Space Race

During the mid to late twentieth century, competition known as the Space Race occurred between the Soviet Union and the United States. This rivalry focused on the each countries want for supremacy in space exploration. Achieving this was seen necessary by both superpowers in establishing national security and ideological and technological superiority.

The race saw many pioneering efforts by both countries to launch artificial satellites, orbital and suborbital human space flight and last but not least piloted expeditions to the moon. The Space Race began in 1957 with the launch of Soviet artificial Satellite Sputnik I and ended in 1975 with the joint Apollo-Soyuz test project. This project came to symbolize the easing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Space Race held some of the most famous missions and probes known to date. This includes the Sputnik I, Vostok I, Mariner 2, Ranger 7, Luna 9, Apollo 8 and Apollo 11. The race was also responsible for the start of the environmental movement, increased funding in education and research and made way for spin off technologies and scientific advancements worldwide. 


Apollo-Soyuz Test Project


Origins of the Space Race
World War II
in the early 1930’s and during WWII German scientists and engineers experimented and researched operational ballistic missiles and liquid fuelled rockets that were capable of long distant attack. However the Treaty of Versailles prohibited the research and development of long distance cannons. The German’s put together a small team of engineers to develop a weapon that would work around this decree. One of the men recruited was engineering prodigy Wernher Von Braun. Braun initially did not see the military value in missiles, but agreed to join the Nazi’s in the hope that they would fund his dreams of space exploration. During the war Braun directed the ballistic missile programs and lead the teams that built the Aggregate-4 Rocket and the Vergletungswaffe 2 (V2). 


The German forces used the V2 to bombard England and Southern Allied-liberated western Europe with devastating effects. Naturally this weapon became the desire of both the Soviets and the United States and by the end of the war, both country’s raced to capture the rockets and the German engineers involved. Both the U.S and the Soviet captured a share of members from the German Rocket team, but the U.S benefited the most with the capture of Operation Paperclip, which included Von Braun, his men and a large number of completed V2 rockets. After WWII, the V2 became the model for early Soviet and American rocket designs. 

German V2 Rocket

Assembling Rocket Teams

As the location of the German Rocket Centre fell under the Soviet zone of occupation, Stalin sent the Soviet’s best engineers and scientists to Peenemünde to salvage what they could for future weapon systems. Like the U.S the Soviets had a remarkable engineer known as Sergey Korolyov, who was involved in the Soviets rocket designs during the 1930’s. After the war he became the Soviet counterpart to Von Braun, becoming the chief of rocket and space craft engineer for the USSR. 

Both the US and Soviet teams worked endlessly at designing new rockets. Korolyov influenced by the G4-R10 designed the R-1. Whilst Von Braun developed the American Army’s first operational medium range rocket known as the Redstone Rocket. This rocket became the basis for both the Jupiter and Saturn family rockets. 


Space Race during the 1950’s

The starting line was drawn for the Space Race in 1955 with both the Soviet Union and the United States creating ballistic missiles that would be used in launching objects to space. As part of their contributions to the International Geophysical Year, President Eisenhower’s press secretary, James C. Hagerty, declared that between 1957 and 1958 the U.S would launch small Earth circling satellites into space. On the 2nd of August 1955 at the Sixth Congress of International Astronautical Federation, just four days after the U.S’s announcement, soviet scientist Leniod I. Sedov spoke to international reporters and stated that the Soviet Union also intended to launch a satellite as well. 


The first artificial satellites
In 1956 Von Braun tested the Jupiter-C, Korolyov thinking that if failed set out to design his own satellite. As his former design the R-7 was substantially more powerful than the boosters that the US had created, Korolyov took full advantage of this and designed his primary satellite Object D. Whilst Object D was superior and dwarfed the proposed US satellites, there were problems with manufacturing causing Korolyov to redesign the model to the more simplistic Sputnik 1. 

On October 4 1957, Sputnik 1 lifted off its launch pad and became the first successful artificial satellite to orbit the earth. However this success cause public controversy in America. Eisenhower ordered the Vangard rocket and satellite project to move its launch date closer than originally planned. Four months later, Von Braun successfully launched America’s first satellite Explorer 1 on the modified Redstone booster Juno 1.


Explorer 1

Sputnik 1


Space Race in the 1960’s

First Humans in Space
After the race for the satellites both the Soviets and American’s now raced to get Human’s into space. As with the satellites Korolyov on the 12th of April 1961, launched Vostok 1 into space, which carried cosmonaut Yari Gagarin. Vostok 1 orbited the earth for 108 minutes before making re-entry over Soviet Union. This success was a triumph for the Soviet Union and celebrated world wide, whilst leaving the American’s shocked and embarrassed.

On May 5, 1961, three week after Gagarin entered space, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Unlike Gagarin, he did not reach orbit, but he was the first man to manually control his spacecraft -Freedom 7. The Soviets later achieved manual control in August with the Vostok 2.

Vostok 1

Yuri Gagarin

 Kennedy and the Race for the Moon

A week after Gagarin's mission to space, U.S President John F. Kennedy looked into the NASA space program and desired an opportunity to catch up. The US needed to do something remarkable to reach a position of leadership. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson recommended a piloted moon landing. The idea was so far enough into the future that he believed that American could achieve this before the Soviets. Kennedy announced his support for the program on the 25h of May 1961, at an address to congress. He expressed that the moon race world focus the nation’s energy in social and scientific fields as well as being vital to national security.

See video at the end of the page for Kennedy's 'We Chose to go to the Moon" speech. 

Joint US-USSR Moon Program
In a speech before the United Nations on 20th of September 1963, Kennedy proposed a joint effort in Soviet and US forces to reach the moon. At first Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev rejected the idea but later changed his mind as he realized there was much to benefit both financially and technologically. However when Khrushchev accepted the proposal in 1963, Kennedy was sadly assassinated. Soon after Khrushchev dropped the idea. 

Vostoks and Voskhods
Between 1962 and 1965 the Soviet Union achieved many firsts such as the dual-piloted flights (Vostok 3 and 4) and the launching of the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova into space on 1963 on Vostok 6. Korolyov a year later delivered the Voskhod 1. The Voskhod 1 was the first multi-person spacecraft that sat three cosmonauts and the first space flight were cosmonauts could work in a shirt sleeve environment.

On March 18 1965, the Soviets accelerated the race by launching the Voskhod 2 with cosmonauts Pavel Belyayev and Alexy Lenov. This space craft had modifications such as the air lock that allowed for extravehicular activity such as the spacewalk. This was the last project that Sergey Korolyov worked on before his death and became the last of many Soviet projects to show their domination in spacecraft technology. 


Voskhod 1

Project Gemini
In January 1962,focused on the commitment of landing on the moon the US introduced project Gemini. This project was a two member pace craft that supported Apollo. This project saw the development of space flight technologies of space rendezvenous and docking of spaceflight; extravehicular activity for extended periods and flight duration of sufficient length to stimulate going to the moon and back.
For more information on Project Gemini click here.


Apollo 11 and The Moon Landing

After the flights of Apollo 8, the year 1969 saw the American’s leading the final leg of the race to the moon. The next Apollo missions, 9 and 10, ensured that the lunar module worked sufficiently in both lunar and low-earth orbits. These missions were the morale needed to proceed to the actual moon landing. Whilst the American’s were close to succeeding the race, the Soviet space program was in severe trouble. The soviets did not have the N-1 rockets needed to ensure their landing on the moon.


During this time Apollo 11, was being prepared for the July mission. commander Neil Armstrong, commander module pilot Michael Collins and lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were selected at the crew out the historical mission. On July 16, 1969, the Saturn V Rocket launched from the Earth carrying Apollo 11 into orbit.

Three days after launch the Saturn V Rocket achieved the lunar trip into orbit. Armstrong and Aldrin then transferred into the lunar module, ‘Eagle’ and descended further into space. On July 20 Armstrong manually guided the ‘Eagle’ into landing on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility. However, it would be another six hours before they would become the first humans to set foot on the moon. 


Over 500 million television viewers across the world witnessed man’s first step on the moon. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” were the first historic words from Armstrong as he left the lunar module. Aldrin joined him and together they spent nearly three hours outside of their craft. The next day, America achieved another great, the first launch from another celestial body. The lunar module then rejoined the Columbia Command Module and blasted out of the Moon’s orbit before landing safely in the Pacific Ocean on July 24th.


2,982 days had passed since Kennedy had announced that America would land man on the moon and bring him home safely. His dream and mission was completed with 161 days to spare. With this safe and successful completion of the mission, American had won the race to the moon. The American’s after this, completed five more additional landings on the moon. 


Clicking on the picture above will send you to a website created by the JFK museum to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. Here you can follow the Apollo 11 mission from the minute it launched all the way to the minute it landed safely back on Earth. At this site you can also watch and listen to rarely seen footage of Apollo 11. Also check below for the footage of the landing on the moon. 


For a time line of all the events that occurred during the Space Race click here.