The space race was a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for domination in spaceflight. Although the space race pioneered some outstanding space exploration moments, it was primarily motivated by the political climate of the cold war. In the beginning the Soviet Union dominated the United States in the space race. Later the USA gained lost ground and eventually surpassed the Soviets with the Apollo program, the American moon landings.
The Soviet space program, especially during its heyday in the late 1950s and 1960s, has presented problems to specialists who have tried to write its history. Work was carried out under conditions of extraordinary security within secret programs in hidden facilities and closed towns. The flow of information was, at best, strictly on a need-to-know basis. People involved at the highest levels often had little knowledge of what was going on beyond their own immediate domains, or even within them. In recent times, taking advantage of relatively improved access to Soviet archives, several important new studies have been undertaken, especially by Russians.
The opening act of the Space Race was the competition to put a satellite into orbit around the Earth. Both superpowers were invested in being the first nation to send a satellite into Earth’s orbit, but the first achievement of the Space Race went to the Soviet Union. The chief architect of the soviet space program, Sergei Korolev proposed a daring plan to Nikita Khrushchev: using existing rocket technology the USSR would launch a satellite into Earth's orbit. Eager to exploit the benefits of such an undertaking Khrushchev agreed. Sputnik was launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
In 1958, a year after the success of the first Soviet satellite, U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower signed an act creating NASA. It had the task of developing a civilian space program. In December of that same year, NASA announced that its official manned space program would be called Project Mercury. The project had two goals. First, it was to investigate the ability of humans to survive and work in the environment of space. Second, it was to develop and test the basic hardware for future manned spaceflight programs.
Almost immediately Khrushchev demanded a follow-up—a second Sputnik, timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, Sputnik-2 was launched ahead of even this crazy schedule. This time a dog, Laika, was on board. As the first living creature in space, she provided invaluable— and highly encouraging—information about the prospects for human life in space and under conditions of weightlessness. Unfortunately, no provision was made for bringing Sputnik-2 or its lonely occupant back, and so poor Laika also became the first earthling to die in space, succumbing to heat exhaustion after less than six hours.
In the true spirit of Space Race competition, the United States was developing its own program for sending animals into space. The rationale was much the same as for the Soviet dog studies: engineers were eager to find out how living creatures would react to the pressures of microgravity and space travel, but they were far less eager to use humans as the first test subjects. The first primate-space-travel success story belongs to a pair of monkeys named Able and Baker. In 1959, they were launched on the Jupiter AM-18 rocket, made it into space, and returned home alive.
For his great achievements with Sputniks-1 and -2 Korolev received absolutely no publicity whatsoever. Instead, his name was kept a strict secret—and not only at this time but for the rest of his life. Over the coming years, as the number of his achievements accrued the world, including the Soviet public, knew the architect of it all only by the vague appellation the “Chief Designer.” Adding insult to injury, until about 1960 the Soviet authorities sometimes even explicitly credited Korolev’s work to a minor colleague—the physicist L. I. Sedov. Other times the pseudonym “K. Sergeev” (nearly his real name backwards) was used instead.
The failure of the first U.S. satellite launch, named Vanguard TV3 added to Khrushchev’s glee and further convinced millions of people in the USSR and around the world, even in the United States, of the superiority of Soviet space technology. The successful launching the following January of Explorer-1, the first U.S. satellite, did little to change this perception, even though the craft made an important discovery missed by Korolev’s Sputniks: the Van Allen radiation belts.
The United States had also scored three successful launches, following Explorer- 1 with Vanguard-1 and Explorer-3 (Explorer-2 did not reach orbit). Nonetheless, world opinion remained convinced America was behind. In fact, the Soviet lead was partly illusory. Designed primarily for delivering propaganda coups, the first two Sputniks had not been equipped for serious scientific work. Though the United States was far from immune to similar motivations, all of its satellites had also been outfitted to perform basic research. By the end of the 50’s, the U.S. had many more orbiting satellites than the USSR, most of which were also of greater scientific value.
With three Sputniks to his credit, Korolev began to think bigger still. In particular, the moon beckoned. But this was a very different target from the near-earth orbits so far attained. Luna-1 (Moon-1) did nearly everything it was supposed to, sweeping across sublunar space and eventually missing its target by only 6000 km—a cosmic hair’s breadth. Korolev had fought successfully to get scientific instrumentation on Luna-1 and was rewarded also with the significant discovery that the moon lacks a magnetic field. The craft became the first man-made object to settle into solar orbit. Luna-2 reached the moon surface. Luna-3 took the first photographs of the Moon’s dark side.
The next wave of Luna spacecraft had the lofty goal of sending a little bit of the Moon back home to Earth. These Luna missions had landers onboard that were capable of gathering a soil sample from the Moon and launching a capsule containing that sample back to Earth. These landers were able to drill down into the Moon’s surface, fill the hollow arm of the drill with soil, and send that arm home in the return capsule.
In the true spirit of the Space Race, the Soviet Union’s Luna missions compelled the United States to simultaneously develop its own series of robotic lunar missions that could photograph the Moon’s surface. The spacecraft of the Ranger Program were intended to impact the Moon, taking pictures along the way with their six cameras. The first six Ranger spacecraft in the program all failed to return useful pictures for various reasons. Fortunately for the U.S. space program, the next few Ranger missions were much more successful.
Although his earlier efforts captivated both the public and the scientific community, by far the greatest impression was made by Korolev’s crowning achievement of 1961—and probably of his life—the successful launch of the world’s first astronaut (or cosmonaut), Yuri Gagarin. Korolev was tiring of Sputniks and Lunas. It was, he felt, time to put a man into space. Selling the idea to Khrushchev as another important “first” proved relatively easy. Actually doing it was another thing. Whoever the man would be, Korolev was determined to do everything possible to secure his safe return.
Standing at the launch pad just before climbing into Vostok 1, Gagarin said to the scientists and workers, “In a few minutes a powerful space vehicle will carry me into the distant realm of space. Could one dream of anything greater? It is a responsibility toward all mankind, toward its present and future.” After his flight a triumphant Gagarin returned to Moscow on the cheering of the crowed. He had instantly became a national hero, and a world celebrity.
With the United States quickly gaining ground in terms of number and length of orbits achieved, the Soviets switched tack and focused on sending the first woman into space. Khrushchev’s primary interest was propaganda as usual. In this case he sought to make a statement about the supposed equality of the sexes that had been achieved under the conditions of Soviet socialism. After a rigorous selection process the 26 year old Valentina Tereshkova was selected.
Tereshkova’s flight was also the end of the line for the highly successful Vostok spacecraft. It was succeeded by a new vehicle called Voskhod. The first launch called for placing a three-man team into orbit. Time and resource constraints allowed only a single unmanned test. Yet remarkably, Voskhod-1 was a complete success. The next mission, Voskhod-2, attempted yet another spectacular first—a spacewalk. Two cosmonauts were chosen: Aleksei Arkhipovich Leonov, who was to carry out the “walk,” and copilot Pavel Beliaev.
The United States, though bested by the Soviet Union in the race to place the first human into orbit, wasn’t without a feisty comeback. NASA helped develop the first American plan for human spaceflight: Project Mercury. Named in honor of the Roman god of speed, Project Mercury had very specific goals: Humans would orbit the Earth and return home safely, gathering valuable data about how mankind could live, breathe, and work in space in the process.
Two Mercury missions are particularly notable: the astronaut with the honor of being the first American in space is Alan Shepard. Another famous American astronaut, John Glenn, broke new ground by becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.
Although history reveals that the first American astronauts were all men, that info doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Dr. William Lovelace, the person responsible for developing the tests that helped select the Mercury astronauts, also solicited female recruits for the testing phase. The first such candidate, a female pilot named Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, was invited to undergo the testing in 1960, and she passed the same three phases as the men. With these results, more women were invited to take physiological tests. The program was halted because NASA required it’s astronauts to be air force officers and in those days the USAF didn’t train female pilots.
Voskhod-2’s spectacular if nail-biting success marks the beginning of the end of Korolev’s anonymous reign as the world’s greatest space pioneer. By now the Americans were increasingly finding their own footing and, able to marshal much greater resources, were quickly closing the Space Race gap. Soon they would move ahead. The United States had developed Gemini—a much more advanced craft sporting onboard computing and two-astronaut capacity. Flying in Gemini-3, Gus Grissom and John Young carried out first ever maneuvers in orbit.
One of the most-significant historical achievements of Project Gemini was its ability to prove that rendezvous and docking activities could take place in space. These techniques were considered critical forbearers for a lunar mission, which was one of the ultimate goals of the U.S. space program. The target for these spacecraft docks was the Agena spacecraft, a separate unmanned spacecraft designed by NASA to provide a place for other space vehicles to practice docking in space.
In May 1961 the race to the moon began—at least in the United States. Going specifically to the moon, rather than anywhere else, was at this time an American goal, not a Soviet one. The R-7, exceptionally well suited for earth orbital missions, could not lift the necessary amounts of fuel and other equipment.
Wernher von Braun was one of the most important rocket developers and champions of space exploration during the period between the 1930s and the 1970s. Von Braun is well known as the leader of what has been called the “rocket team” which developed the V–2 ballistic missile for the Nazis during World War II. At the end of the war von Braun surrendered to the Americans. Von Braun worked with the U.S. Army in the development of ballistic missiles. Von Braun became director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that would propel Americans to the Moon.
Although manned spaceflight was always the ultimate goal of NASA’s Moon program, everyone understood that it was necessary to first know a lot more about the Moon’s surface. Toward this end, NASA promoted the Lunar Orbiter Project, a series of five missions launched between 1966 and 1967. The project’s goal was to use high-resolution photos and other data to create a map of the Moon’s surface, paying particular attention to the areas that NASA considered prime candidates for a future astronaut mission. Unlike some other space mission programs, all of NASA’s Lunar Orbiter missions were a startling success.
In the mid- to late 1960s, both competitors in the Space Race kept the ultimate goal of sending astronauts to the Moon in sight. The United States’ next effort after the Lunar Orbiter Project was the Lunar Surveyor Program, a NASA project that landed the first American spacecraft on the Moon. Seven robotic spacecraft were sent to the Moon during that time, primarily to test techniques and scout out landing spots for the Apollo missions.
The Lunar Surveyors were equipped with television cameras for photographing details of the lunar surface. These cameras could pan around to take multidirectional photos and photograph the lunar surface from different heights. Each spacecraft also had equipment to measure the surface temperature of the Moon and test the radar reflectivity and strength of its surface. In fact, more than 100 sensors were stashed aboard Surveyor 1.
Landing on the Moon was a far-away dream for engineers, NASA scientists, politicians, and just about everyone else in the world during the early 1960s. Thanks to the breakthroughs and achievements of the United States’ Project Apollo, those dreams became reality just a few short years later — a reality witnessed by anyone with access to a television on July 20, 1969. The landing of astronauts on the Moon, as part of the Apollo 11 mission, is arguably one of the greatest human achievements ever.
Making history is rarely a small affair. Project Apollo required significant resources, investments, and costs in order to reach its goals. Fortunately, all that time and money paid off: NASA made huge advances in the areas of computers and robotics as engineers worked to develop the first flight computer to aid in navigation and implemented complicated automated flights to test various components of the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn V rocket without astronauts onboard.
Less than three months after the successful conclusion of the Gemini program, the first Apollo capsule was sitting atop its titanic Saturn 1B rocket. In 1967, NASA held a dress rehearsal for the launches that would eventually take place. Astronauts Ed White, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Roger Chaffee were on board the Apollo capsule. They were testing the launch systems when a fire suddenly broke out. Although all the propellants had been removed from the capsule, the pure oxygen atmosphere caused the plastics inside to burn fiercely. Within fifteen seconds, the three men were dead from suffocation. It took ninety seconds for a rescue crew to open the hatch.
Although the manned flights are the ones that everyone thinks about when discussing Project Apollo, many robotic (unmanned) test flights went into making those landings possible. These missions laid the foundation for those important human flights and tested techniques that the astronauts would need to rely on later.
As it turned out, Voskhod-2 was Korolev’s last manned mission. For many years his health had been steadily declining. After his 1960 heart attack, doctors’ recommendations for rest and recuperation had been ignored. His final demise came on 14 January 1966, caused by complications during a procedure to remove intestinal polyps. In death Korolev attained the public recognition he had been systematically denied in life.
Korolev was succeeded as Chief Designer by his former deputy, Vasilii Mishin, who struggled to pick up where the great man had left off. It is extremely unlikely that even Korolev could have continued any longer to keep the Americans from overtaking the Soviets, the gap in resources being just too great. But it was under Mishin’s watch that the baton was clearly passed. Nonetheless, Mishin did preside over some important scientific successes, including the soft landing of an unmanned research-probe (Luna-9) on the moon, the first probe to enter Venus’s atmosphere (Venera-4), and the first transmission of data from the surface of Venus (by Venera-7).
Readying the spacecraft, astronauts, and techniques for a Moon landing required significant preparatory work, which is where Apollo 7 through Apollo 10 came in. Each manned flight was designed to test certain elements of a Moon mission, all of which built on each other and ultimately led to the success of Apollo 11.
Despite numerous setbacks and intense competition from the Soviet Union, the United States won the most coveted accolade in the Space Race, if not the history of humanity, on July 20, 1969. On that day, Project Apollo placed an American on the surface of the Moon. The mission commander was astronaut Neil Armstrong, who went down in history as the first human to step on the Moon.
After a quick meal on the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to take their first steps on the lunar surface. Neil Armstrong exited the Lunar Module first, descended the nine steps of the exit ladder, took that first historic step on the Moon, and uttered the words America longed to hear: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Armstrong and Aldrin planted a United States flag into the lunar surface. Because there’s no wind on the Moon to blow out the flag, the astronauts mounted it to a small rod that would (in theory) help keep the flag extended on the pole. In reality, the rod failed to extend all the way, giving the flag a slightly rumpled look that lends the appearance of fluttering. When it was time to head back, Aldrin reentered the Lunar Module first, followed by Armstrong. Along with them came camera film and boxes full of rock and soil samples. The Apollo 11 astronauts returned home safely.
With the incredible success of Apollo 11, the U.S. space program had the support it needed to continue with the rest of the intended Apollo missions. Although putting the first man on the Moon was an unparalleled achievement, other surprises were yet to come from the astronauts and their missions. After the frenzied pace leading up to Apollo 11, NASA was able to step back and space out the missions more. As a result, the missions following Apollo 11 were rich in scientific exploration. However the political goals of the program, having been achieved, eventually led to the cancellation of the program after Apollo 17.
Apollo 11 was a hard act to follow — after all, it put the first men on the Moon — but the Apollo 12 mission proved it was up to the task. Not only did the Americans put another pair of men on the Moon, but they did so just four months after their first successful attempt. This time the astronauts were to explore a different part of the Moon: the Oceanus Procellarum, a vast lunar plain that borders the near side of the Moon and was found to be covered with ancient lava flows.
Thanks to the failure of Apollo 13 to land on the Moon, the next Apollo mission was under huge amounts of pressure to pick up the research and sample collection slack. With a few design changes, Apollo 14 fulfilled its new goals admirably and was able to take a wealth of photos, gather numerous samples, and conduct several interesting experiments.
Because it was rapidly becoming clear that the immense cost of lunar exploration couldn’t be sustained for long, it was imperative that Apollo 15 and later missions do as much science as they could. Earlier Apollo missions were limited in terms of the type of terrain they could land on, the amount of lunar samples they could bring back, and the length of time they could work on the Moon’s surface. Apollo 15 was charged with breaking those limitations in part by traveling farther away from the lunar landing site and bringing more equipment for conducting experiments and gathering data.
Apollo 16 was like the bigger, better version of Apollo 15. It may have been the tenth manned Apollo mission and the fifth lunar-landing mission, but it was the first one to land in the lunar highlands. Apollo 16 also trumped the payload and lunar surface time records of its immediate predecessor.
The last manned Moon landing of the Apollo program was Apollo 17, a mission that was designed to maximize the number of lunar samples collected and experiments run. Why? Because mankind was making its last journey to the Moon for the remainder of the 20th century. All future Apollo missions had been canceled due to a combination of budgetary concerns and a need to allocate resources to other projects. The equipment originally slated for Apollo 18, 19, and 20 was used for other missions, put on display, or scrapped. The last human steps on the Moon were taken by Eugene Cernan on December 14, 1972.
Data from the Apollo adventure has kept scientists busy for a generation. After studying the samples brought back by the astronauts, scientists concluded that the Moon split off from Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, when a very large asteroid collided with Earth. Almost none of the iron from Earth’s core was torn out, which is why the Moon has very little iron and is only 60% as dense as Earth overall. Small quantities of radioactive oxygen in the moon rocks match the amount of radioactive oxygen in Earth rocks.
The Soviet Union had its own response to the achievements of the United States’ Mercury and Gemini programs: the Soyuz program. Begun in the 1960s, this Soviet space program involved both a Soyuz launch vehicle and a Soyuz spacecraft. It was originally conceived to test orbital docking and multi crew missions, with the intent of leading up to a trip to the Moon. During the first mission cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died. This delayed the Soviet space program. After the moon race was over and the americans won, the Soyuz program was repurposed to transport cosmonauts into orbit to various space stations. The Soyuz family is still being used today.
The Apollo Moon landings were a triumph for the United States, but such a level of accomplishment couldn’t be sustained on either side of the Space Race after the politically motivated megagoal of being first to the Moon was achieved. Thus, both the U.S. and Soviet space programs set their sights on more-modest goals closer to home, in Earth orbit. The Americans scaled down Project Apollo to meet new orbital objectives, and the Soviets launched their successful Soyuz program, which took cosmonauts into orbit and ferried them to and from a succession of space stations. Salyut 1 was the world’s first such space station.
Under Valentin Glushko’s authority from 1974 on, the Salyuts became a particularly bright spot in the ongoing Soviet space program. With the Soviets beaten to the moon, and the absurd pressures for novel space stunts abated somewhat, this fruitful area of endeavor was allowed to progress, with significant results. Beginning with Salyut-4 the Soviets in fact found themselves catching up, and then moving ahead of the Americans in space endurance: thirty days in 1975 (Salyut-4), and then a series of records on Salyut-6: ninety-six in 1977–1978, 140 in 1978, 175 in 1979, and 185 days in 1980.
United States responded with its own orbiting space station, Skylab, launched in May 1973. After extensive repairs in space, Skylab quickly outperformed the first three Saliuts, allowing the United States to set consecutive space endurance records, ending with eighty-four days beginning that November. Its primary mission was to prove that astronauts could live in space for more than a few days; it was also intended to study the Earth and stars from a new perspective.
A final politically motivated mission remained: In 1975, the U.S. and Soviet Union staged a joint mission, Apollo-Soyuz, during which spacecraft from the two nations actually docked in orbit. Widely considered the end of the Space Race, this incident ushered in a new era of reduced hostilities between the two superpowers. Apollo-Soyuz was considered a test flight that would prove the feasibility of a mission combining the American and Soviet space programs.
The Apollo-Soyuz mission made history when Commander Thomas Stafford, an American astronaut, and Commander Alexei Leonov, a Soviet cosmonaut, performed the first-ever international handshake in space. Command Module Pilot Vance Brand and Docking Module Pilot Donald Slayton comprised the rest of the American crew; Flight Engineer Valery Kubasov was the second half of the Soviet crew. It was a stellar crew on both sides, with years of experience and history (in fact, Leonov conducted the Soviet Union’s first spacewalk from the Voskhod 2 spacecraft in 1965).