The Space Race

space race

A US cartoon satirising the Space Race

The Cold War’s political and military rivalry was matched by the so-called Space Race. From the mid-1950s to 1975, both the United States and Soviet Union struggled to outdo each other in space exploration technology and milestones. Each spent millions developing space-capable rockets, putting artificial satellites into orbit, designing and building orbiter ships, training astronauts, launching manned space missions, attempting to land men on the Moon and bring them home safely. Unlike other aspects of the Cold War, the Space Race – or at least its end results – was a very public phenomenon. Every ground-breaking invention, test, launch or event was accompanied by extensive media coverage and propaganda. Both superpowers repeatedly claimed to be ahead of the other in space exploration. In reality, over a quarter-century of the Space Race, their victories were evenly shared.

space race

Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi turned US space pioneer

The first phase of the Space Race focused on the development of rocket systems. Ironically, the early pioneers in rocket science were neither American or Russian – but Germans. Probably the leading rocket scientist of the early Cold War was Wernher von Braun, a former member of the Nazi Party and major in the much-hated Schutzstaffel (SS). In 1942, Braun oversaw a rocket launch that achieved sub-orbital space flight, the first man-made object to do so. An impressed Adolf Hitler ordered the manufacture of thousands of explosive-tipped rockets, based on von Braun’s designs. In late 1944 more than 1,400 of these rockets – by then known as the V-2 – were launched at civilian targets in England. Traveling at the speed of sound, the V-2s hit their targets just three minutes after launch; their speed made them impossible to intercept with planes or anti-aircraft fire. Von Braun’s V-2s caused around 2,750 civilian deaths; one single V-2 rocket that landed on a Woolworth’s store killed 160 Londoners. Though von Braun’s innovations contributed to thousands of civilian deaths, both the Soviets and Americans eagerly sought his services. It was the latter who captured him in the final days of the war – and by July 1945, von Braun and dozens of his staff were shipped to the US under Operation Paperclip. These German scientists played a vital role in designing, developing and testing American rockets and missiles for the duration of the Cold War.


“Three domestic developments made Sputnik the enduring symbol of a crisis in American confidence: the sensationalistic response of the press, the politically motivated investigation of the ‘space and missile mess’ by Senator Lyndon Johnson, and the confused and contradictory attempts by the administration to downplay Sputnik. “I had no idea,” said president Eisenhower, “that the American people were so psychologically vulnerable.”
Walter McDougall, historian
A Soviet technician works on Sputnik prior to its launch in 1957

A Soviet technician works on Sputnik prior to its launch in 1957

Despite America’s acquisition of German rocket scientists, the Soviets nevertheless made rapid advances in this field. Their expertise was put on show in October 1957, when the USSR became the first country to launch a man-made satellite into orbit. Sputnik I (see picture) was tiny in comparison to modern satellites, weighing just 90 kilograms – but it circled the Earth once every 90 minutes, at a speed of 28,000 kilometres per hour. Sputnik created a sensation, the New York Times suggesting it would “go down in history…as one of the greatest achievements of man”. But it shocked Washington, shattering assumptions about Soviet technical inferiority. The Sputnik program also had implied threats to national security, since the rockets that put satellites into orbit could also be used for military applications. Curtis Lemay, the United States Air Force chief, immediately prioritised research into new rocket technology.

The Space Race continued for more than two decades. In November 1957 the Soviets launched their second orbiting satellite, Sputnik II – the first to contain a living creature, a dog named Laika. Two months later the US launched its first man-made satellite, Explorer I. NASA also launched the first communications satellite, SCORE (December 1958) which beamed down a message from president Dwight Eisenhower. The following month the Soviets surged ahead again with the launch of Luna I, the first man-made satellite to leave Earth and take up orbit around the Sun. In September 1959 the Soviets also landed a probe, Luna II, on the surface of the Moon. A Soviet cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space when his ship, Vostok I, completed an orbit of the Earth in April 1961. John Glenn, flying in Friendship VII, became the first American in space in February 1962. The first woman in space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, in June 1963. Another Soviet cosmonaut, Alexey Leonov, completed the first spacewalk in March 1965.

The race to the Moon

But the most fantastic goal of space explorers was to travel beyond Earth, to the Moon or other planets. In 1961, John F. Kennedy – seeking to leap ahead of the Soviets in the Space Race – ordered an escalation in the American space program. Kennedy identified travel to and safe return from the Moon as a long-term goal, suggesting that this could be accomplished before the end of the 1960s. In a September 1962 speech in Texas, Kennedy voiced his support for landing men on the Moon:

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? 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. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

space race

A TIME magazine cover depicting the US-Soviet ‘race for the moon’

The following year, Kennedy floated the possibility of a joint US-Soviet Moon mission, an idea tentatively accepted by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. But Kennedy was assassinated weeks later, and both Washington and Moscow continued with separate agendas. Through the 1960s, both countries researched and prepared for manned Moon flights – though the Soviets also worked on even bolder projects, like building an orbiting space station (something they accomplished in 1971) and investigating manned flights to Mars and Venus. In March 1966 the Soviet space program crash-landed a probe onto the surface of Venus, the first man-made item to reach another planet. But the Soviet Moon program was beset by problems and setbacks, falling behind NASA’s Apollo program. In December 1968, three US astronauts onboard Apollo VIII became the first men to orbit the Moon, circling it ten times before returning safely to Earth. Then, in July the following year, two astronauts from Apollo XI, Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, landed safely on the Moon’s surface.


space race

The three US and two Soviet members of the first Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975

The Space Race came to a conclusion in 1975, with the launching of the Apollo-Soyuz project, the first joint US-Soviet space mission. The two powers have collaborated on space exploration ever since. Though it sometimes fuelled Cold War rivalry and tension, the Space Race also produced considerable benefits for human society. Space exploration required rapid improvements and advances in a range of fields, including telecommunications, micro-technology, computer science and solar power. These innovations have been utilised in a host of other applications, including consumer goods. Today, hundreds of artificial satellites orbit the Earth and provide us with rapid international communication, television, global positioning systems (GPS) and weather data. Space research has also greatly enhanced our theoretical and practical understanding of astronomy, meteorology, physics and the various earth sciences.



1. The Space Race saw two decades of US-Soviet rivalry, as each vied to reach new milestones in space exploration.
2. The US gained an advantage by recruiting European experts in rocket technology, some of them former Nazis.
3. In 1957 the Soviets made the first radical push into space, by launching Sputnik, the first man-made satellite.
4. The Soviets also put a probe on the Moon, a satellite in ordit around the Sun and the first man into space.
5. The great prize of the Space Race, however, was a successful manned landing on the Moon, completed by the US in July 1969. Six years later the US and USSR launched their first joint space mission, Apollo-Soyuz, which effectively ended the Space Race.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Space Race”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],