Following the end of World War 2 two nations competed for military and political supremacy in the world: The United States of America and the Soviet Union. With diametrically opposed views on politics and economics these nations soon found themselves competing against each other while diplomatic tensions between them began to rise. This state of tension is known as the Cold War. During the Cold War the USSR and USA started competing against each other in space exploration. This competition is known as the Space Race.
The launch of Sputnik 1 proceeded as planned on October 4, 1957, thus cementing the Soviet Union’s place in history as the first country to launch an artificial satellite into orbit. The Soviet Union notified observers around the world to watch for the satellite, which could be seen from the ground through binoculars or telescopes as it passed through the night sky. Additionally, the radio signal from Sputnik 1 could be heard with a common shortwave radio. This beeping signal quickly became a symbol of the Soviet Union’s technological prowess.
In addition to providing security benefits, satellites offered military forces the potential for improved communications, weather observation, navigation, and position location. This led to significant government funding for military space programs in the United States and the Soviet Union.
In the autumn of 1957, Russian leaders could proudly boast that they had gotten the best of the United States. Until that very year, there had been several different men running the Kremlin in a collective dictatorship, but that changed in the summer of 1957, when Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the new strongman and sole leader of the USSR. As such, he was naturally compared with his American counterpart, Dwight Eisenhower. “Ike” (as Americans called him) was a capitalist, a believer in free enterprise, and “Nikita” (as many people called him) believed in Russian socialism, which had grown out of the ideas of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.
After the Russians launched Sputnik II and the dog Laika, Eisenhower felt compelled to ease American concerns. He made a television address from Oklahoma City, just four days after the second Sputnik was launched into space. Eisenhower admitted the importance of the Russian achievement, but hinted at greater American accomplishments to come. He spoke of the importance of keeping American alliances with other parts of the free world strong and indicated that taxes would have to be raised in order to keep American defenses in tip-top shape.
Just a decade earlier, Cape Canaveral had been one of the least attractive or desirable sections of the Florida coast. But the same circumstances—isolation—that made the Cape undesirable for tourists made it nearly perfect for the budding U.S. space program: Here, one could work in privacy. There was the added benefit that any failed missile launch, or explosion of dangerous gases would probably occur over the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, not in an urban or suburban area. It was from here that Explorer 1, America’s response to Sputnik was launched.
The U.S. Army had been in the rocket “business” since 1945, when it took about 100 high-level German prisoners into custody after World War II. Those Germans, who had worked on Hitler’s V-2 Rocket program, were delighted to surrender to the Americans rather than the Russians; for their part, the Americans were pleased to take so many high-level engineers back to the United States. Their leader was Werner von Braun who went on the become NASA’s chief scientist during Project Apollo.
The Americans were dismayed that the Russians had gotten into space first. American technology was coming on slowly and surely, but there was no way that they could immediately duplicate what Yuri Gagarin had achieved in space. Therefore, they decided to attempt something a bit less ambitious: to put the first American into orbit. It was secretly decided that Alan Shepard would be the person to go. Aside from the obvious technological mission, Shepard’s flight had the effect of boosting the moral of the American population in light of Gagarin’s success.
The major impetus of Project Apollo was political. In order to place America squarely in the lead during the Space Race of the 1960s, the highest levels of American government had to get involved, and President John F. Kennedy rose to the challenge. The Apollo program’s stated goals — to meet the “national interests” of the United States in space as well as to establish its dominance beyond Earth — echoed this winner-take-all sentiment. Of equal importance, and the real means of achieving those first two goals, was executing significant scientific work on the Moon and developing the ability for people to work and function there.
Even as he made his speech, Kennedy knew that he would be traveling in a few days. He and Nikita Khrushchev had made plans to meet in Vienna, Austria, for their first “summit” conference; the tradition had been established by Khrushchev’s visit to President Eisenhower in 1959. Kennedy and Khrushchev met for several hours on. No official transcript of the meeting was made, but Kennedy aides were certain that their man had been bullied and browbeaten. Word has it that Khrushchev threatened to go to war over Berlin, the former capital of Nazi Germany. The meeting marked a renewal of cold war tensions.
The race for space continued. The Americans prepared for a more ambitious project. The United States had been thrilled to put Alan Shepard in space, but he had only remained there about 15 minutes. Now there was a desire to have an astronaut orbit the earth, and to stay up in space for several hours. John Glenn was selected for the second mission. Months of preparation went into this project. About 20,000 people at NASA were involved in one way or another. Everything had to be checked and rechecked a dozen times, if not more. NASA and the U.S. astronauts worked under a greater burden than their Russian counterparts: the media pressure.
A few days before Glenn's historic mission, another historic event was underway on the Glienicke Bridge, linking Potsdam to West Berlin, as the Soviet intelligence officer Colonel Vilyam Fisher was exchanged for the American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Two years earlier, in May 1960, Powers had been shot down near Degtyarsk in the Urals by a salvo of S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missiles. He had been despatched from an American communications facility at Badaber, close to Peshawar in Pakistan, to photograph Soviet ballistic missile sites.
Deep within the Gulf of Cazones, on the southern coast of Cuba, is a place known as the Bay of Pigs. Events at this small, nondescript place would lead to a major diplomatic incident between the United States, Russia and the newly established pro-communist regime of Fidel Castro on the island. It would leave the Kennedy administration, still reeling from Yuri Gagarin's flight, severely embarrassed and, in the eyes of socialists, would significantly raise the profile of both the Soviet Union and Communism. The Americans sought to invade the island and overthrow Castro, who had allied with the Russians, but failed dismally.
The fiasco proved extremely embarrassing for the Kennedy administration. Although he admitted responsibility for the bungled invasion, Kennedy refined his plans to draw the Soviets into a space race and perhaps gain more credibility for his government. His motives, of course, were chiefly political, but he was clearly pinning his colours to the space flag.
After the Bay of Pigs East German troops sealed borders inside Berlin and began the construction of what would become a permanent barrier around the three western sectors of the city. The closure of this border, as a means of discouraging defections, was carried out by East German authorities, with no direct Soviet involvement, although some observers have seen Nikita Khrushchev's insistence on launching his nation's second cosmonaut only days earlier as propaganda cover for constructing the wall. The result was that West Berlin, now completely surrounded, became an isolated enclave in the hostile territory of the Russian zone.
In spite of the fact that the wall's very presence violated the post-war Potsdam Agreement, Kennedy's administration later told the Soviet government that the barrier was now “a fact of international life” and refused to challenge it by force. Nonetheless, a show of force to provide at least some visible reassurance for West Berliners was needed. For the next three and a half years, American battalions would rotate into West Berlin by autobahn at three-monthly intervals to demonstrate Allied rights to the city. In June 1962, shortly before two more cosmonauts pulled off the Soviet Union's next space spectacular, work started on a second, parallel fence.
An event which would have important ramifications for two Soviet cosmonauts got underway on Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. It was part of a joint effort between the Defense Atomic Support Agency (DASA) and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and was known under its umbrella designation of `Operation Dominic'. Its objective, nicknamed `Starfish Prime', was to detonate a thermonuclear warhead some 400 km above Earth's surface. This was a response of the USSR’s testing of “Ivan”, the world’s most powerful hydrogen bomb.
Just weeks after the Gemini nine were introduced to the press, the United States experienced one of the greatest crises of the entire cold war. President Kennedy learned that Russian missiles placed in Communist Cuba would be able to target American cities on the East Coast. Kennedy called in his advisors for a quick and intense briefing at the White House. The fact that the United States had missiles of its own in Turkey, pointed at the Soviet Union, hardly seemed to enter the equation. President Kennedy decided on a measured response, informing the American public of the threat. Fortunately the situation was resolved without war.
The Cosmodrome at Baikonur was the world’s first operational space launch facility. It was top secret from the very beginning. The Russians did not want the United States or other countries to know the whereabouts of their astronauts or rockets. Located on a major river in what is now the country of Kazakhstan, the Cosmodrome was well hidden for several years. The general American public did not learn about it until decades later, but top-level American leaders learned about it through U.S. spy planes flying over Soviet air space. From here Sergey Korolev would direct the Russian space programme.
In the summer of 1963, the Russians put the first woman in space. Khrushchev was intent on pulling off everything before the Americans could. Valentina Tereshkova was sent up from the Russian Cosmodrome aboard Vostok VI. Premier Khrushchev made the most of this propaganda victory. He boasted that the Russians appreciated women more than the capitalist West, and that more women would go up in space. This did not prove true. The Russians soon returned to an entirely male cosmonaut corps. Americans looked on all this with wonder and more than a bit of envy.
Kennedy would not be able to see how the space race turned out. On November 22, 1963, he was shot and killed as his motorcade passed through the streets of Dallas, Texas. Four American presidents—Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and Kennedy—have been assassinated, but the last of these deaths has received the most attention.
After Kennedy’s assassination, his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, immediately replaced him as president. Sworn in as the thirty-sixth president, Johnson declared his intention to continue Kennedy’s policies in most respects. For anyone in NASA listening —and there were many who did— that meant the race for space was still on. Despite criticisms in the media, NASA continued on it’s path set out by Kennedy.
In 1964, the U.S. space program still seemed to lag behind the Soviet program. What Americans did not know—and what they would not know until the end of the cold war—was that the Russians were running out of steam. The Russian space budget had always been smaller than the United States’, and the emphasis on secrecy often affected the progress made by Russian scientists. Then again, the Russians never openly stated what their goals were.
The gradual progress of the American civil rights movement exploded into violence when 600 protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama were attacked by club-wielding, tear-gas-spraying police. As a result, 7 March 1965 would become forever known as `Bloody Sunday'. At the time, Selma had a population that was 57% black. The vast majority of the black community lived beneath the poverty line, a situation which they sought to rectify. The situation reached a head when an Alabama state trooper shot Jimmie Lee Jackson as the latter tried to protect his mother and grandfather during a nocturnal demonstration.
The Russians unveiled their new Voskhod. Aware that the Americans were winning the propaganda war, Khrushchev decided on a novel approach. The early Russian flights had all been in one-seater Vostoks, and the Americans were well on the way to developing their two-seater Gemini capsules. Therefore, Khrushchev ordered Korolev to develop a brand-new three seater spacecraft. Given a hopeless task, and knowing that the dangers for the cosmonauts would increase, Korolev did the only thing he could. His designers ripped out the ejection seat from the old Vostok spacecraft and renamed the capsule Voskhod.
Voskhod took off. The Russian press had a field day. They had three cosmonauts in space while the Americans—for the moment at least—were doing nothing. But just one day into its flight, Voskhod was recalled. The cosmonauts were furious, then perplexed. Everything was going well; why would they be brought down? The answer was simple: Nikita Khrushchev’s government had been removed from power. Leonid Brezhnev was the new soviet leader. Khrushchev had made his share of errors, but his downfall was a definite negative for the Soviet space program.
Both American and Russian engineers were keen to have their astronauts “walk” in space. Of course, it would not be an actual walk, not as we on Earth know it. The American engineers were a bit slower than the Russians. In March 1965, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov stepped from his spacecraft. The Russian press celebrated; its cosmonauts had performed another “first.” The Americans were very aware that they again finished second.
Prior to his death, Korolev had never been given full praise and credit for his remarkable role in the Soviet space program. He had been called the “Chief Designer” in the Soviet press, never having his actual name printed. That finally changed when he received a state funeral in Moscow. Leonid Brezhnev, one of the leaders of the collective government, was the highest-ranking official at the funeral. All the scientists, technicians, and dignitaries involved with the space program were there, including Yuri Gagarin who had been Korolev’s star pupil.
Russians learned too late of the greatness of Sergei Korolev, but this was not the case with their next great tragedy. Yuri Gagarin died in 1967. Only six years had passed since Gagarin had been the first man in space, but Soviet officials had not treated him well. Initially, Gagarin had been fussed over and praised, but he had not had the opportunity he really wanted—to go back into space and prove himself once more. His immediate celebrity status meant that Khrushchev and other Russian leaders wanted him grounded, to stay safe so he could trumpet the triumphs of the Soviet space program. Gagarin died in a plane crash.
On the evening that the Apollo 1 crew lost their lives President Johnson signed a document popularly called `The Outer Space Treaty'. Today the document has around a hundred signatories and a further two dozen who are partway through their ratification of it. Its 17 articles decree that signatories will refrain from the placement of nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction into Earth orbit, onto the Moon or onto any other celestial body. The treaty explicitly states that the Moon and other celestial bodies are to be used for peaceful purposes and forbids weapons testing and military exercises or emplacements on them.
On 27 April 1967, an unusual communique was issued by the Soviet news agency, Tass. Days earlier, Vladimir Komarov had been launched into orbit aboard the new Soyuz spacecraft. Within hours, however, euphoria had vanished into tragedy. In a handful of sentences, carefully crafted by the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Dmitri Ustinov, it was revealed that Komarov's ship had “descended with speed'' from orbit, “the result of a shroud line twisting''. The result: “the premature death of the outstanding cosmonaut''. Little more would be known in the western world for nearly three decades.
President Johnson was never as eager a space enthusiast as President Kennedy. The United States was involved in the Vietnam War. By 1967, there were more than a million Americans in South Vietnam, and, despite their overwhelming technical and material superiority, the Americans were not winning the war. As the public became disenchanted with President Johnson and the war, many American youth also began to complain about their country’s space program. What could justify the expense of billions of dollars when many Americans were fighting and dying in Vietnam and there was poverty in the United States?
While it is seldom cited as a reason for the current decline of the space program, energy conservation has played a role behind the scenes. In 1967 Americans bought gasoline for as little as 25 cents a gallon. There was a tremendous supply of oil coming into the country from places as far away as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. In October 1973, Israel and its Arab neighbors fought a conflict called the Yom Kippur War. Neither side really won the war, but the oil-rich Arab nations decided to punish the United States and other Western nations for their support of Israel. Gasoline prices doubled in 1974 and did so again in 1979.
Russians and Americans alike faced great challenges in 1968. The war in Vietnam continued with no end in sight. Domestic opposition to the war continued to grow, and in January 1968, Senator Eugene McCarthy announced that he would challenge President Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination in the upcoming presidential election. Johnson pulled out of the presidential race.
Another event shook the American nation. On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. The civil rights movement might be said to have paralleled the space program, in that they began around the same time and ran on parallel tracks. Like two trains headed in the same direction but on different sets of rails, the civil rights movement and the race for space did not intersect.
Senator Robert Kennedy of New York State announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. A younger brother of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy was seen as the obvious heir to his brother’s legacy throughout the Johnson administration. As such he was a viewed as a supporter of NASA and the Apollo Project. Kennedy won the nomination. But then Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles on June 6, 1968. The Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago that summer, was a bitterly contested fight between the supporters of McCarthy and supporters of another candidate, the vice president at the time, Hubert Humphrey.
In 1968 came yet another event which has become infamous as perhaps the most notorious act of mass murder in American military history, involved the tiny South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. There at least 300 – some reports say as many as 500 – unarmed civilians, including women and children, were raped, tortured, mutilated and massacred by American troops. When it reached the ears of the world a year later, the incident sparked outrage and condemnation and strengthened already simmering public discontent over an unpopular war.
The general election that autumn was something of a letdown. The Democrats did nominate Hubert Humphrey. He did his best, but could not distance himself from the policies of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon of California. In November 1968, Richard Nixon was elected the thirty-seventh president of the United States. Nixon was president during all the U.S. moon landings and was instrumental in the development of the space shuttle program.
If they were looking for good news, Americans found none in the summer of 1968. But that autumn, some Americans returned to something that had previously caught their interest: space. The deaths of three astronauts in 1967 and the passage of nearly a year and a half of time had led many Americans to forget about the space program. But in the fall of 1968, they learned that NASA was about to launch its most ambitious venture yet: a manned orbit of the moon. Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and William Anders were the astronauts selected for the mission. The Apollo VIII mission was a success.
There are those who say that Christmas Day 1968 was a tremendous moment in human history. For the first time ever, humans were able to witness the fragility of their home planet, which could only be done by looking from outer space. Millions of people watched the camera footage on the news or read the essays in Time. Many of them were persuaded that more needed to be done to save this planet before humans proceeded elsewhere in the universe. For the crew of Apollo VIII, seeing the earth from space was another huge moment in the growing environmental movement. The very first Earth Day was commemorated in April 1970.
The tidal wave of social and cultural change that swept the United States between 1965 and 1969 was truly unprecedented. In four short years America had changed. Younger people railed against the “system.” Older people railed against the irresponsibility of the young. Middle-aged parents were appalled at the sudden change. How could their children, who had been so sweet and complacent in 1965, have become so aggressive by 1969? The answer is, of course, the Vietnam War. It divided the United States like no other conflict, before or since. Indeed, the Apollo program was started in turbulent times.
1968 was a bloody year not only for the Americans, but for the Eastern Bloc also. As Soviet and American astronauts space walked outside their Earth-circling ships and raced to put a man on the Moon, efforts to promote democracy in Czechoslovakia, came to nothing. The optimistic Prague reforms of Alexander Dubcek in the spring of 1968 raised such alarm that 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops and thousands of Soviet tanks rumbled into the country to stifle any attempt to create a new nation of pluralism, tolerance and improved human rights.
Richard Nixon was inaugurated as president on January 20, 1969. Thousands of young people protested the inauguration, saying that Nixon would continue America’s downward spiral. Perhaps Nixon did want to remove U.S. troops from Vietnam, but he also felt the time was not right. To leave suddenly would seem like an admission of defeat. But there was an area in which Nixon could truly shine, with little cost to his administration or his policies. He could back the race for space and bask in the glory of what had been started 10 years ago. The Apollo program continued.
Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins blasted off from Cape Canaveral. Thousands of people came to watch the mighty boosters lift the rocket into the sky. Soon they were on their way to the moon. As the spacecraft neared the moon, the three astronauts separated. Armstrong and Aldrin floated into the lunar module, while Collins remained in the command module. Armstrong and Aldrin were in constant contact with mission control, which in turn was in constant contact with CBS News in New York City. The American public was finding out what was going on just moments after it had occurred. Neil Armstrong was the first human on the moon. The Russians were defeated.
The 1969 landing on the moon was one of the great events of human history. Popular culture echoed the accomplishments that were happening in technology and science. The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed a burgeoning of new programs about space and man’s attempts to “conquer” it.
When Apollo XIII aimed for the moon just two years after the first landing there, the major news networks did not at first carry the mission live. They later picked up the story when the astronauts ran into serious trouble during the mission. Television producers defended their initial decision by saying that Americans were tired of hearing about space. Eventually the Apollo program would be cancelled.
Nikita Khrushchev was now dead. The collective leadership that replaced him had been reduced to Leonid Brezhnev, who was just as interested in space as Khrushchev had been. But Brezhnev faced serious economic restraints in the 1970s. The Soviet Union was going broke, and there was much less money for space exploration than in the past. Then, too, Brezhnev wanted to improve relations with the United States and so it did not make sense to inflame tensions with another space race. The Russian public was as weary of space as were the Americans.
Those who had been born during the space-race era, roughly from 1957 to 1969, can look back with pride at the accomplishments of humans in outer space, but those achievements also brought about something unintended. People all over the world have come to realize how precious Earth is, that there is not—at least on the surface—any other planet that supports life. The space race was an incredibly exciting time. Millions of people still recall many of these great moments.