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The Space Race

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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!

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 Space Race Atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki StudySmarter

Atomic bombing of Japanese cities Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right) by the United States (1945), Wikimedia Commons

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.

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 1955 both countries announced their intention to put a satellite into space, the race was on!

YearEvent
1957The USSR launched the first satellite into space, Sputnik I. This was quickly followed by Sputnik II when dog Laika became the first animal in space. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was able to claim the superiority of communism as a result. He would go on to describe US satellites as "grapefruits" because of their small size.
1958After the failed launch of Vanguard in 1957, the United States launched the satellite Explorer I in 1958 to truly begin the Space Race. The United States also created the National Security and Defence Act and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to organise and improve their space program.
1959Soviet spacecraft Luna II became the first rocket to reach the moon's surface.
1961Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut, became the first man in space in Vostok I. This was the first major victory of the Space Race. Three weeks later, United States astronaut Alan Shepard became their first man in space. United States President John. F Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. This became known as the Apollo program.
1963The USSR became the first country to put a woman in space. Her name was Valentina Tereshkova. This was another propaganda victory for the Soviet Union in terms of gender equality.
1964Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first man to walk in space. He did so for twelve minutes. The USSR continued their progress by putting the first multiperson aircraft in space.
1965Aided by the Gemini program that gave them the technology to implement Apollo, the United States replied with their first man to walk in space, Ed White.
1966The Soviet Union landed on the moon, but it was a "soft" landing and no astronauts were on board the spacecraft.
1967During failed space missions, space travellers from the Soviet Union and the United States died. The Outer Space Treaty was signed by both superpowers and the UK to regulate space exploration.
1969After stepping out of Apollo 11 on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon. The United States claimed the greatest victory of the Space Race.
1975As relations improved and tensions cooled the Cold War entered a period referred to as détente. A joint space mission was carried out by the Soviet Union and the United States. The Apollo-Soyuz mission resulted in the docking of a US spacecraft to a Soviet space station. With the crews exchanging gifts, the Space Race was finally over.

The Space Race Yuri Gagarin StudySmarterSoviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, Wikimedia Commons

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 Neil Armstrong StudySmarterNeil Armstrong (the first man on the moon), Wikimedia Commons

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 as a way of protecting their cosmonauts from sunlight.

  • The Soviet Union landed a rover on the moon in 1970; they also 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.

Final The Space Race Quiz

Question

What was the space race?

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Answer

A race between the US and the USSR to see who could get to space first

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Question

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

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Answer

Both wanted to prove superiority to the public by getting to space first

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Question

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

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Answer

The deaths of astronauts from both countries whilst on space missions. 

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Question

What was the main difference between US and Soviet spacecrafts?

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Answer

Soviet spacecrafts were more advanced

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Question

Who was the first American in space?

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Answer

Neil Armstrong

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Question

What was the Outer Space Treaty for?

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Answer

It established international laws for countries wanting to explore space travel

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Question

What important German invention was a prelude for the Arms and Space Race?

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Answer

The V2 bomber

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Question

What had the United States accomplished successfully in 1958?

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Answer

Satellites in space

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Question

Who was the first American man to do a space walk?

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Answer

Ed White 

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Which event signalled the end of the Space Race?

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Answer

The joint Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975

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Question

Which of these events did NOT occur for the Soviet Union before the United States?

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Answer

Use of the atomic bomb

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Question

What does the moon smell of?

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Answer

Gunpowder

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Question

Which president declared the Apollo program?

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Answer

John F. Kennedy

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Question

Which spacecraft landed on the moon in 1969?

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Answer

Apollo 11

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