Updated: Dec 21, 2022
Summary: Beginning during the Cold War, the Space Race was a technological competition between the United States of America (USA) and the United States of the Soviet Republics (USSR) for control of the heavens.
Date: October 4, 1957 (the launching of the Soviet Sputnik) to July 20, 1969 (US Apollo 11 mission successfully lands on the moon).
Location: Primarily in the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation) and the United States of America.
Introduction & Background
Finally, the last remnants of the Second World War were disappearing, buildings were being rebuilt, and friendships were being slowly restored. Nonetheless, relief from the horrors of the war was not yet complete.
The foundations of the wartime alliance between the United States of America (the USA), Great Britain and the Soviet Union were unstable and began to shake unsteadily. The domineering “Iron Curtain” which sliced the West and the East in half was becoming more visible and deep-rooted in people’s minds.
The tension between the dominance of communism in the East and the multi-party democracies of the West began what the British writer George Orwell termed “The Cold War”.
Only ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War lasted from the surrender of Germany in 1945 right through to 1991. And it brought on fierce competition between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) to technologically dominate the heavens.
The Space Race Begins
The “Space Race” began in October 1957 with the Soviet launching of Sputnik – the first man-made satellite. Sputnik’s successful launch shocked the world. Everywhere, radios were tuned in to hear the tiny beeping signal being emitted from it.
The Soviets had announced their intention to send an artificial body into space just forty-eight hours after the Americans had done the same.
Apart from outdoing the US, Sputnik’s main objectives in space were scientific in nature. It gathered information on the atmosphere's density, tested radio and optical methods of orbital tracking. It also tested the method of placing an artificial object into Earth’s orbit and checked the principles of pressurisation used on satellites.
The following month, Sputnik 2 was launched and, this time, with a passenger. Laika was a stray female dog picked up from roaming the streets of Moscow. The launch was supposed to test the possibility of being able to send humans into space, but it was a “guaranteed suicide mission for the dog.” (Jennifer Latson, Time, 2014).
Although it was first claimed that Laika perished because of lack of oxygen, it was later determined that she had died from overheating and panic. Sputnik 2 orbited Earth for five months, burning up in the atmosphere when it re-entered it in 1958.
With the year 1958, the USA, which had been struggling to keep up with its opposition, released its first satellite, the Explorer 1. They knew they were falling behind in the race, so in that same year, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a public order bringing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to life.
Once again, however, the USSR was steaming ahead, taking a huge victory in 1961 when the Vostok spacecraft carried the first man into space. Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet Air Force pilot turned cosmonaut, was used to being in high altitudes making him ideal for the job. Contrary to popular thought, Vostok 1’s journey was not without any hiccups.
Unknown to Gagarin himself, the spacecraft reached a dangerously high orbit before it returned to earth. After Vostok had orbited Earth once, reaching a total of one hundred and six minutes in space, it was once more pulled homeward. Gagarin was ejected from his pressurized cabin at a height of 23,000 feet and parachuted to solid ground.
In May of the same year, American Alan Shepherd became the first of his country in space. However, many Americans saw Russia as the enemy; and the enemy was winning.
In the Balance
In his memorable speech to Congress, on May 25th, President John Frank Kennedy announced his intention to take an even wider step than had ever been taken before.
“Now it is time to take longer strides, time for a great new American enterprize, time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement. 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 the Earth.”
Kennedy felt it was of great importance for the United States to catch up to the Soviet Union, and had great confidence that America's achievements in space exploration would be sufficient enough to help them achieve what would be a massive step ahead in the race between the two powers.
Wheels and cogs in the minds of NASA scientists began to turn in an effort to fulfil the ambitious goal that had been placed before them, the size of which would equal the effort in the construction of the Panama Canal.
While the Apollo Program continued, the USSR went on to complete a list of firsts in space. The first woman in space, Valentina Nikolayeva Tereshkova, took her place in history on 16th June 1962. In 1965, the first spacewalk was completed by cosmonaut Alexi Leonov. This was an extremely dangerous event, and even American newspapers that covered the story grudgingly acknowledged its impressiveness.
The Winner's Stand
In the year 1969, eight years on from JFK’s challenge to the nation, people were glued to their televisions, watching the grainy, hardly recognizable form of Neil Armstrong climbing down the ladder of Apollo 11, to take the first step onto the surface of the moon.
A few moments later, his voice could be heard over the buzzing of static.
“It’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
With the first footstep imprinted onto the dusty surface of the moon, the race to the stars was won, with the United States of America taking the winner’s stand.
Researched and Written By Eilish McCormick
Edited By Cody B Mitchell
History.com Staff. (2010). The Space Race. Retrieved March 17, 2018, from https://www.history.com/topics/space-race
Yuri Gagarin, First Man in Space (Photo Gallery). (n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2018, from https://www.space.com/11346-photos-yuri-gagarin-vostok1-human-spaceflight.html
Space Exploration. (n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2018, from https://www.archives.gov/research/alic/reference/space-timeline.html
Latson, J. (2014, November 03). Laika the Cosmonaut Dog: USSR sends first living creature into orbit. Retrieved March 17, 2018, from http://time.com/3546215/laika-1957/
(n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2018, from http://www.russianspaceweb.com/vostok1.html