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Russia vs America: The Space Race

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.

Soviet Successes

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.