The space race was an intense but undeclared competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in which each tried to outdo the other in achieving milestones in the exploration of space. It began with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, reached a peak in the first half of the 1960s, and wound down after the first successful lunar landing in 1969. The Apollo-Soyuz test project—a joint U.S.-USSR mission flown in 1975—marked its symbolic end.
The space race had a military dimension. Missiles that could launch satellites could also launch nuclear warheads, and Earth orbit seemed—in the late 1950s and early 1960s—like key strategic ground. Military concerns soon faded into the background, however, and by the early 1960s, the space race was primarily about the superpowers' desire to burnish their national images. Success in space implied, leaders on both sides believed, mastery of cutting-edge fields such as rocketry, electronics, and telecommunications: the stuff of which the future would be constructed. The Soviet Union, traditionally a minor contributor to such fields, wanted to win the space race.
Milestones—going somewhere or doing something in space for the first time in history—became the means by which the superpowers publicly kept score in the space race. Initially, virtually all of them seemed to belong to the Soviets. The United States, meanwhile, seemed permanently consigned to second place. Sputnik 1 reached orbit on October 4, 1957, and Sputnik 2—carrying a dog named Laika on a one-way trip—followed on November 2. The first American attempt to launch a satellite, on December 6, ended in spectacular and highly public failure: Its launch vehicle—a modified Jupiter missile—lifted a few feet off the pad, slumped back down, toppled onto its side, and exploded. The International Herald Tribune summed up the result in a one-word headline above a photograph of the explosion: “Kaputnik!” The first successful American satellite, Explorer 1, reached orbit on February 1, 1958. The fact that it accomplished more once in orbit—its instruments detected what became known as the Van Allen Radiation Belts—mattered less, in public-image terms, than the fact that it lagged nearly four months behind its Soviet counterpart.
The string of Soviet successes continued, seemingly unabated, for five years after Sputnik 1. The robotic Luna 1 probe, launched in January 1959, became the first spacecraft to leave Earth's orbit, the first to transmit data from space, the first to fly past the moon, and the first to go into orbit around the sun. The same year saw Luna 2 become the first spacecraft to crash-land on the moon and Luna 3 take the first pictures of the lunar far side. A pair of dogs named Belka and Strelka—passengers aboard Sputnik 5—became the first animals to return safely from orbit in 1960, avoiding Laika's fate. The first robot probes to fly by other planets—Marsnik 1 in 1960 and Venera 1 in 1961—were also Soviet projects. American “firsts” in this period were concentrated in Earth orbit: the first weather satellite (TIROS-1, 1960), the first navigation satellite (Transit, 1961), and the first commercial communication satellite (Telstar, 1962).
The Soviets achieved a similar series of milestones in the first five years of human spaceflight (1961–1966). Yuri Gagarin was the first human to fly in space (April 1961), Gherman Titov the first human to spend an entire day in space (December 1961), and Valentina Tereshkova the first woman to fly in space (August 1962). The first launch of multiple manned spacecraft (also August 1962), the first spaceflight by a multiperson crew (October 1964), and the first spacewalk (March 1965) were all Soviet. The United States reached the same milestones months, years, or (in the case of women in space) decades later.
The Soviet Union's lead in the space race was real, but two factors made it seem even greater than it was—especially to observers outside the respective space programs. The first was the USSR's state-controlled media, which trumpeted the Soviet space program's successes and buried its failures. The U.S. space program's successes were equally well publicized, but its failures—from the ill-fated attempt to launch TV-3 in 1957 to the near-loss of Apollo 13 in 1970—took place in full view of the world, and were reported on in detail. The second was Soviet political leaders' insistence on flight schedules that would ensure a steady stream of firsts, whether or not they made sense in engineering or operational terms. American political leaders generally resisted such demands. President John F. Kennedy's 1961 challenge to execute a successful lunar landing by the end of the decade was a rare—and spectacularly successful—exception to the rule.
Reaping the benefits of a slow-and-steady approach that subordinated public relations coups to engineering advances, the United States gradually took the lead in the space race beginning around 1966. The American lunar landing program surged forward, while the Soviet lunar program (hurt by the death of Sergei Korolev, the visionary behind it) languished. American astronauts were the first to orbit the moon, the first to land on it, the first to walk on it, and the first to drive on it. The robotic spacecraft that the Soviets sent to the moon between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s—orbiters, landers, and rovers—were impressive feats of engineering and returned important scientific results, but the words and the human-centered images sent back from the moon by Project Apollo captured the imagination of the American public and much of the wider world.
The space race ended, for all practical purposes, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969: the United States achieved the greatest first of all. The formal end of the race, however, came in 1975 with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project: two spacecraft—one Soviet, one American—in Earth orbit for joint scientific experiments and symbolic exchanges of greetings and gifts. The Apollo-Soyuz flight reflected the superpowers' pursuit of détente, just as the space race it ended had reflected the Cold War tensions of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
See also Project Apollo; Project Gemini; Project Mercury.
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