Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to gain technological superiority and achieve historic firsts in the field of space flight and exploration. The space race served political goals as well as scientific ones. The superpowers viewed their accomplishments in the space race as a public measure of the relative strengths of the capitalist and communist systems. Beyond that, the competition for superiority in outer space rapidly accelerated development of many areas of high technology that have since become an integral part of modern society, most notably computers and telecommunications.
The beginning of the space race traditionally dates to the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite on October 4, 1957. The Sputnik was the first artificial satellite placed into Earth’s orbit by humans. However, both the United States and Soviet Union had been working seriously on the problem of space flight since the end of World War II. The defeated Germans had made significant progress in this area during the war, developing the world’s first ballistic missile, the V-2 rocket.
After the war, both sides scrambled to acquire the services of as many former German rocket scientists as possible. The United States seemed to fare much better in this effort, capturing the head of the V-2 program, Dr. Werner von Braun, and many of his top assistants. Yet, despite this head start, work on a U.S. rocket capable of leaving the earth’s atmosphere was slow and filled with setbacks. Meanwhile, the Soviets were making steady progress that eluded the notice of U.S. intelligence services. The Sputnik announcement shocked and stunned the United States. The Soviet Union not only had managed to launch a rocket into outer space, it had also successfully placed a satellite into Earth orbit. By contrast, the U.S. space program was marked by a series of spectacular failures, as several rockets exploded on or shortly after launch. These failures appeared to be an indictment of the relative weakness of U.S. science education. In the wake of the Sputnik launch, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower spearheaded a movement to place greater emphasis on teaching science in American schools.
In December 1957, the Soviets launched a second Sputnik satellite into orbit, this one carrying a live dog, named Laika. The move seemed to confirm the total Soviet dominance in the space race. The United States, however, was not willing to concede defeat so easily. On January 31, 1958, a Mercury Redstone rocket carried the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, into orbit. On its flight, Explorer I discovered the Van Allen radiation belt that surrounds Earth. This marked the first practical use of an orbiting satellite; neither Sputnik had performed any scientific functions.
The success of Explorer I brought renewed confidence to the U.S. space program and served notice that both sides were willing to devote substantial economic and political resources to the space race. Later that year, the United States authorized the establishment of a separate government agency—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—to coordinate the nation’s space exploration efforts. The race for space had begun in earnest.
When John F. Kennedy became president of the United States in 1961, he set the nation a goal of putting men on the moon and returning them safely by the end of the decade. Kennedy issued his challenge just a month after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space on April 21, 1961. Gagarin made a single orbit of the earth in a flight that lasted just 108 minutes. Three weeks later, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space, although his Mercury spacecraft did not achieve orbit. The first American to orbit the earth was John Glenn, who achieved that feat in February 1962.
The Soviet Union recorded a string of other firsts during the early days of human space flight. In August 1962, the Soviets launched the first spacecraft to carry more than one person into space. In June 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereschkova became the first woman in space. Soviets made the first flight without spacesuits in 1964, and cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov made the world’s first spacewalk outside of a spacecraft in 1965.
While the Soviets were making headlines with these pioneering accomplishments, the United States was working methodically toward achieving the goal set by President Kennedy. In 1961, NASA established the Apollo program to develop the technology needed for a lunar landing. Two years later, it launched Project Gemini, which sent astronauts into orbit to perform tasks that would help prepare them for the duties they would face on a moon flight. The Gemini and Apollo programs carried out more than 20 space flights in preparation for a manned flight to the moon. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface.
Most observers felt that the U.S. moon landing ended the space race with a decisive American victory. The Soviet Union never matched the feat, instead concentrating on the development of orbiting space stations, such as the Salyut series and Mir. The United States sent several more Apollo missions to the moon, but made no further plans for human exploration of other planets. The formal end of the space race occurred with the 1975 joint Apollo-Soyuz mission, in which U.S. and Soviet spacecraft docked, or joined, in orbit while their crews visited one another’s craft and performed joint scientific experiments.
After this time, the goals of the two space programs diverged sharply. The Soviets focused on space stations, while the United States pursued development of the space shuttle, a reusable orbital vehicle, formally known as the Space Transportation System (STS). The intense head-to-head competition that marked the peak years of the space race gave way to an acknowledgment that space exploration was no longer considered a matter of critical political importance.
The challenges of conquering space, however, did produce lasting scientific results. Computer technology, for example, advanced at an astronomical rate during the space race. Spacecraft required computers powerful enough to control complex functions yet small enough to fit on board a cramped capsule. The needs of the space program also led to a host of breakthroughs in electronics, telecommunications, guidance, and remote control systems. Much of the technology that runs modern society was developed and perfected because of the space race.
Of course, space flight also led to the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of delivering nuclear warheads thousands of miles away. The guidance systems developed for space flight increased the accuracy of ICBMs, allowing pinpoint delivery of nuclear warheads to distant targets. Many of the electronics pioneered in space flight have since found extensive military uses. The legacy of the space race is thus very mixed. It has, for better or worse, had a significant impact on life in the 21st century.
During their competition for outer space sovereignty, the United States and the Soviet Union promoted the idea that countries were willing to devote significant economic and political resources to the space race. With the resulting advanced technology, each nation also amassed huge arsenals of nuclear weapons, creating a legacy of the space race that many believe no longer serves U.S. interests or national security.
What steps can governments take, responsibly, recognizing that policymakers must always balance a host of competing priorities and interests? First and foremost is for the declared nuclear states to accept that the Cold War is in fact over, to break free of the attitudes, habits, and practices that perpetuate enormous inventories, forces standing alert, and targeting plans encompassing thousands of aimpoints. Second, for the undeclared states to embrace the harsh lessons of the Cold War: that nuclear weapons are inherently dangerous, hugely expensive, militarily inefficient, and morally indefensible; that implacable hostility and alienation will almost certainly over time lead to a nuclear crisis; that the strength of deterrence is inversely proportional to the stress of confrontation; and that nuclear war is a raging, insatiable beast whose instincts and appetites we pretend to understand but cannot possibly control.
–Former Commander, Strategic Air Command Speech given at the State of the World Forum San Francisco, October 3, 1996
Ballistic Missiles; Cold War; Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs); Science, Technology, and Security; Sputnik
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