Space Race

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This article is about . For , see Space Race (disambiguation).
Titan II rockets launched U.S. spacecraft from the 1960s through the 1980s.

The Space Race, an informal competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, lasted roughly from 1957 to 1975. It involved the parallel efforts by each of those countries to explore outer space with artificial satellites, to send humans into space, and to land people on the moon.

Though its roots lie in early rocket technology and in the international tensions following World War II, the Space Race effectively began after the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957. The term originated as an analogy to the arms race. The Space Race became an important part of the cultural and technological rivalry between the USSR and the U.S. during the Cold War. Space technology became a particularly important arena in this conflict, both because of its military applications and due to the psychological benefit of raising morale.

Historical background

Early military influences

Rockets have interested scientists and amateurs for at least 2,100 years. The Chinese used them as weapons as early as the 11th century. Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky theorized in the 1880s on multi-stage, liquid fuel rockets which might reach space, but only in 1926 did the American Robert Goddard design a practical liquid-fuel rocket.

Goddard performed his work on rocketry in obscurity, as the scientific community, the public, and even The New York Times scoffed at him. It took war to catapult rocketry into notoriety. This proved a harbinger for the future, as any "space race" would become inextricably linked to military ambitions of the countries involved, despite its mostly scientific character and peaceful rhetoric.

German contributions

In the mid-1920s, German scientists had begun experimenting with rockets powered by liquid propellants that were capable of reaching relatively high altitudes and distances. In 1932, the Reichswehr, predecessor of the Wehrmacht, took an interest in rocketry for long-range artillery fire. Wernher von Braun, an aspiring rocket scientist, joined the effort and developed such weapons for Nazi Germany's use in World War II. Von Braun borrowed heavily from Robert Goddard's original research, studying and improving on Goddard's rockets.

The German A-4 Rocket, launched in 1942, became the first such projectile to reach space. In 1943, Germany began production of its successor, the V-2 rocket, with a range of 300 km (185 miles) and carrying a 1000 kg (2200 lb) warhead. The Wehrmacht fired thousands of V-2s at Allied nations, causing massive damage and loss of life. However, more slave laborers were killed in the production of V2s than were killed by them in attacks.

As World War II drew to a close, Soviet, British, and U.S. military and scientific crews raced to capture technology and trained personnel from the German rocket program installation at Peenemünde. The USSR and Britain had some success, but the United States arguably benefited most, taking a large number of German rocket scientists – many of them members of the Nazi Party, including von Braun – from Germany to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. There scientists adapted the German rockets -- intended for use against Britain -- to other uses.

Post-war scientists turned to rockets to study high-altitude conditions (via radio-telemetry of temperature and pressure of the atmosphere), cosmic rays, and other topics. This continued under von Braun and his colleagues, who became part of the U.S. scientific complex.

Cold War roots of the Space Race

After World War II the United States and the Soviet Union became locked in a bitter Cold War of espionage and propaganda. Space exploration and satellite technology could feed into the cold war on both fronts. Satellite-borne equipment could spy on other countries, while space-faring accomplishments could serve as propaganda to tout a country's scientific prowess and military potential. The same rockets that might send a human into orbit or hit a specific spot on the Moon could send an atom bomb to a specific enemy city. Much of the technological development required for space travel applied equally well to wartime rockets such as Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Along with other aspects of the arms race, progress in space appeared as an indicator of technological and economic prowess, demonstrating the superiority of the ideology of that country. Space research had a dual purpose: it could serve peaceful ends, but could also contribute to military goals.

The two superpowers each worked to gain an edge in space research, neither knowing who might make a breakthrough first. They had each laid the groundwork for a race to space, and awaited only the starter's gun.

Artificial satellites start the "race"


Sputnik 1 weighed more than 80 kg and orbited the Earth for more than two months.

On 4 October 1957, the USSR successfully launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to reach orbit, and the Space Race began. Because of its military and economic implications, Sputnik caused fear and stirred political debate in the United States. At the same time, the Sputnik launch was seen in the Soviet Union as an important sign of scientific and engineering capabilities of the nation.

In the Soviet Union the launch of Sputnik and the following program of space exploration was met with great interest from the public. For the country recently recovered from devastating war it was important and encouraging to see the proof of technical prowess in the new area.

Before Sputnik, the average American assumed that the U.S. had superiority in all fields of technology. Von Braun's counterpart in the Soviet Union, Sergei Korolev, the chief engineer who designed the R-7 rocket which sent Sputnik into orbit, would later engineer the N-1, designed to launch cosmonauts to the Moon. In response to Sputnik, the U.S. would launch a huge effort to regain technological supremacy, including revamping the school curricula in the hope of producing more von Brauns and Korolevs. This reaction is nowadays known as the Sputnik crisis.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President to President John F. Kennedy, expressed the motivation for these American efforts as follows:

In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.1

The American public, initially discouraged and frightened by Sputnik, became captivated by the American projects which followed. Schoolchildren followed the succession of launches, and building replicas of rockets became a popular hobby. President Kennedy gave speeches encouraging people to support the space program and trying to overcome the skepticism of many who felt the millions of dollars might better go on building stocks of proven, existing armaments, or on fighting poverty.

Nearly four months after the launch of Sputnik 1, the U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer I. In the interim, a number of embarrassing launch failures had occurred at Cape Canaveral.

The very first satellites were already used for scientific purposes. The Sputnik was launched during International Geophysical Year, and helped to determine the density of the upper atmosphere. The Explorer I flight data led to discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt.

Satellite communications

The first communications satellite, Project SCORE, launched on December 18 1958, relayed a Christmas message from President Eisenhower to the world. Other notable examples of satellite communication during (or spawned by) the Space Race include:

1962: Telstar: the first experimental transoceanic communications satellite
1972: Anik 1: first domestic communications satellite (Canada)
1974: WESTAR: first U.S. domestic communications satellite
1976: MARISAT: first mobile communications satellite

Other noteworthy satellites

The U.S. launched the first geosynchronous satellite, Syncom-2, on July 26 1963. The success of this class of satellite meant that a simple satellite dish no longer needed to track the orbit of the satellite, as that orbit remained geostationary. Henceforth ordinary citizens could use satellite-mediated communications transmissions for television broadcasts, after a one-time setup.

More Soviet successes: Living creatures in space

Animals in space

File:Laika first living being in space.jpg
Laika became the first living being in orbit on Sputnik 2

Technically, fruit flies launched by the U.S. on captured German V-2 rockets in 1946 became the first animals intentionally sent into space for scientific study. The first mammal sent into orbit, the dog Laika, travelled in the USSR's Sputnik 2 in 1957. While in any event the technology did not exist at the time to recover Laika after her flight, she died of stress and overheating soon after reaching space. In 1960 Russian space dogs Belka and Strelka orbited the earth and successfully returned. The American space program imported chimpanzees from Africa, and sent at least two into space before launching their first human orbiter. Scientists then used these animals and their dozens of descendants for biomedical research until public outcry led to their "release" to semi-wild conditions in the late 1990s. Soviet-launched turtles on Zond 5 became the first animals to fly around the Moon (September 1968).

Humans in space

Yuri Gagarin became the first successful cosmonaut when he entered orbit in Russia's Vostok 1 on April 12 1961, a day now celebrated as a holiday in Russia and in many other countries. 23 days later, on mission Freedom 7, Alan Shepard first entered space for the U.S. John Glenn, in Friendship 7, became the first American to successfully orbit Earth, completing three orbits on February 20 1962.

The first dual-manned flight also originated in the USSR, August 11 - 15, 1962. Soviet Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space on June 16 1963 in Vostok 6. Korolev had initially scheduled further Vostok missions of longer duration, but following the announcement of the Apollo Program, Premier Khrushchev demanded more firsts. The first flight with more than one crew member, the USSR's Voskhod 1, a modified version of the Vostok craft, took off on October 12 1964 carrying Komarov, Feoktistov and Yegorov onboard. This flight also marked the first occasion on which a crew did not wear spacesuits.

Aleksei Leonov, from Voskhod 2, launched by the USSR on March 18 1965, carried out the first spacewalk. This mission nearly ended in disaster; Leonov almost failed to return to the capsule and, due to a poor retrorocket fire, the ship landed 1000 miles (1600 km) off target. By this time Khrushchev had left office and the new Soviet leadership would not commit to an all-out effort.

Lunar missions

See Main article: Moon landing

Though the achievements made by the US and the USSR brought great pride to their respective nations, the ideological climate ensured that the Space Race would continue at least until the first human walked on the moon. Before this achievement, unmanned spacecraft had to first explore the moon by photography and demonstrate their ability to land safely on it.

Unmanned probes

Following the Soviet success in placing the first satellite into orbit, the Americans focused their efforts on sending a probe to the moon. They called the first attempt to do this the "Pioneer" program. The Soviet Luna program became operational with the launch of Luna 1 on January 4 1959. The Americans' robotic Surveyor program had the goal of locating a potential landing-site on the moon. Following this, Apollo 8 carried out the first manned orbit of the moon on December 27 1968, laying the groundwork for placing a man on the moon.

Landing a human on the moon

While the Soviets beat the Americans to most of the Space Race's initial firsts, they failed to beat the U.S. Apollo program to land a man on the moon. After the early Soviet successes, especially Gagarin's flight, President Kennedy and vice president Johnson looked for an American project that would capture the public’s imagination. The Apollo Program met many of their objectives and promised to defeat arguments from politicians both on the left (who favored social programs) and the right (who favored a more military project). Apollo’s advantages included: 1) economic benefits to several key states in the next election, 2) closing the “missile gap” claimed by Kennedy during the 1960 election through dual-use technology and 3) technical and scientific spin-off benefits.

In conversation with NASA’s director, James E. Webb, Kennedy said:

Everything we do ought to really be tied in to getting on to the moon ahead of the Russians... otherwise we shouldn't be spending that kind of money, because I'm not interested in space... The only justification (for the cost) is because we hope to beat the USSR to demonstrate that instead of being behind by a couple of years, by God, we passed them.2.

Kennedy and Johnson managed to swing public opinion: by 1965, 58 percent of Americans favored Apollo, up from 33 percent in 1963. After Johnson became President in 1963, his continuing support allowed the program to succeed.

The USSR showed a greater ambivalence about human visits to the moon. Soviet leader Khrushchev wanted neither "defeat" by another power, nor the expense of such a project. In October 1963 he characterized the USSR as "not at present planning flight by cosmonauts to the moon", while adding that they had not dropped out of the race. A year passed before the USSR committed itself to a moon-landing attempt.

File:Soyuz rocket.jpg
Soviet Soyuz rockets like the one pictured above became the first reliable means to transport objects into Earth orbit.

Kennedy proposed joint programs, such as a moon landing by Soviet and American astronauts and improved weather-monitoring satellites. Khrushchev, sensing an attempt to steal superior Russian space technology, rejected these ideas. Korolev, the Soviet Space Agency's chief designer, had started promoting his Soyuz craft and the N-1 launcher rocket that had the capacity for a manned moon landing. Khrushchev directed Korolev's design bureau to arrange further space firsts by modifying the existing Vostok technology, while a second team started building a completely new launcher and craft, the Proton booster and the Zond, for a manned cislunar flight in 1966. In 1964 the new Soviet leadership gave Korolev the backing for a moon landing effort and brought all manned projects under his direction. With Korolev's death and the failure of the first Soyuz flight in 1967, the co-ordination of the Soviet moon landing program quickly unraveled. The Soviets built a landing craft and selected cosmonauts for the mission that would have placed Aleksei Leonov on the moon's surface, but with the successive launch failures of the N1 booster in 1969, plans for a manned landing suffered first delay and then cancellation.

Earthrise, Dec 22, 1968 (NASA)

Apollo 11 gets there first

While unmanned Soviet probes did reach the moon before any U.S. craft, American Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the lunar surface, after landing in July of 1969. Commander of the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong received backup from command-module pilot Michael Collins and lunar-module pilot Buzz Aldrin in an event watched by over 500 million people around the world. Social commentators widely recognize the lunar landing as one of the defining moments of the 20th century, and Armstrong's words on his first touching the moon's surface became similarly memorable:

That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.

Other aspects of the moon landing

Unlike other international rivalries, the Space Race has remained unaffected by the desire for territorial expansion. After its successful landings on the Moon, the U.S. explicitly disclaimed the right to ownership of any part of the Moon.

Some conspiracy theorists still insist on seeing the lunar landing as a hoax. These Apollo moon landing hoax accusations flourish in part because, while many enthusiasts predicted that moon landings would become commonplace, except for the several ensuing Apollo landings in the next decade such predictions have not yet come to pass.

Other successes

Missions to other planets

File:Venus globe.jpg
Venus became the first planet flown past by a spacecraft in December 14 1962.

The Soviet Union first sent planetary probes, to both Venus and Mars in 1960. The first spacecraft to successfully fly by Venus, the U.S.'s Mariner 2, did so on December 14 1962. It sent back surprising data on the high surface temperature and air density of Venus. Since it carried no cameras, its findings did not capture public attention as did images from space probes, which far exceeded the capacity of astronomers' earth-based telescopes.

The USSR's Venera 7, launched in 1971, became the first craft to land on Venus. Venera 9 then transmitted the first pictures from the surface of another planet. These represent only two in the long Venera series; several other previous Venera spacecraft performed flyby operations and attempted landing missions. Seven other Venera landers followed.

The US launched Mariner 10, which flew by Venus on its way to Mercury, in 1974. It became the first, and so far the only, spacecraft to fly by Mercury.

Mariner 4, launched in 1965 by the U.S., became the first probe to fly by Mars; it transmitted completely unexpected images. The first spacecraft on Mars, Mars 3, launched in 1971 by the USSR, did not return pictures. The US Viking landers of 1976 transmitted the first such pictures.

The U.S also sent Pioneer 10 on a successful fly by of Jupiter in 1973. This foreshadowed the first flyby of Saturn in 1979 with Pioneer 11, and the first and only flybys of Uranus and Neptune with Voyager 2.

Launches and docking

The first space rendezvous took place between Gemini 6 and Gemini 7, both U.S. craft, on December 15 1965. Their successor, Gemini 8, performed the first space docking on March 16 1968. The first automatic space docking linked the USSR's Cosmos-186 and Cosmos-188 on October 30 1967.

The first launch from the sea took place with the U.S.'s Scout B, on April 26 1967. The first space station, the USSR's Salyut 1, commenced operations on June 7 1971.

Military competition in space

Out of view, but no less real a competition, the drive to develop space for military uses paralleled scientific efforts. Well before the launch of Sputnik 1, both the US and the USSR started developing plans for reconnaissance satellites. The Soviet Zenit spacecraft, which by the dual-use designed in by Korolev eventually became Vostok, began as a photoimaging satellite. It competed with the US Air Force's Discoverer series. Discoverer XIII provided the first payload recovered from space in August 1960 - one day ahead of the first Soviet recovered payload.

Both the US and USSR developed major military space programs, often following a pattern whereby the US only completed a mockup before its program ended, while the USSR built, or even orbited, theirs:

  1. Supersonic Intercontinental Cruise Missile: Navaho (test program stopped) vs. Buran cruise missile (plan)
  2. Small Winged Spacecraft: X-20 Dyna-Soar (mockup) vs. MiG-105 (flight-tested)
  3. Satellite Inspection Capsule: Blue Gemini (mockup) vs. Soyuz interceptor (plan)
  4. Military Space Station: MOL (plan) vs. Almaz (flown somewhat modified as Salyut 2, 3, and 5)
  5. Military Capsule with hatch in heat shield: Gemini B (tested crewless in space) vs. VA TKS, also known as Merkur space capsule (flown crewless as part of TKS)
  6. Ferry to Military Space Station: Gemini Ferry (plan) vs. TKS (flown crewless in space, and docked with a Salyut)

The "end" of the Space Race

The July 17 1975 rendezvous of the Apollo and Soyuz space modules marks the traditional end of the Space Race.

While the Sputnik 1 launch can clearly be called the start of the Space Race, its end is more debatable. Most hotly contested during the 1960s, the Space Race continued apace through the Apollo moon landing of 1969. Although they followed Apollo 11 with five more manned lunar landings, American space scientists turned to new arenas. Skylab would gather data, and the Space Shuttle would work on returning spaceships intact from space journeys. Americans would claim that by first landing a man on the moon they had won this unofficial "race". Soviet scientists meanwhile pushed ahead with their own projects, and would likely not have conceded anything like defeat. In any event, as the Cold War cooled, and as other nations began to develop their own space programs, the notion of a continuing "race" between the two superpowers became less real.

Both nations had developed manned military space programs. The USAF had proposed using its Titan missile to launch the Dyna-Soar hypersonic glider to use in intercepting enemy satellites. The plan for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (using hardware based on the Gemini program to carry out surveillance missions) superseded Dyna-Soar, but this also suffered cancellation. The USSR commissioned the Almaz program for a similar manned military space station, which merged with the Salyut program.

The Space Race slowed after the Apollo landing, which many observers describe as its apex or even as its end. Others, including space historian Carole Scott and Romanian Dr. Florin Pop's Cold War Project, feel its end came most clearly with the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975. The Soviet craft Soyuz-19 met and docked in space with America's Apollo 18, allowing astronauts from the "rival" nations to pass into each other's ships and participate in combined experimentation. Although each country's endeavors in space persisted, they went largely in different "directions", and the notion of a continuing two-nation "race" became outdated after Apollo-Soyuz.

Even at this point of cooperation the Soviet leadership was alarmed at the prospect of USAF involvement with the Space Shuttle programme and began the competing Buran and Energia projects. In the early 1980s the commencement of the US Strategic Defense Initiative further escalated competition that only resolved with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989.

Organization, funding and the economic impact

The huge expenditures and bureaucracy needed to organize successful space exploration led to the creation of national space agencies. The United States and the Soviet Union developed programs focused solely on the scientific and industrial requirements for these efforts.

On July 29 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). When it began operations on October 1 1958, NASA consisted mainly of the four laboratories and some 8,000 employees of the government's 46-year-old research agency for aeronautics, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). While its predecessor, NACA, operated on a $5 million budget, NASA funding rapidly accelerated to $5 billion per year, including huge sums for subcontractors from the private sector. The Apollo 11 moon landing, the high point of NASA's success, cost an estimated 20 to 25 billion USD.

Lack of reliable statistics makes it difficult to compare U.S. and Soviet space spending, especially during the Khruschev years. However in 1989, the then-Chief of Staff of the Soviet Armed Services, General M. Moiseyev, reported that the Soviet Union had allocated 6.9 billion rubles (about $4 billion) to its space program that year3. Other Soviet officials estimated that their total manned space expenses totalled about that amount over the entire duration of the programs, with some lower unofficial estimates of about four and half billion rubles. In addition to the murkiness of the figures, such comparisons must also take into account the likely effect of Soviet propaganda, which pursued the goal of making the Soviet Union look strong and of confusing the Western analysis.

Organizational issues, particularly internal rivalries, also plagued the Soviet effort. The USSR had nothing like NASA (the Russian Aviation and Space Agency originated only in the 1990s). Too many political issues in science and too many personal views handicapped Soviet progress. Every Soviet chief designer had to stand for his own ideas, looking for the patronage of a communist official. In 1964, between the various chief designers, the USSR was developing 30 different programmes of launcher and spacecraft design. Following the death of Korolev the Soviet space programme became reactive, attempting to maintain parity with the US. In 1974 the USSR reorganized their space program, creating the Energia project to duplicate the US Space Shuttle with Buran.

The Soviets also operated in the face of an economic disadvantage. Although the Soviet economy was the second largest in the world, the US economy was the largest. Eventually the Soviets' inefficient organization and lack of funds led them to lose their early advantage. Some observers have argued that the high economic cost of the space race, along with the extremely expensive arms race, eventually deepened the economic crisis of the Soviet system during the late 1970's and 80's and was one of the factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.


When America's Apollo 15 left the moon, the astronauts left behind a memorial to astronauts from both nations who had perished during the efforts to reach the moon. In the United States, the first astronauts to die during direct participation in space travel or preparation served in Apollo 1: Command Pilot Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward White, and Pilot Roger Chaffee. These three died in a fire during a ground test on January 27, 1967.

Flights of the Soviet Union's Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 11 also resulted in cosmonaut deaths. Soyuz 1, launched into orbit on April 23 1967, carried a single cosmonaut, Colonel Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov, who died when the spacecraft crashed after return to Earth. In 1971, Soyuz 11's cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov asphyxiated during re-entry. The monitoring of Soviet telemetry has led to claims of other deaths (based on audio or loss of their telemetered vital signs in spaceflight) which the Soviet Union did not announce.

Other astronauts died in related missions, including four Americans who died in crashes of T-38 aircraft. Russian Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, met a similar death when he crashed in a MiG fighter in 1968.

Timeline (1957-1975)

Date Significance Country Mission Name
August 21 1957 ICBM File:Flag of the Soviet Union.png USSR R-7/SS-6 Sapwood
October 4 1957 Artificial satellite (Earth's) File:Flag of the Soviet Union.png USSR Sputnik 1
November 3 1957 Animal in orbit (dog) File:Flag of the Soviet Union.png USSR Sputnik 2
January 31 1958 Detection of Van Allen belts File:Us flag large.png USA-ABMA Explorer I
December 18 1958 Communications satellite File:Us flag large.png USA-ABMA Project SCORE
January 4 1959 Artificial satellite (Sun's) File:Flag of the Soviet Union.png USSR Luna 1
February 17 1959 Weather satellite File:Us flag large.png USA-NASA (NRL)1 Vanguard 2
June 1959 Reconnaissance satellite File:Us flag large.png USA-Air Force Discoverer 4
August 7 1959 Photo of Earth from space File:Us flag large.png USA-NASA Explorer 6
September 14 1959 Probe to Moon File:Flag of the Soviet Union.png USSR Luna 2
October 7 1959 Photo of the far side of the Moon File:Flag of the Soviet Union.png USSR Luna 3
April 12 1961 Human in orbit File:Flag of the Soviet Union.png USSR Vostok 1
June 16 1963 Woman in orbit File:Flag of the Soviet Union.png USSR Vostok 6
March 18 1965 Extra-vehicular activity File:Flag of the Soviet Union.png USSR Voskhod 2
December 15 1965 Orbital rendezvous2 File:Us flag large.png USA-NASA Gemini 6A/Gemini 7
March 1 1966 Probe to another planet File:Flag of the Soviet Union.png USSR Venera 3
July 20 1969 Human on the Moon File:Us flag large.png USA-NASA Apollo 11
April 23 1971 Space station File:Flag of the Soviet Union.png USSR Salyut 1
July 15 1975 First U.S.-USSR joint mission File:Flag of the Soviet Union.png USSR File:Us flag large.png USA-NASA Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

1Project Vanguard transferred from the NRL to NASA immediately before launch.
2 The Soviet Union had attempted an earlier rendezvous on August 12, 1962. However, Vostok 3 and Vostok 4 only came within five kilometers of one another, and operated in different orbital planes. Pravda did not mention this information, but indicated that a rendezvous had taken place.

Legacy of the Space Race

Advances in technology and education

Technology, especially in aerospace engineering and electronic communication, advanced greatly during this period. The effects of the Space Race however went far beyond rocketry, physics, and astronomy. "Space age technology" extended to fields as diverse as home economics and forest defoliation studies, and the push to win the race changed the very ways in which students learned science.

American concerns that they had fallen so quickly behind Russia in the race to space led quickly to a push by legislators and educators for greater emphasis on mathematics and on the physical sciences in U.S. schools. America's National Defense Education Act of 1958 increased funding for these goals from childhood education through the post-graduate level.

The scientists fostered by these efforts helped develop for space exploration technologies which have seen adapted uses ranging from the kitchen to athletic fields. Dried and ready-to-eat foods, stay-dry clothing, and even no-fog ski goggles have their roots in space science.

Today over a thousand artificial satellites orbit earth, relaying communications data around the planet and facilitating remote sensing of data on weather, vegetation, and human movements to nations who employ them. In addition, much of the micro-technology which fuels everyday activities from time-keeping to enjoying music derives from research initially driven by the Space Race.

The USSR remained the undisputed leader in rocketry, even up to the end of the Cold War. The U.S. became superior in electronics, remote sensing, vehicle guidance, and robotic control.

More "space races" to come?

Although its pace has slowed, space exploration continues to advance long after the demise of the Space Race. The USA launched the first reusable spacecraft (space shuttle) on the 20th anniversary of Gagarin's flight, April 12 1981. On November 15 1988, the USSR launched Buran, the first and only automatic reusable spacecraft. These and other nations continue to launch probes, satellites of many types, and huge space telescopes.

The Space Shuttle Columbia seconds after engine ignition, 1981 (NASA)

The possibility of a second international space race appeared at the end of the 20th century, with the European Space Agency taking the lead in commercial rocket launches with Ariane 4, and competing in unmanned space exploration with NASA. ESA's efforts have culminated into ambitious plans such as the Aurora Programme that intends to send a human mission to Mars no later than 2030, and has set various flagship missions to reach this goal. With US President Bush's similar announcement in 2004, outlining a timeframe for the construction and mission plan of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (a subsequent return to the Moon and later to Mars by 2030), the two major space agencies have similar plans. As of 2005 ESA might have a headstart, as it has teamed up with Russia. They are likely to co-fund and develop the CEV counterpart Kliper spacecraft that is scheduled to first launch in 2011, years earlier than its American opponent, which is yet in an early draft status.

Other nations are also capable of increasing competition in space exploration. Although funding is not in the same league with ESA or NASA, the successful manned space flights of Shenzhou 5 and Shenzhou 6 and plans for a space station by the People's Republic of China have shown what other countries can achieve.

Another kind of space race may differ in nature from the original Soviet-American competition, as it could occur between commercial space enterprises. Early efforts in what is commonly referred to as space tourism, to run the first commercial trips into orbit, culminated on April 28 2001 when American Dennis Tito became the first fee-paying space tourist when he visited the International Space Station on board Russia's Soyuz TM-32. The Ansari X Prize, a competition for private suborbital spaceships, has also evoked the prospect of a new space race by private companies. In late 2004, British aviator-financier Richard Branson announced the launch of Virgin Galactic, a company which will use SpaceShipOne technology, with hopes of launching sub-orbital flights by 2008.


1 letter from Johnson written to Kennedy on 28 April 1961
2 from a tape recording in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library
3 James Oberg, in Final Frontier, as reprinted in The New Book of Popular Science Annual, 1992

See also


  • An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, Robert Dallek (2003). ISBN 0-316172-38-3
  • Arrows to the Moon: Avro's Engineers and the Space Race , Chris Gainor (2001). ISBN 1-896522-83-1
  • Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon, Colin Burgess, Kate Doolan, Bert Vis (2003). ISBN 0803262124
  • Light This Candle : The Life & Times of Alan Shepard--America's First Spaceman, Neal Thompson (2004). ISBN 0609610015
  • The New Columbia Encyclopedia, Col.Univ.Press (1975).
  • The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe (pbk ed. 2001). ISBN 0553381350 ISBN 0613916670
  • Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier?, Brian Harvey (2001). ISBN 1852332034
  • The Soviet Space Race With Apollo, Asif A. Siddiqi (2003). ISBN 0813026288
  • Soyuz: A Universal Spacecraft, Rex Hall, David J. Shayler (2003). ISBN 1852336579
  • Space for Women: A History of Women With the Right Stuff, Pamela Freni (2002). ISBN 1931643121
  • Space Exploration, Carole Scott, Eyewitness Books, 1997
  • Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge, Asif A. Siddiqi (2003). ISBN 081302627X
  • Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles, Roger E. Bilstein (2003). ISBN 0813026911
  • Yeager: An Autobiography, Chuck Yeager (1986). ISBN 0553256742

External links

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