The Space Race, an informal competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, lasted roughly from 1957 to 1975. It involved the parallel efforts by each of those countries to explore outer space with artificial satellites, to send humans into space, and to land people on the moon.
Though its roots lie in early rocket technology and in the international tensions following World War II, the Space Race effectively began with the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957. The term originated as an analogy to the arms race. The Space Race became an important part of the cultural and technological rivalry between the USSR and the U.S. during the Cold War. Space technology became a particularly important arena in this conflict, both because of its military applications and due to the psychological benefit of raising morale.
rockets launched U.S. spacecraft from the 1960s through the 1980s.
Early military influences
Rockets have interested scientists and amateurs for at least 2,100 years. The Chinese used them as weapons as early as the 11th century. Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky theorized in the 1880s on multi-stage, liquid fuel rockets which might reach space, but only in 1926 did the American Robert Goddard design a practical liquid-fuel rocket.
Goddard performed his work on rocketry in obscurity, as the scientific community, the public, and even The New York Times scoffed at him. It took war to catapult rocketry into notoriety. This proved a harbinger for the future, as any "space race" would become inextricably linked to military ambitions of the countries involved, despite its mostly scientific character and peaceful rhetoric.
German V-2 test launch.
In the mid-1920s, German scientists had begun experimenting with rockets which used liquid propellants capable of reaching relatively high altitudes and distances. In 1932, the Reichswehr, predecessor of the Wehrmacht, took an interest in rocketry for long-range artillery fire. Wernher von Braun, an aspiring rocket scientist, joined the effort and developed such weapons for Nazi Germany's use in World War II.
The German A-4 Rocket, launched in 1942, became the first such projectile to reach space. In 1943, Germany began production of its successor, the V-2 rocket, with a range of 300 km (185 miles) and carrying a 1000 kg (2200 lb) warhead. The Wehrmacht fired thousands of V-2s at Allied nations, causing massive damage and loss of life.
As World War II drew to a close, Soviet, British, and U.S. military and scientific crews raced to capture technology and trained personnel from the German rocket program installation at Peenemünde. The USSR and Britain had some success, but the United States arguably benefited most, taking a large number of German rocket scientists – many of them members of the Nazi Party, including von Braun – from Germany to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. There scientists adapted the German rockets -- intended for use against Britain -- to other uses.
Post-war scientists turned to rockets to study high-altitude conditions (via radio-telemetry of temperature and pressure of the atmosphere), cosmic rays, and other topics. This continued under von Braun and his colleagues, who became part of the U.S. scientific complex.
Cold War roots of the Space Race
After World War II the United States and the Soviet Union became locked in a bitter Cold War of espionage and propaganda. Space exploration and satellite technology could feed into the cold war on both fronts. Satellite-borne equipment could spy on other countries, while space-faring accomplishments could serve as propaganda to tout a country's scientific prowess and military potential. The same rockets that might send a human into orbit or hit a specific spot on the Moon could send an atom bomb to a specific enemy city. Much of the technological development required for space travel applied equally well to wartime rockets such as Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Along with other aspects of the arms race, progress in space appeared as an indicator of technological and economic prowess, demonstrating the superiority of the ideology of that country. Space research had a dual purpose: it could serve peaceful ends, but could also contribute to military goals.
The two superpowers each worked to gain an edge in space research, neither knowing who might make a breakthrough first. They had each laid the groundwork for a race to space, and awaited only the starter's gun.
Artificial satellites start the "race"
Sputnik ... and America's reaction
weighed less than 90 kg
and orbited the Earth
for less than three months.
On 4 October 1957, the USSR successfully launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to reach orbit, and the Space Race began. Because of its military and economic implications, Sputnik caused fear and stirred political debate in the United States. Before Sputnik, the average American assumed that the U.S. had superiority in all fields of technology. Von Braun's counterpart in the Soviet Union, Sergei Korolev, the chief engineer who designed the R-7 rocket which sent Sputnik into orbit, would later engineer the N-1, designed to launch cosmonauts to the Moon. In response to Sputnik, the U.S. would launch a huge effort to regain technological supremacy, including revamping the school curricula in the hope of producing more von Brauns and Korolevs.
Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President to President John F. Kennedy, expressed the motivation for these American efforts as follows:
- In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.1
The American public, initially discouraged and frightened by Sputnik, became captivated by the American projects which followed. Schoolchildren followed the succession of launches, and building replicas of rockets became a popular hobby. President Kennedy gave speeches encouraging people to support the space program and trying to overcome the skepticism of many who felt the millions of dollars might better go on building stocks of proven, existing armaments, or on fighting poverty.
Nearly four months after the launch of Sputnik 1, the U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer I. In the interim, a number of embarrassing launch failures had occurred at Cape Canaveral. On 31 January 1958, Explorer I discovered the Van Allen radiation belt. While the Soviets had scored the initial "first", Explorer I proved the first satellite to perform a meaningful scientific function.
The first communications satellite, Project SCORE, launched on December 18 1958, relayed a Christmas message from President Eisenhower to the world. Other notable examples of satellite communication during (or spawned by) the Space Race include:
- 1962: Telstar: the first experimental transoceanic communications satellite
- 1972: Anik 1: first domestic communications satellite (Canada)
- 1974: WESTAR: first U.S. domestic communications satellite
- 1976: MARISAT : first mobile communications satellite
Other noteworthy satellites
The U.S. launched the first geosynchronous satellite, Syncom-2, on July 26 1963. The success of this class of satellite meant that a simple satellite dish no longer needed to track the orbit of the satellite, as that orbit remained geostationary. Henceforth ordinary citizens could use satellite-mediated communications transmissions for television broadcasts, after a one-time setup.
More Soviet successes: Living creatures in space
Animals in space
Technically, fruit flies launched by the U.S. on captured German V-2 rockets in 1946 became the first animals intentionally sent into space for scientific study. The first mammal sent into orbit, the dog Laika, travelled in the USSR's Sputnik 2 in 1957. While in any event the technology did not exist at the time to recover Laika after her flight, she died of stress and overheating soon after reaching space. In 1960 Russian space dogs Belka and Strelka orbited the earth and successfully returned. The American space program imported chimpanzees from Africa, and sent at least two into space before launching their first human orbiter. Scientists then used these animals and their dozens of descendants for biomedical research until public outcry led to their "release" to semi-wild conditions in the late 1990s. Soviet-launched turtles on Zond 5 became the first animals to fly around the Moon (September 1968).
Humans in space
Yuri Gagarin became the first successful cosmonaut when he entered orbit in Russia's Vostok 1 on April 12 1961, a day still celebrated as a holiday in Russia and in many other countries. Alan Shepard, on mission Freedom 7, first entered space for the U.S. 23 days later. John Glenn, in Friendship 7, became the first American to successfully orbit Earth, completing three orbits on February 20 1962.
The first dual-manned flight also originated in the USSR, August 11 - 15, 1962. Soviet Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space on June 16 1963 in Vostok 6. Korolev had initially scheduled further Vostok missions of longer duration, but following the announcement of the Apollo Program, Premier Khrushchev demanded more firsts. The first flight with more than one crew member, the USSR's Voskhod 1, a modified version of the Vostok craft, took off on October 12 1964. This flight also marked the first occasion on which a crew did not wear spacesuits.
Aleksei Leonov, from Voskhod 2, launched by the USSR on March 18 1965, carried out the first spacewalk. This mission nearly ended in disaster; Leonov almost failed to return to the capsule and, due to a poor retrorocket fire, the ship landed 1000 miles (1600 km) off target. By this time Khrushchev had left office and the new Soviet leadership would not commit to an all-out effort.
See Main article: Moon landing
Though the achievements made by the US and the USSR brought great pride to their respective nations, the ideological climate ensured that the Space Race would continue at least until the first human walked on the moon. Before this achievement, unmanned spacecraft had to first explore the moon by photography and demonstrate their ability to land safely on it.
Following the Soviet success in placing the first satellite into orbit, the Americans focused their efforts on sending a probe to the moon. They called the first attempt to do this the "Pioneer" program. The Soviet Luna program became operational with the launch of Luna 1 on January 4 1959. The Americans' robotic Surveyor program had the goal of locating a potential landing-site on the moon. Following this, Apollo 8 carried out the first manned orbit of the moon on December 27 1968, laying the groundwork for placing a man on the moon.
Landing a human on the moon
While the Soviets beat the Americans to most of the Space Race's initial firsts, they failed to beat the U.S. Apollo program to land a man on the moon.
After the early Soviet successes, especially Gagarin's flight, President Kennedy looked for an American project that might capture the public imagination. Lyndon Johnson championed the Apollo Program, which would economically benefit most of the key states in the next election, particularly Johnson's own state of Texas, home to NASA's base in Houston. The Apollo project supported dual-use technology, and in Johnson's view, gave the US a chance of surpassing the Soviets. Kennedy saw Apollo as the ideal focus for American efforts in space. He set up funding, shielding space spending from the 1963 tax cut and diverting money from other NASA projects, to the dismay of NASA's leader, James E. Webb.
Kennedy had claimed during the 1960 election that the previous administration had allowed a "missile gap" to develop between the US and USSR, although intelligence later showed that the only gap favored the US. In conversation with Webb, Kennedy said:
- Everything we do ought to really be tied in to getting on to the moon ahead of the Russians... otherwise we shouldn't be spending that kind of money, because I'm not interested in space... The only justification (for the cost) is because we hope to beat the USSR to demonstrate that instead of being behind by a couple of years, by God, we passed them.2.
Kennedy needed a different message to gain public support. He asked Johnson to investigate the possible technological and scientific benefits of a moon mission. The program would have to defeat criticism from politicians on the left, who wanted more money for social programs, and those on the right, who favored a more military project. By emphasizing the scientific payoff and playing on fears of Soviet space dominance, Kennedy and Johnson managed to swing public opinion: by 1965, 58 percent of Americans favored Apollo, up from 33 percent in 1963. After Johnson became President in 1963, his continuing support allowed the program to succeed, as Kennedy had originally hoped.
The USSR showed a greater ambivalence about human visits to the moon. Soviet leader Khrushchev wanted neither "defeat" by another power, nor the expense of such a project. In October 1963 he characterized the USSR as "not at present planning flight by cosmonauts to the moon", while adding that they had not dropped out of the race. A year passed before the USSR committed itself to a moon-landing attempt.
Kennedy proposed joint programs, such as a moon landing by Soviet and American astronauts and improved weather-monitoring satellites. Khrushchev, sensing an attempt to steal superior Russian space technology, rejected these ideas. Korolev, the Soviet Space Agency's chief designer, had started promoting his Soyuz craft and the N-1 launcher rocket which had the capacity for a manned moon landing. Khrushchev directed Korolev's design bureau to arrange further space firsts by modifying the existing Vostok technology, while a second team started building a completely new launcher and craft, the Proton booster and the Zond, for a manned cislunar flight in 1966. In 1964 the new Soviet leadership gave Korolev the backing for a moon landing effort and brought all manned projects under his direction. With Korolev's death and the failure of the first Soyuz flight in 1967, the co-ordination of the Soviet moon landing program quickly unravelled. The Soviets built a landing craft and selected cosmonauts for the mission that would have placed Aleksei Leonov on the moon's surface, but with the successive launch failures of the N1 booster in 1969, plans for a manned landing suffered first delay and then cancellation.
Apollo 11 gets there first
While unmanned Soviet probes did reach the moon before any U.S. craft, American Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the lunar surface, after landing in July of 1969. Commander of the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong received backup from command-module pilot Michael Collins and lunar-module pilot Buzz Aldrin in an event watched by over 500 million people around the world. Social commentators widely recognize the lunar landing as one of the defining moments of the 20th century, and Armstrong's words on his first touching the moon's surface became similarly memorable:
That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.
Other aspects of the moon landing
Unlike other international rivalries, the Space Race has remained unaffected by the desire for territorial expansion. After its successful landings on the Moon, the U.S. explicitly disclaimed the right to ownership of any part of the Moon.
Some conspiracy theorists still insist on seeing the lunar landing as a hoax. These Apollo moon landing hoax accusations flourish in part because, while many enthusiasts predicted that moon landings would become commonplace, except for the several ensuing Apollo landings in the next decade such predictions have not yet come to pass.
Missions to other planets
The Soviet Union first sent planetary probes, to both Venus and Mars in 1960. The first spacecraft to successfully fly by Venus, the U.S.'s Mariner 2, did so on December 14 1962. It sent back surprising data on the high surface temperature and air density of Venus. Since it carried no cameras, its findings did not capture public attention as did images from space probes, which far exceeded the capacity of astronomers' earth-based telescopes.
The USSR's Venera 7, launched in 1971, became the first craft to land on Venus. Venera 9 then transmitted the first pictures from the surface of another planet. These represent only two in the long Venera series; several other previous Venera spacecraft performed flyby operations and attempted landing missions. Seven other Venera landers followed.
The US launched Mariner 10, which flew by Venus on its way to Mercury, in 1974. It became the first, and so far the only, spacecraft to fly by Mercury.
Mariner 4, launched in 1965 by the U.S., became the first probe to fly by Mars; it transmitted completely unexpected images. The first spacecraft on Mars, Mars 3, launched in 1971 by the USSR, did not return pictures. The US Viking landers of 1976 transmitted the first such pictures.
The U.S also sent Pioneer 10 on a successful fly by of Jupiter in 1973. This foreshadowed the first flyby of Saturn in 1979 with Pioneer 11, and the first and only flybys of Uranus and Neptune with Voyager 2.
Launches and docking
The first space rendezvous took place between Gemini 6 and Gemini 7, both U.S. craft, on December 15 1965. Their successor, Gemini 8, performed the first space docking on March 16 1968. The first automatic space docking linked the USSR's Cosmos-186 and Cosmos-188 on October 30 1967.
The first launch from the sea took place with the U.S.'s Scout B , on April 26 1967. The first space station, the USSR's Salyut 1, commenced operations on June 7 1971.
Military competition in space
Out of view, but no less real a competition, the drive to develop space for military uses paralleled scientific efforts. Well before the launch of Sputnik 1, both the US and the USSR started developing plans for reconnaissance satellites. The Soviet Zenith spacecraft, which by the dual-use designed in by Korolev eventually became Vostok, began as a photoimaging satellite. It competed with the US Air Force's Discoverer series. Discoverer XIII provided the first payload recovered from space in August 1960 - one day ahead of the first Soviet recovered payload.
Both the US and USSR developed major military space programs, often following a pattern whereby the US only completed a mockup before its program ended, while the USSR built, or even orbited, theirs:
- Supersonic Intercontinental Cruise Missile: Navaho (test program stopped) vs. Buran cruise missile (plan)
- Small Winged Spacecraft: X-20 Dyna-Soar (mockup) vs. MiG-105 (flight-tested)
- Satellite Inspection Capsule: Blue Gemini (mockup) vs. Soyuz interceptor (plan)
- Military Space Station: MOL (plan) vs. Almaz (flown somewhat modified as Salyut 2, 3, and 5)
- Military Capsule with hatch in heat shield: Gemini B (tested crewless in space) vs. Merkur space capsule (flown crewless as part of TKS)
- Ferry to Military Space Station: Gemini Ferry (plan) vs. TKS (flown crewless in space, and docked with a Salyut)
The "end" of the Space Race
While the Sputnik 1 launch can clearly be called the start of the Space Race, its end is more debatable. Most hotly contested during the 1960s, the Space Race continued apace through the Apollo moon landing of 1969. Although they followed Apollo 11 with five more manned lunar landings, American space scientists turned to new arenas. Skylab would gather data, and the Space Shuttle would work on returning spaceships intact from space journeys. Americans would claim that by first landing a man on the moon they had won this unofficial "race". Soviet scientists meanwhile pushed ahead with their own projects, and would likely not have conceded anything like defeat. In any event, as the Cold War cooled, and as other nations began to develop their own space programs, the notion of a continuing "race" between the two superpowers became less real.
Both nations had developed manned military space programs. The USAF had proposed using its Titan missile to launch the Dyna-Soar hypersonic glider to use in intercepting enemy satellites. The plan for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (using hardware based on the Gemini program to carry out surveillance missions) superceded Dyna-Soar, but this also suffered cancellation. The USSR commissioned the Almaz program for a similar manned military space station, which merged with the Salyut program.
The Space Race slowed after the Apollo landing, which many observers describe as its apex or even as its end. Others, including space historian Carole Scott and Romanian Dr. Florin Pop's Cold War Project, feel its end came most clearly with the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975. The Soviet craft Soyuz-19 met and docked in space with America's Apollo 18, allowing astronauts from the "rival" nations to pass into each other's ships and participate in combined experimentation. Although each country's endeavors in space persisted, they went largely in different "directions", and the notion of a continuing two-nation "race" became outdated after Apollo-Soyuz.
Organization, funding and the economic impact
The huge expenditures and bureaucracy needed to organize successful space exploration led to the creation of national space agencies. The United States and the Soviet Union developed programs focused solely on the scientific and industrial requirements for these efforts.
On July 29 1958
, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA
). When it began operations on October 1 1958
, NASA consisted mainly of the four laboratories and some 8,000 employees of the government's 46-year-old research agency for aeronautics, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics
(NACA). While its predecessor, NACA, operated on a $
5 million budget, NASA funding rapidly accelerated to $5 billion per year, including huge sums for subcontractors from the private sector. The Apollo 11
moon landing, the high point of NASA's success, cost an estimated 20 to 25 billion USD.
Lack of reliable statistics makes it difficult to compare U.S. and Soviet space spending, especially during the Khruschev years. However in 1989, the then-Chief of Staff of the Soviet Armed Services, General M. Moiseyev, reported that the Soviet Union had allocated 6.9 billion rubles (about $4 billion) to its space program that year3. Other Soviet officials estimated that their total manned space expenses totalled about that amount over the entire duration of the programs, with some lower unofficial estimates of about four and half billion rubles. In addition to the murkiness of the figures, such comparisons must also take into account the likely effect of Soviet propaganda, which pursued the goal of making the Soviet Union look strong and of confusing the Western analysis.
Inefficient organization also plagued the Soviet effort. The USSR had nothing like NASA (the Russian Aviation and Space Agency originated only in the 1990s). Too many political issues in science, imaginary values instead of real ones, and too many personal views handicapped Soviet progress. Every Soviet chief designer had to stand for his own ideas, looking for the patronage of a communist official.
The Soviets also operated in the face of a largely impoverished population not enjoying the fruits of the expanding U.S. economy. Eventually the Soviets' inefficient economy, organization, and lack of funds led them to lose their early advantage. The high economic cost of the space race, along with the extremely expensive arms race, eventually deepened the economic crisis of the communist economic system and proved one of the factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When America's Apollo 15 left the moon, the astronauts left behind a memorial to astronauts from both nations who had perished during the efforts to reach the moon. In the United States, the first astronauts to die during direct participation in space travel or preparation served in Apollo 1: Command Pilot Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward White, and Pilot Roger Chaffee. These three died in a fire during a ground test on January 27, 1967.
Flights of the Soviet Union's Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 11 also resulted in cosmonaut deaths. Soyuz 1, launched into orbit on April 23 1967, carried a single cosmonaut, Colonel Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov, who died when the spacecraft crashed after return to Earth. In 1971, Soyuz 11's cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov asphyxiated during re-entry. The monitoring of Soviet telemetry has led to claims of other deaths (based on audio or loss of their telemetered vital signs in spaceflight) which the Soviet Union did not announce.
Other astronauts died in related missions, including four Americans who died in crashes of T-38 aircraft. Russian Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, met a similar death when he crashed in a MiG fighter in 1968.
1Project Vanguard transferred from the NRL to NASA immediately before launch.
2 The Soviet Union had attempted an earlier rendezvous on August 12, 1962. However, Vostok 3 and Vostok 4 only came within five kilometers of one another, and operated in different orbital planes. Pravda did not mention this information, but indicated that a rendezvous had taken place.
Legacy of the Space Race
Advances in technology and education
Technology, especially in aerospace engineering and electronic communication, advanced greatly during this period. The effects of the Space Race however went far beyond rocketry, physics, and astronomy. "Space age technology" extended to fields as diverse as home economics and forest defoliation studies, and the push to win the race changed the very ways in which students learned science.
American concerns that they had fallen so quickly behind Russia in the race to space led quickly to a push by legislators and educators for greater emphasis on mathematics and on the physical sciences in U.S. schools. America's National Defense Educational Act of 1982 increased funding for these goals from childhood education through the post-graduate level.
The scientists fostered by these efforts helped develop for space exploration technologies which have seen adapted uses ranging from the kitchen to athletic fields. Dried and ready-to-eat foods, stay-dry clothing, and even no-fog ski goggles have their roots in space science.
Today over a thousand artificial satellites orbit earth, relaying communications data around the planet and facilitating remote sensing of data on weather, vegetation, and human movements to nations who employ them. In addition, much of the micro-technology which fuels everyday activities from time-keeping to enjoying music derives from research initially driven by the Space Race.
The USSR remained the undisputed leader in rocketry, even up to the end of the Cold War. The U.S. became superior in electronics, remote sensing, vehicle guidance, and robotic control.
More "space races" to come?
Although its pace has slowed, space exploration continues to advance long after the demise of the first Space Race. The USA launched the first reusable spacecraft (space shuttle) on the 20th anniversary of Gagarin's flight, April 12 1981. On November 15 1988, the USSR launched Buran, the first and only automatic reusable spacecraft. These and other nations continue to launch probes, satellites of many types, and huge space telescopes.
The Space Shuttle Columbia seconds after engine ignition, 1981 (NASA)
The possibility of another international "space race" appeared in 2003, with the successful manned space flight of Shenzhou 5 by the People's Republic of China. An "opponent" could emerge in the shape of the United States, which has started considering the establishment of a permanent base on the Moon, or a manned mission to Mars, or both.
Any subsequent "space race" will likely differ in nature from the original Soviet-American competition. Efforts in what some refer to as "space tourism", to run the first commercial trips into orbit, culminated in a bilateral result. On April 28 2001 American Dennis Tito became the first fee-paying space tourist when he visited the International Space Station on board Russia's Soyuz TM-32. The Ansari X Prize, a competition for private suborbital spaceships, has also evoked the prospect of a new "space race". In late 2004, British aviator-financier Richard Branson announced the launch of Virgin Galactic, a company which will use SpaceShipOne technology, with hopes of launching commercial flights by 2008.
- 1 letter from Johnson written to Kennedy on April 28,1961
- 2 from a tape recording in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library
- 3 James Oberg, in Final Frontier, as reprinted in The New Book of Popular Science Annual, 1992
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- Arrows to the Moon: Avro's Engineers and the Space Race , Chris Gainor (2001). ISBN 1-896522-83-1
- Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon, Colin Burgess, Kate Doolan, Bert Vis (2003). ISBN 0803262124
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- Soyuz: A Universal Spacecraft, Rex Hall, David J. Shayler (2003). ISBN 1852336579
- Space for Women: A History of Women With the Right Stuff, Pamela Freni (2002). ISBN 1931643121
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- Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles, Roger E. Bilstein (2003). ISBN 0813026911
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