.

Some experts consider the official end of the space race to be 1975, when the Soviet Soyuz craft docked with the American Apollo 18, the first-ever international space rendezvous. The Cold War also ended peacefully, with the United States and Soviet Union never actually going to war—except to compete for the patriotism of their respective people and the international prestige of conquering space.


Further Reading

Burrows, William E. This New Ocean. New York: Random House, 1999.

Collins, Martin J. Space Race: The U.S.–U.S.S.R. Competition to Reach the Moon. New York: Pomegranate Press,1999.

Crouch, Tom D. Aiming for the Stars: The Dreamers and Doers of the Space Age. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.

Schefter, James. The Race: The Uncensored Story of How America Beat Russia to the Moon. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

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The Space Race and the Cold War

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