The space race officially began on 4 October 1957 with the successful Soviet launch of the Sputnik I satellite. The orbiting Sputnik I not only established an early Soviet lead in the space race but was a major blow to American prestige, since U.S. leaders believed that the Soviets were incapable of such a breakthrough. The Soviet program, led by chief designer Sergei Korolev, who was largely unknown in the West, continued to reveal the American rocket program as unequal to the task. The Soviets' advantage was confirmed in their launching of the much-heavier payload Sputnik II on 3 November 1957.
Americans were surprised to learn that the United States lagged badly behind Soviet rocket and missile technology. Politicians were outraged and proclaimed the existence of an alleged missile gap, which Senator John F. Kennedy exploited during his 1960 presidential campaign. Other Americans used the Soviet space lead to suggest a lack of rigor in American secondary schools in the fields of science and mathematics. While President Dwight D. Eisenhower rejected the notion of American weakness, the public was shocked when on 6 December 1957 Project Vanguard was unable to place an American satellite in orbit.
Another American program, the Explorer project under the direction of the U.S. Army and headed by former German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, served notice that the Americans had not yet yielded the space field to the Soviets. On 31 January 1958 the United States successfully launched Explorer I, a light satellite that proved more scientific than symbolic when it discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belts. Also, to provide overall direction to the American civilian space effort and to match Soviet successes, Congress created a new government agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It began operations on 1 October 1958.
The Soviets continued to produce other impressive space firsts that the United States seemed unable to duplicate. The Soviet Luna 1 was the first satellite to escape Earth's gravity when it entered solar orbit on 2 January 1959, although it missed its target of the moon. Luna 2, launched on 12 September 1959, sent back clear images of the moon's surface, while Luna 3 on 7 October 1959 photographed the far side of the moon.
As successful satellite launches became routine, both sides sought to be the first to place a man in orbit. The Soviets won this competition with the launch of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into a one-orbit voyage around Earth on 12 April 1961. The United States successfully put astronaut Alan Shepard into a suborbital low-level space flight on 5 May 1961. On 25 May 1961 President Kennedy classified the space race as an integral part of the battle between freedom and tyranny and raised the stakes when he announced the American goal of placing a man on the surface of the moon by the end of the decade. On 20 February 1962 the Americans finally matched the Gagarin flight by putting a man into Earth's orbit with the three-orbit trip of astronaut John Glenn.
Following Gagarin's mission, the Soviet Union's other firsts in manned flight included the first day-long space flight of Gherman Titov on 6 August 1961; the first female in space, Valentina Tereshkova, on 16 June 1963; and the first space walk, by Alexei Leonov, on 18 March 1965. Unmanned Soviet moon flight firsts included the Luna 9 soft landing on the moon with the first photos from the lunar surface on 3 February 1966 and Luna 10, the first to be in moon orbit, on 3 April 1966. The Soviets made an impressive unpiloted flight to the moon with a return to Earth with Zond 5 on 14 September 1968, which seemed to suggest that they were on the verge of sending the first man to the moon.
Although it appeared to many that the Soviets remained ahead in the space race, the United States worked feverishly to meet Kennedy's challenge and budgeted funds for it that the Soviet Union could not match. The Americans gradually eliminated the early Soviet race lead by securing qualitative advances, which translated into successes such as the rendezvous and docking of two manned spacecraft and the development and flight testing of the Lunar Module, both of which were essential to placing a man on the moon's surface. The United States also matched other Soviet achievements when it conducted several space walks and long-duration flights, and it achieved a soft landing on the moon with Surveyor I (2 June 1966). The United States achieved a major breakthrough with the year-long Lunar Orbiter low-level photo-mapping of the moon's surface beginning in August 1966, undertaken in preparation for a manned landing.
Both sides suffered human losses and engineering failures during the race. The most notable American loss occurred during the Apollo 1 fire, which began during a routine launch pad test on 27 January 1967 and killed American astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee. The results of the subsequent investigation appeared to doom the effort to meet President Kennedy's deadline. The Soviets suffered the first loss of a man during actual space flight when they announced the death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov on 24 April 1967 during the crash landing of Soyuz 1. Other Soviet failures were masked by the secrecy and closed society of the Soviet Union, which also concealed its inability to keep pace with American successes.
While the Soviets were secretive, the United States won the publicity war. It announced its space mission schedule and proudly showed off its astronauts as men with "the right stuff." This effort earned positive media coverage and the support of the viewing public. The Soviet Union's propaganda machine also played up the country's own progress, but most Soviet space missions were announced only after success was certain. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War did the world learn of the major flight limitations of the Soviet successes, their space failures, and the many near disasters that the cosmonauts endured.
The United States recovered relatively quickly from the Apollo 1 disaster of January 1967. On 21 December 1968, American astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders were launched into space in Apollo 8 and three days later orbited the moon. By then, the United States had a clear lead in the space race that the Soviets seemed incapable of closing.
When Apollo 11 (Neil Armstrong, Edward "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins) landed on the moon on 20 July 1969, the Americans stood victorious in the space race. Five more successful landings on the moon went unchallenged by the Soviets. In September 1970 the Soviet Union succeeded in landing on the moon the Luna 16 probe, which returned lunar samples to Earth. The Soviets were the first to establish a space station in orbit with Salyut 1 on 19 April 1971. But in reality, once Apollo 11 landed in the Sea of Tranquillity and returned safely home, the space race had ended.
Although the sense of a race was largely abandoned by both sides, further space exploration by both countries continued but without the Cold War fervor over which society was the most technologically advanced. In light of budget pressures and many unsolved domestic problems, leaders in both countries began to question the costs of space exploration. The spirit of political détente between the two superpowers began to reach into the field of space exploration. On 15 July 1975 both nations took a giant first step in long-term outer space cooperation with the launch and rendezvous of the Apollo-Soyuz mission. Cooperation between the two former adversaries continued in 1993 when the Soviets were invited to participate in the International Space Station.
The space race proved an energetic stimulus to both nations. The United States committed the funding necessary to win the race and, amid the unhappiness of the Vietnam War era, gave the nation a badly needed lift. While the Soviets could never match the United States in funding, they still achieved a stunning number of space firsts. These, however, came at the expense of those mission essentials required to send a man to the moon.
Thomas D. Veve
Breuer, William B. Race to the Moon: America's Duel with the Soviets. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993.; Launius, Roger D. Frontiers of Space Exploration. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.; Schefter, James L. The Race. New York: Doubleday, 1999.