Why did we go to space in the first place? Was it to explore the vast unknown, to find the answers to life? Was it to find a new planet to colonize, or seek out extraterrestrial beings? Though all of these would eventually become goals of space exploration, none of these were why we originally went to space. Let’s talk about this period of time called the Space Race.

The Space Race – the political and technological power struggle between the US and the USSR that kicked off our exploration of outer space

The year was 1957. Tensions had risen between the United States and the USSR (Soviet Union) in the years following World War II. The United States was wary of the USSR’s communist regime, and the USSR resented the US for not treating it as a legitimate world power. What resulted from this mutual distrust and disagreement was a technological and political power struggle that lasted decades. This period of time, from 1947-1991, was known as the Cold War.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union beat the US to space by launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into space carrying the world’s first man-made satellite, Sputnik. This terrified the United States. Both countries had developed ICBMs by this time, but they had limited ranges and could not be launched from the US to the Soviet Union, and vise-versa. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the US was concerned that the Soviet Union now had the capability to launch nuclear weapons across the globe.

Sputnik was the first artificial satellite, and was a USSR advancement that came before any US presence in space.

Thankfully, the US was able to get a rocket off the ground in 1958, just a few short months after the launch of Sputnik. On January 31, 1958, Explorer I was launched into space, and the US caught up to the USSR’s technological capabilities.

The first American satellite was Explorer 1
Explorer 1: The first American satellite (from: NASA)

While the US was busy creating NASA in July of 1958, the Soviet Union was working to get back ahead of its competition by sending a probe to the Moon and eventually sending a man into space for the first time. In September of 1959, the USSR launched Luna 2, which became the first spacecraft to reach the Moon, and the first to make contact with another celestial body. Suddenly, the USSR had the ability to reach an object nearly 240,000 miles away. For reference, that is about 30 Earths put together into a straight line. Then, on April 15, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit Earth in a capsule named Vostok 1.

Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961
Yuri Gagarin – the first human in space (from: Universe Today)

Fortunately for the US, the first American in space would come only 20 days after Gagarin’s orbit. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, though he did not orbit the Earth like the Soviets had done.

Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961
Alan Shepard – first American in space (from: Space.com)

The US was seriously lacking behind the Soviet Union in the Space Race. Tensions continued to rise due to the persistent threat of a nuclear war and the spread of communism across the globe. The US needed to take a giant leap to pull ahead of the Soviets, and they needed government support and funding. Shortly after Alan Shepard launched into space, John F. Kennedy made a bold announcement:

We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…

https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm

It was imperative that the US beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. It would assert a technological dominance that the US had been seeking to achieve since the beginning of the Cold War. Landing a human on the Moon became so important that NASA’s budget increased nearly 500% between 1961 and 1964. Over 400,000 people were involved in the effort, which had a positive impact on the job market and economy. But arguably more important was how united all Americans became as they sat anxiously in front of their TVs watching launch after launch of the Apollo program. The Space Race inspired Americans of all ages to reach for the stars.

Along this path to the Moon, there were of course many failures on both sides (these will be discussed in later posts that dive into the programs that led up to Apollo). It was at times a tight race, but ultimately the US landed Neil Armstrong on the Moon before the Soviets in July of 1969, nearly 10 years after JFK’s initial statement of landing a man on the Moon. By stepping foot on the Moon, the US had “won” the Space Race, and our exploration of outer space had only just begun.

The US landed the first human on the Moon in 1969
First Moon landing in 1969 (from: HowStuffWorks)