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Space Race

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A replica of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, launched in 1957
Neil Armstrong, one of the first two men to land on the Moon, and the first to walk on it, in 1969

The Space Race was a mid-to-late 20th century competition between the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (US) for supremacy in space exploration. Between 1957 and 1975, the Cold War rivalry between the two nations focused on attaining firsts in space exploration, which were seen as necessary for national security and symbolic of technological and ideological superiority. The Space Race involved pioneering efforts to launch artificial satellites, sub-orbital and orbital human spaceflight around the Earth, and piloted voyages to the Moon. It effectively began with the Soviet launch of the Sputnik 1 artificial satellite on 4 October 1957, and concluded with the co-operative Apollo-Soyuz Test Project human spaceflight mission in July 1975. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project came to symbolize détente, a partial easing of strained relations between the USSR and the US.

The Space Race had its origins in the missile-based arms race that occurred just after the end of the World War II, when both the Soviet Union and the United States captured advanced German rocket technology and personnel.

The Space Race sparked unprecedented increases in spending on education and pure research, which accelerated scientific advancements and led to beneficial spin-off technologies. An unforeseen effect was that the Space Race contributed to the birth of the environmental movement; the first colour pictures of Earth taken from deep space were used as icons by the movement to imply that the planet was a fragile " blue marble" surrounded by the blackness of space.

Some famous probes and missions include Sputnik 1, Explorer 1, Vostok 1, Mariner 2, Ranger 7, Luna 9, Alouette 1, Apollo 8, and Apollo 11.


World War II

Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), technical director of Nazi Germany's missile program, became the United States lead rocket engineer during the 1950s and 1960s

The Space Race can trace its origins to Germany, beginning in the 1930s and continuing during World War II when Nazi Germany° researched and built operational ballistic missiles. Starting in the early 1930s, during the last stages of the Weimar Republic, German aerospace engineers experimented with liquid-fueled rockets, with the goal that one day they would be capable of reaching high altitudes and traversing long distances. The head of the German Army's Ballistics and Munitions Branch, Lieutenant Colonel Karl Emil Becker, gathered a small team of engineers that included Walter Dornberger and Leo Zanssen, to figure out how to use rockets as long-range artillery in order to get around the Treaty of Versailles' ban on research and development of long-range cannons. Wernher von Braun, a young engineering prodigy, was recruited by Becker and Dornberger to join their secret army program at Kummersdorf-West in 1932. Von Braun had romantic dreams about conquering outer space with rockets, and did not initially see the military value in missile technology.

During the Second World War, General Dornberger was the military head of the army's rocket program, Zanssen became the commandant of the Peenemünde army rocket centre, and von Braun was the technical director of the ballistic missile program. They would lead the team that built the Aggregate-4 (A-4) rocket, which became the first vehicle to reach outer space during its test flight program in 1942 and 1943. By 1943, Germany began mass-producing the A-4 as the Vergeltungswaffe 2 (“Vengeance Weapon” 2, or more commonly, V2), a ballistic missile with a 320 kilometres (200 mi) range carrying a 1,130 kilograms (2,500 lb) warhead at 4,000 kilometres per hour (2,500 mph). Its supersonic speed meant there was no defense against it, and radar detection provided little warning. Germany used the weapon to bombard southern England and parts of Allied-liberated western Europe from 1944 until 1945. After the war, the V-2 became the basis of early American and Soviet rocket designs.

At war’s end, American, British, and Soviet scientific intelligence teams competed to capture Germany's rocket engineers along with the German rockets themselves and the designs on which they were based. Each of the Allies captured a share of the available members of the German rocket team, but the United States benefited the most with Operation Paperclip, recruiting von Braun and most of his engineering team, who later helped develop the American missile and space exploration programs. The United States also acquired a large number of complete V2 rockets.

Rocket teams assembled

Sergei Korolev (1907-1966) was the lead Soviet rocket engineer during the 1950s and 1960s

The German rocket centre at Peenemünde was located in the eastern part of Germany, which became the Soviet zone of occupation. On Stalin's orders, the Soviet Union sent its best rocket engineers to this region to see what they could salvage for future weapons systems. The Soviet rocket engineers were led by Sergei Korolev. He had been involved in space clubs and early Soviet rocket design in the 1930s, but was arrested in 1938 during Joseph Stalin's Great Purge and imprisoned for six years in Siberia. After the war, he became the USSR's chief rocket and spacecraft engineer, essentially the Soviets' counterpart to von Braun. His identity was kept a state secret throughout the Cold War, and he was identified publicly only as "the Chief Designer." In the West, his name was only officially revealed when he died in 1966.

After almost a year in the area around Peenemünde, Soviet officials moved most of the captured German rocket specialists to Gorodomlya Island on Lake Seliger, about 240 kilometres (150 mi) northwest of Moscow. They were not allowed to participate in Soviet missile design, but were used as problem-solving consultants to the Soviet engineers. They helped in the following areas: the creation of a Soviet version of the A-4; work on "organizational schemes"; research in improving the A-4 main engine; development of a 100-ton engine; assistance in the "layout" of plant production rooms; and preparation of rocket assembly using German components. With their help, particularly Helmut Groettrup's group, Korolev reverse-engineered the A-4 and built his own version of the rocket, the R-1, in 1948. Later, he developed his own distinct designs, though many of these designs were influenced by the Groettrup Group's G4-R10 design from 1949. The Germans were eventually repatriated in 1951–53.

In America, Von Braun and his team were sent to the United States Army's White Sands Proving Ground, located in New Mexico, in 1945. They set about assembling the captured V2s and began a program of launching them and instructing American engineers in their operation. These tests led to the first rocket to take photos from outer space, and the first two-stage rocket, the WAC Corporal-V2 combination, in 1949. The German rocket team was moved from Fort Bliss to the Army's new Redstone Arsenal, located in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1950. From here, Von Braun and his team would develop the Army's first operational medium-range ballistic missile, the Redstone rocket, that would, in slightly modified versions, launch both America's first satellite, and the first piloted Mercury space missions. It became the basis for both the Jupiter and Saturn family of rockets.

Cold War arms race

The cold war would become the great engine, the supreme catalyst, that sent rockets and their cargoes far above Earth and worlds away. If Tsiolkovsky, Oberth, Goddard, and others were the fathers of rocketry, the competition between capitalism and communism was its midwife.

William E. Burrows,
This New Ocean, "The Other World Series", p. 147

The Cold War (1947–1991) developed between two former allies, the Soviet Union and the United States, soon after the end of the Second World War. It involved a continuing state of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition, primarily between the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and the powers of the Western world, particularly the United States. Although the primary participants' military forces never clashed directly, they expressed this conflict through military coalitions, strategic conventional force deployments, extensive aid to states deemed vulnerable, proxy wars, espionage, propaganda, a nuclear arms race, and economic and technological competitions, such as the Space Race.

In simple terms, the Cold War can be viewed as an expression of the ideological struggle between communism and capitalism. The United States faced a new uncertainty beginning in September 1949, when it lost its monopoly on the atomic bomb. American intelligence agencies discovered that the Soviet Union had exploded its first atomic bomb, with the consequence that the United States potentially could face a future nuclear war that, for the first time, might devastate its cities. Given this new danger, the United States participated in an arms race with the Soviet Union that included development of the hydrogen bomb, as well as intercontinental strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles ( ICBMs) capable of delivering nuclear weapons. A new fear of communism and its sympathizers swept the United States during the 1950s, which devolved into paranoid McCarthyism. With communism spreading in China, Korea, and Eastern Europe, Americans came to feel so threatened that popular and political culture condoned extensive " witch-hunts" to expose communist spies. Part of the American reaction to the Soviet atomic and hydrogen bomb tests included maintaining a large Air Force, under the control of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). SAC employed intercontinental strategic bombers, as well as medium-bombers based close to Soviet airspace (in western Europe and in Turkey) that were capable of delivering nuclear payloads.

For its part, the Soviet Union harbored fears of invasion. Having suffered at least 27 million casualties during World War II after being invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941, the Soviet Union was wary of its former ally, the United States, which until late 1949 was the sole possessor of atomic weapons. The United States had used these weapons operationally during World War II, and it could use them again against the Soviet Union, laying waste its cities and military centers. Since the Americans had a much larger air force than the Soviet Union, and the United States maintained advance air bases near Soviet territory, in 1947 Stalin ordered the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in order to counter the perceived American threat.

In 1953, Korolev was given the go-ahead to develop the R-7 Semyorka rocket, which represented a major advance from the German design. Although some of its components (notably boosters) still resembled the German G-4, the new rocket incorporated staged design, a completely new control system, and a new fuel. It was successfully tested on 21 August 1957 and became the world's first fully operational ICBM the following month. It would later be used to launch the first satellite into space, and derivatives would launch all piloted Soviet spacecraft.

The United States had multiple rocket programs divided among the different branches of the American armed services, which meant that each force developed its own ICBM program. The Air Force initiated ICBM research in 1945 with the MX-774. However, its funding was cancelled and only three partially successful launches were conducted in 1947. In 1951, the Air Force began a new ICBM program called MX-1953, and by 1955 this program was receiving top-priority funding. The MX-1593 program evolved to become the Atlas-A, with its maiden launch occurring on 11 June 1957, becoming the first successful American ICBM. Its upgraded version, the Atlas-D rocket, would later serve as an operational nuclear ICBM and be used as the orbital launch vehicle for Project Mercury and the remote-controlled Agena Target Vehicle used in Project Gemini.

With the Cold War as an engine for change in the ideological competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, a coherent space policy began to take shape in the United States during the late 1950s. Korolev would take much inspiration from the competition as well, achieving many firsts to counter the possibility that the United States might prevail.

Early Space Race: 1950s


In 1955, with both the United States and the Soviet Union building ballistic missiles that could be utilized to launch objects into space, the "starting line" was drawn for the Space Race. In separate announcements, just four days apart, both nations publicly announced that they would launch artificial Earth satellites by 1957 or 1958. On 29 July 1955, James C. Hagerty, president Dwight D. Eisenhower's press secretary, announced that the United States intended to launch "small Earth circling satellites" between 1 July 1957 and 31 December 1958 as part of their contribution to the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Four days later, at the Sixth Congress of International Astronautical Federation in Copenhagen, scientist Leonid I. Sedov spoke to international reporters at the Soviet embassy, and announced his country's intention to launch a satellite as well, in the "near future". On 30 August 1955, Korolev managed to get the Soviet Academy of Sciences to create a commission whose purpose was to beat the Americans into Earth orbit: this was the defacto start date for the Space Race.

Initially, President Eisenhower was worried that a satellite passing above a nation at over 100 kilometres (62 mi), might be construed as violating that nation's sovereign airspace. He was concerned that the Soviet Union would accuse the Americans of an illegal overflight, thereby scoring a propaganda victory at his expense. Eisenhower and his advisors believed that a nation's airspace sovereignty did not extend into outer space, acknowledged as the Kármán line, and he used the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year launches to establish this principle in international law. Eisenhower also feared that he might cause an international incident and be called a " Warmonger" if he were to use military missiles as launchers. Therefore he selected the untried Naval Research Laboratory's Vanguard rocket, which was a research-only booster. This meant that von Braun's team was not allowed to put a satellite into orbit with their Jupiter-C rocket, because of its intended use as a future military vehicle. On 20 September 1956, von Braun and his team did launch a Jupiter-C that was capable of putting a satellite into orbit, however the launch was used only as a suborbital test of nose cone reentry technology. Had von Braun's team been allowed to orbit a satellite in 1956, the Space Race might have been over before it gained sufficient momentum to yield real benefits.

First artificial satellites

The signals of Sputnik 1 continued for 22 days.

Korolev received word about von Braun's 1956 Jupiter-C test, but thinking it was a satellite mission that failed, he expedited plans to get his own satellite in orbit. Since his R-7 was substantially more powerful than any of the American boosters, he made sure to take full advantage of this capability by designing Object D as his primary satellite. It was given the designation 'D', to distinguish it from other R-7 payload designations 'A', 'B', 'G', and 'V' which were nuclear weapon payloads. Object D would dwarf the proposed American satellites, by having a weight of 1,400 kilograms (3,100 lb), of which 300 kilograms (660 lb) would be composed of scientific instruments that would photograph the Earth, take readings on radiation levels, and check on the planet's magnetic field. However, things were not going along well with the design and manufacturing of the satellite, so in February 1957, Korolev sought and received permission from the USSR Council of Ministers to create a prosteishy sputnik (PS-1), or simple satellite. The Council also decreed that Object D be postponed until April 1958. The new sputnik was a shiny spherical ball that would be a much lighter craft, weighing 83.8 kilograms (185 lb) and having a 58-centimetre (23 in) diameter. The satellite would not contain the complex instrumentation that Object D had, but it did have two radio transmitters operating on different short wave radio frequencies, the ability to detect if a meteoroid were to penetrate its pressure hull, and the ability to detect the density of the Earth's thermosphere.

Korolev was buoyed by the first successful launches of his R-7 rocket in August and September, paving the way for him to launch his sputnik. Word came that the Americans were planning to announce a major breakthrough at an International Geophysical Year conference at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C., with a paper entitled "Satellite Over the Planet", on 6 October 1957. Korolev's fear was that von Braun might launch a Jupiter-C with a satellite payload, on, or around, the fourth or fifth of October, in conjunction with the paper. The fear of being beaten made him hasten the launch, moving it to the fourth of October. The launch vehicle for PS-1, was a modified R-7 – vehicle 8K71PS number M1-PS– without much of the test equipment and radio gear that was present in the previous launches. It arrived at the Soviet missile base Tyura-Tam in September and was prepared for its mission at launch site number one. On Friday, 4 October 1957, at exactly 10:28:34 pm Moscow time, the R-7, with the now named Sputnik 1 satellite, lifted off the launch pad, and placed this artificial "moon" into an orbit a few minutes later. This “fellow traveler,” as the name is translated in English, was a small, beeping ball, less than two feet in diameter and weighing less than 200 pounds. But the celebrations were muted at the launch control centre until the down-range far east tracking station at Kamchatka received the first distinctive beep...beep...beep sounds from Sputnik 1's radio transmitters, indicating that it was on its way to completing its first orbit. About 95 minutes after launch, the satellite flew over its launch site, and its radio signals were picked up by the engineers and military personnel at Tyura-Tam: that's when Korolev and his team celebrated the first successful artificial satellite placed into Earth-orbit.

The Soviet success caused public controversy in the United States, and Eisenhower ordered the civilian rocket and satellite project, Vanguard, to move up its timetable and launch its satellite much sooner than originally planned. The 6 December 1957 Project Vanguard launch failure occurred at Cape Canaveral in front of a live broadcast television audience (it was the first live countdown broadcasted nationally) in the United States. It was a monumental failure, exploding a few seconds after launch, and it became an international joke. The satellite appeared in newspapers under the names Flopnik, Stayputnik, Kaputnik, and Dudnik. In the United Nations, the Russian delegate offered the U.S. representative aid “under the Soviet program of technical assistance to backwards nations.” Only in the wake of this very public failure did von Braun's Redstone team get the go-ahead to launch their Jupiter-C rocket as soon as they could.

Nearly four months after the launch of Sputnik 1, von Braun and the United States successfully launched its first satellite, on a modified Redstone booster, under the "civilian" name Juno 1 to differentiate it from the army's Redstone missile. Explorer 1 was the first successful American satellite. It was launched at Cape Kennedy in Florida (known as Cape Canaveral at the time) on January 31, 1958. It was 4,8 kg in mass and was launched on a four stage Juno 1 vehicle. It carried a micrometeorite gauge and a Geiger-Müller tube. It passed in and out of the Earth-encompassing radiation belt with its 360 km by 2534 km orbit therefore saturating the tube’s capacity and proving what Dr. James Van Allen, a space scientist at the University of Iowa, had previously only theorized. It not only confirmed his theory, but also brought him to fame. Said radiation belt is actually now known as the Van Allen radiation belt. This belt consists of a doughnut shaped zone of high-level radiation intensity around the Earth above the magnetic equator. Van Allen was also the man who designed and built the satellite instrumentation of Explorer 1. It was because of the previous failure of the Vanguard rocket of December 1957 that scientist made the decision of using a military rocket allowing the successful launch the satellite. The satellite actually measured three phenomena. They are cosmic ray and radiation levels, the temperature in the spacecraft and finally the frequency of collisions with micrometeorites. The satellite had no space for data storage though which meant that it had to transmit continuously. A couple of months later in March 1958, a second satellite was sent into orbit with augmented cosmic ray instrument.

Space Race in the 1960s

First humans in space

By 1959 American observers believed that the Soviet Union would be the first to get a human into space, because of the time needed to prepare for Project Mercury's first launch. On 12 April 1961, the Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the Earth on Vostok 1. They dubbed Gagarin the first cosmonaut, roughly translated from Russian and Greek as "sailor of the universe". Although he had the ability to take over manual control of his spacecraft in an emergency by opening an envelope he had in the cabin that contained a code that could be typed into the computer, it was flown in an automatic mode as a precaution; medical science at that time did not know what would happen to a human in the weightlessness of space. Vostok 1 orbited the Earth for 108 minutes and made its reentry over the Soviet Union, with Gagarin ejecting from the spacecraft at 7,000 metres (23,000 ft), and landing by parachute. Under Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (International Federation of Aeronautics) FAI qualifying rules for aeronautical records, pilots must both take off and land with their craft, so the Soviets kept the landing procedures secret until 1978, when they finally admitted that Gagarin did not land with his spacecraft. When the flight was publicly announced, it was celebrated around the world as a great triumph, not just for the Soviet Union, but for the world itself, though it once again shocked and embarrassed the United States.

The United States called their space travelers astronauts ("star sailors" from the Greek), and it was 3 weeks later, on 5 May 1961, when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, launched on a suborbital mission Mercury-Redstone 3, in a spacecraft named Freedom 7. Though he did not achieve orbit, unlike Gagarin he was the first person to exercise manual control over his spacecraft's attitude and retro-rocket firing. The first Soviet cosmonaut to exercise manual control was Gherman Titov in Vostok 2 on 6 August 1961.

Almost a year after the Soviets put a human into orbit, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, on 20 February 1962. His Mercury-Atlas 6 mission completed three orbits in the Friendship 7 spacecraft, and splashed-down safely in the Atlantic Ocean, after a tense reentry, due to what falsely appeared from the telemetry data to be a loose heat-shield.

Kennedy launches the Moon race

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, and the others, too.

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

John F. Kennedy,
Speech at Rice University, Houston, 12 September 1962

On 20 April 1961, about one week after Gagarin's flight, American President John F. Kennedy sent a memo to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, asking him to look into the state of America's space program, and into programs that could offer NASA the opportunity to catch up. Johnson responded about one week later, concluding that the United States needed to do much more to reach a position of leadership. Johnson recommended that a piloted moon landing was far enough in the future that it was likely that the United States could achieve it first.

On 25 May, Kennedy announced his support for the Apollo program and redefined the ultimate goal of the Space Race in an address to a special joint session of Congress:"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." His overall support of NASA and the space program was unexpected because of how often he attacked the administration’s inefficiency during the election. His justification for the Moon Race was both that it was vital to national security and that it would focus the nation's energies in other scientific and social fields. He expressed his reasoning in the famous "We choose the Moon" speech, on 12 September 1962, before a large crowd at Rice University Stadium, in Houston, Texas, near the site of the future Johnson Space Centre.

Proposed Joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. Moon Program

On 20 September 1963, in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, President Kennedy proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union join forces in their efforts to reach the moon. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev initially rejected Kennedy's proposal; however, during the next few weeks he concluded that both nations might realize cost benefits and technological gains from a joint venture. Khrushchev was poised to accept Kennedy's proposal at the time of Kennedy's assassination in November 1963.

Khrushchev and Kennedy had developed a measure of rapport during their years as leaders of the world's two superpowers, especially during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. That trust was lacking with Vice President Johnson; when Johnson assumed the Presidency after Kennedy's assassination, Khrushchev dropped the idea of a joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. moon program.

Vostoks and Voskhods

Vostok rocket displayed at Ostankino

The Soviet Union achieved another first, with the first dual-piloted flights, Vostok 3 and Vostok 4 on 11–15 August 1962. The two spacecraft came within approximately 6.5 kilometres (4.0 mi) of one another, close enough for radio communication. The launching of two spacecraft from the same pad during a very short period of time represented a significant technical accomplishment, however there was no capability for the spacecraft to maneuver closer to each other, and over the course of the mission they continued to drift as far as 2,850 kilometres (1,770 mi) apart.

The Soviet Union achieved yet another first when it launched not only the first woman, but also the first civilian, in space-- Valentina Tereshkova, on 16 June 1963, in Vostok 6. Launching a woman was reportedly Korolev's idea, and it was accomplished purely for propaganda value. Tereshkova was one of a small corps of female cosmonauts who were amateur parachutists, but Tereshkova was the only one to fly. The USSR didn't again open its cosmonaut corps to women until 1980, two years after the United States opened its astronaut corps to women.

Korolev had planned further, long-term missions for the Vostok spacecraft, and had four Vostoks in various stages of fabrication in late 1963 at his OKB-1 facilities. At that time, the Americans announced their ambitious plans for the Project Gemini flight schedule. These plans included major advancements in spacecraft capabilities, including a two-person spacecraft, the ability to change orbits, the capacity to perform an extravehicular activity (EVA), and the goal of docking with another spacecraft. These represented major advances over the previous Mercury or Vostok spaceships, and Korolev felt the need to try to beat the Americans to many of these innovations. Korolev already had begun designing the Vostok's replacement, the next-generation Soyuz spacecraft, a multi-cosmonaut spacecraft that had at least the same capabilities as the Gemini spacecraft. However, Soyuz would not be available for at least three years, and it could not be called upon to deal with this new American challenge in 1964 or 1965. Political pressure in early 1964–which some sources claim was from Khrushchev while other sources claim was from other Communist Party officials—pushed him to modify his four remaining Vostoks to beat the Americans to new space firsts in the size of flight crews, and the duration of missions.

On 12 October 1964, the Chief Designer delivered another Soviet space-first when Voskhod 1 launched the first multi-person spacecraft, with three cosmonauts in a modified Vostok spacecraft. The USSR touted another technological achievement during this mission: it was the first space flight during which cosmonauts performed in a shirt-sleeve-environment. However, flying without spacesuits was not due to safety improvements in the Soviet spacecraft's environmental systems; rather this innovation was accomplished because the craft's limited cabin space did not allow for spacesuits. Flying without spacesuits exposed the cosmonauts to significant risk in the event of potentially fatal cabin depressurization. This feat would not be repeated until the US Apollo Command Module flew in 1968; this later mission was designed from the outset to safely transport three astronauts in a shirt-sleeve environment while in space.

Between 14–16 October 1964, Leonid Brezhnev and a small cadre of high-ranking Communist Party officials, deposed Premier Khrushchev as Soviet government leader a day after Voskhod 1 landed, in what was called the "Wednesday conspiracy". The new political leaders, along with Korolev, ended the technologically troublesome Voskhod program, cancelling Voskhod 3 and 4, which were in the planning stages, and started concentrating on the race to the moon. Voskhod 2 would end up being Korolev's final achievement before his death, as it would become the last of the many space firsts that demonstrated the USSR's domination in spacecraft technology during the early 1960s. According to historian Asif Siddiqi, Korolev's accomplishments marked "the absolute zenith of the Soviet space program, one never, ever attained since." There would be a two-year pause in Soviet piloted space flights while Voskhod's replacement, the Soyuz spacecraft, was designed and developed.

The unmanned Zond 3 probe images the far side of the Moon in 1965

On 18 March 1965, about a week before the first American piloted Project Gemini space flight, the USSR accelerated the Space Race competition, by launching the two-cosmonaut Voskhod 2 mission with Pavel Belyayev and Alexey Leonov. Voskhod 2's design modifications included the first airlock to allow for extravehicular activity (EVA), also known as a spacewalk. Leonov performed the first-ever EVA as part of the mission. A fatality was narrowly avoided when Leonov's spacesuit expanded in the vacuum of space, preventing him from re-entering the spacecraft. He had to improvise, and perform the potentially fatal partial depressurization of his spacesuit in order to re-enter the airlock. He succeeded in safely re-entering the ship, but he and Belyayev faced further challenges when the spacecraft's atmospheric controls flooded the cabin with 45% pure oxygen, which had to be lowered to acceptable levels before re-entry. The reentry involved two more challenges: an improperly timed retrorocket firing caused the Voskhod 2 to land 386 kilometres (240 mi) off its designated target area, the town of Perm; and the instrument compartment's failure to detach from the descent apparatus caused the spacecraft to become unstable during reentry.

Project Gemini

Gemini 12 lifts off

Focused by the commitment to a moon landing, in January 1962 the US introduced Project Gemini, a two-crew-member spacecraft that would support Apollo by developing the key spaceflight technologies of space rendezvous and docking of two craft, flight durations of sufficient length to simulate going to the Moon and back, Extra-vehicular Activity for extended periods, and accomplishing useful work rather than just "walking in space." Although Gemini took a year longer than planned to accomplish its first flight, Gemini took advantage of the USSR's two-year hiatus after Voskhod, which enabled the US to catch up and surpass the previous Soviet lead in piloted spaceflight. Gemini achieved several significant firsts during the course of ten piloted missions:

  • On Gemini 3 (March 1965), astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom and John W. Young became the first to demonstrate their ability to change their craft's orbit.
  • On Gemini 5 (August 1965), astronauts L. Gordon Cooper and Charles "Pete" Conrad set a record of almost eight days in space, long enough for a piloted lunar mission.
  • On Gemini 6A (December 1965), Command Pilot Wally Schirra achieved the first space rendezvous with Gemini 7, accurately matching his orbit to that of the other craft, station-keeping for three consecutive orbits at distances as close as 1 foot (0.30 m).
  • Gemini 7 also set a human spaceflight endurance record of fourteen days for Frank Borman and James A. Lovell, which stood until both nations started launching space laboratories in the early 1970s.
  • On Gemini 8 (March 1966), Command Pilot Neil Armstrong achieved the first docking between two spacecraft, his Gemini craft and an Agena target vehicle.
  • Gemini 11 (September 1966), commanded by Conrad, achieved the first direct-ascent rendezvous with its Agena target on the first orbit, and used the Agena's rocket to achieve an apogee of 742 nautical miles (1,374 km), an Earth orbit record never broken as of 10 June 2013 T 18:47 (UTC).
  • On Gemini 12 (November 1966), Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin spent over five hours working comfortably during three (EVA) sessions, finally proving that humans could perform productive tasks outside their spacecraft. (This proved to be the most difficult goal to achieve.)

Most of the novice pilots on the early missions would command the later missions. In this way, Project Gemini built up spaceflight experience for the pool of astronauts who would be chosen to fly the Apollo lunar missions.

Soviet Moon program

Lunniy Korabl (LK)

The Soviet Union had planned to divide their lunar program into two separate manned programs: circumlunar flights in 1967 and lunar landings from 1968.

The circumlunar missions were to be launched by a UR-500 rocket, later known as the Proton. The cosmonauts would be flown to the Moon in the Soyuz 7K-L1 (Zond), which made four unsuccessful unmanned flights from 1967–1970. One flight of the Zond was, however, successful and returned its non-human passengers (tortoises) to Earth; had it been used for a manned circumlunar mission, the flight would have carried two cosmonauts.

The Soviet lunar landing missions would use spacecraft derived from the Soyuz 7K-L1. The orbital module (Soyuz 7K-L3), the "Lunniy Orbitalny Korabl" (LOK), had a crew of two. The LOK and a separate lunar lander, the " Lunniy Korabl" (LK), had 40% of the mass of the Apollo CSM/LM due to the launch vehicle's capabilities.

The launch vehicle would have been the N1 rocket, which was roughly the same height and takeoff mass as the American Saturn V, exceeded its takeoff thrust by 28%, and yet had roughly half the TLI payload capability. The N1 was unsuccessfully tested four times, exploding each time due to problems with the first stage's thirty engines.

The Soviet leadership cancelled the program in 1970 after the first two successful American Moon landings.

Fatalities and disasters of the 1960s

Likely the worst disaster during the Space Race was the Soviet Union's Nedelin catastrophe in 1960. It happened on 24 October 1960, when Chief Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin gave orders to use improper shutdown and control procedures on an experimental R-16 rocket. The hasty on-pad repairs caused the missile's second stage engine to fire straight onto the full propellant tanks of the still-attached first stage. The resulting explosion, toxic-fuel spill and fire, killed anywhere from 92 to 150 top Soviet military and technical personnel. Marshal Nedelin was vaporized, and his only identifiable remains were his war medals, especially the Gold Star of the Soviet Union. His death was officially explained as an airplane crash. It was also a huge set-back for the rocket's chief designer, Mikhail Yangel, who was trying to unseat Korolev as the person responsible for the Soviet human spaceflight program. Yangel survived only because he went for a cigarette break in a bunker that was removed from the launch pad, but he would not rival Korolev during the rest of this period. The Nedelin catastrophe would remain an official secret until 1989, and the survivors of the incident were not allowed to discuss it until 1990, thirty-one years after it occurred.

In 1986, in a series of newspaper articles in Izvestia, it was disclosed for the first time that the USSR had officially covered up the 23 March 1961 death of Soviet cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko from massive third-degree burns from a fire in a high-oxygen isolation test chamber. This revelation subsequently caused some speculation as to whether the Apollo 1 disaster might have been averted had NASA been aware of the incident. Bondarenko, at age 24, was the youngest of the early Vostok cosmonauts. The Soviet government literally erased all traces of Bondarenko's existence in the cosmonaut corps upon his death.

In 1967, both nations faced serious challenges that brought their programs to a halt. Both nations had been rushing at full-speed on the Apollo and Soyuz programs, without paying due diligence to growing design and manufacturing problems. The results proved fatal to both pioneering crews.

In the United States, the first Apollo mission crew, Command Pilot "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger Chaffee, were killed by suffocation in a cabin fire that swept through their Apollo 1 spacecraft during a ground test on 27 January 1967. The fire was probably caused by an electrical spark. It grew out-of-control, fed by the spacecraft's pure oxygen atmosphere maintained at greater-than-normal atmospheric pressure. An investigative board detailed design and construction flaws in the spacecraft, and procedural failings including failure to appreciate the hazard of the pure-oxygen atmosphere as well as inadequate safety procedures. All these flaws had to be corrected over the next twenty-two months until the first piloted flight could be made. Mercury and Gemini veteran Gus Grissom had been a favored choice of Deke Slayton, the grounded Mercury astronaut who became NASA's Director of Flight Crew Operations, to make the first piloted landing.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was having its own problems with Soyuz development. Engineers reported 200 design faults to party leaders, but their concerns "were overruled by political pressures for a series of space feats to mark the anniversary of Lenin's birthday."

On 24 April 1967, the USSR suffered the death of its first cosmonaut, Colonel Vladimir Komarov, the single pilot of Soyuz 1. This was planned to be a three-day mission to include the first Soviet docking with an unpiloted Soyuz 2, but his mission was plagued with problems. Early on his craft lacked sufficient electrical power because only one of two solar panels had deployed. Then the automatic attitude control system began malfunctioning and eventually failed completely, resulting in the craft spinning wildly. Komarov was able to stop the spin with the manual system, which was only partially effective. The flight controllers aborted his mission after only one day, and he made an emergency re-entry. During re-entry a fault in the landing parachute system caused the primary chutes to fail, and the reserve chutes tangled together; Komarov was killed on impact.

Fixing these, and other, spacecraft faults caused an eighteen-month delay before piloted Soyuz flights could resume, similar to the US experience with Apollo. This, combined with Korolev's death, led to the quick unraveling of the Soviet Moon-landing program.

Other astronauts died while training for space flight, including four Americans ( Ted Freeman, Elliot See, Charlie Bassett, Clifton Williams), who all died in crashes of T-38 aircraft. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, met a similar fate in 1968, when he crashed in a MiG-15 jet while training for a Soyuz mission. During the Apollo 15 mission in August 1971, the astronauts left behind a memorial in honour of all the people, both from the Soviet Union and the United States, who had perished during efforts to reach the moon. This included the Apollo 1 and Soyuz 1 crews, as well as astronauts and cosmonauts killed while in training.

In 1971, Soyuz 11 cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov asphyxiated during reentry.

To the Moon

The United States recovered from the Apollo 1 fire, fixing the fatal flaws in an improved version of the Block II command module. The US proceeded with unpiloted test launches of the Saturn V launch vehicle ( Apollo 4 and Apollo 6) and the Lunar Module ( Apollo 5) during the latter-half of 1967 and early 1968. Apollo 1's mission to check out the Apollo Command/Service Module in Earth orbit was accomplished by Grissom's backup crew commanded by Walter Schirra on Apollo 7, launched on 11 October 1968. The eleven-day mission was a total success, as the spacecraft performed a virtually flawless mission, paving the way for the United States to continue with its lunar mission schedule.

The Soviet Union also fixed the parachute and control problems with Soyuz, and the next piloted mission Soyuz 3 was launched on 26 October 1968. The goal was to complete Komarov's rendezvous and docking mission with the un-piloted Soyuz 2. Ground controllers brought the two craft to within 200 metres (660 ft) of each other, then cosmonaut Georgy Beregovoy took control. He got within 40 metres (130 ft) of his target, but was unable to dock before expending 90 percent of his maneuvering fuel, due to a piloting error that put his spacecraft into the wrong orientation and forced Soyuz 2 to automatically turn away from his approaching craft.

The Soviet Zond spacecraft was almost ready for piloted circumlunar missions in 1968, although testing was not yet complete. At the time, the Soyuz 7K-L1/Zond spacecraft was not yet ready for piloted missions after five unsuccessful and partially successful automated test launches: Cosmos 146 on 10 March 1967; Cosmos 154 on 8 April 1967; Zond 1967A 27 September 1967; Zond 1967B on 22 November 1967. Zond 4 was launched on 2 March 1968, and successfully made a circumlunar flight. After its successful flight around the Moon, Zond 4 encountered problems with its Earth reentry on 9 March, and was ordered destroyed by an explosive charge 15,000 metres (49,000 ft) over the Gulf of Guinea. The Soviet official announcement said that Zond 4 was an automated test flight which ended with its intentional destruction, due to its recovery trajectory positioning it over the Atlantic Ocean instead of over the USSR.

Earthrise, as seen from Apollo 8, 24 December 1968 (NASA)

During the summer of 1968, the Apollo program hit another snag: the first pilot-rated Lunar Module (LM) was not ready for orbital tests in time for a December 1968 launch. NASA planners overcame this challenge by changing the mission flight order, delaying the first LM flight until early 1969, and sending Apollo 8 into lunar orbit without the LM in December on a new 'C-prime' mission. This mission was in part motivated by intelligence rumors the Soviet Union might fly a piloted circumlunar Zond flight during late 1968. In September 1968, Zond 5, a Soyuz 7K-L1 spacecraft, with tortoises on board, made a circumlunar flight and returned to Earth, accomplishing the first successful splashdown of the Soviet space program, in the Indian Ocean. It also scared NASA planners, as it took them several days to figure out that it was only an automated flight, not a piloted flight with cosmonauts, because voice recordings were transmitted from the craft en route to the Moon. On 10 November 1968 another automated test flight of the 7K-L1 spacecraft – Zond 6 – was launched, but this time, it encountered difficulties in its Earth reentry, and depressurized and deployed its parachute too early, causing it to crash-land only 16 kilometres (10 mi) from where it had been launched six days earlier.

Apollo 8 launched on 21 December 1968, and became the first human-crewed spacecraft to leave low-Earth orbit and go to another celestial body, the Moon. On 24 December Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to enter into orbit around the Moon. They orbited ten times, and transmitted one of the most watched TV broadcasts in history, with their Christmas Eve program from lunar orbit, that concluded with a reading from the King James Bible's Book of Genesis. A few hours later, the crew performed the first-ever Trans-Earth injection (TEI) burn, to blast the Apollo 8 spacecraft out of lunar orbit and on to a trajectory back to the Earth. Just over two days later, on 27 December, Apollo 8 safely splashed down in the Pacific, completing another first: NASA's first dawn splashdown and recovery.

It turned out there was no chance of a piloted Soviet circumlunar flight during 1968, due to the unreliability of the Zonds. After the successive launch failures of the N1 rocket in 1969, Soviet plans for a piloted landing suffered first delay and ultimately cancellation. The launch pad explosion of the N-1 on 3 July 1969 was a significant setback. The rocket hit the pad after an engine shutdown, destroying itself and the launch facility.

Apollo 11

American Buzz Aldrin during the first moonwalk in 1969

1969 saw the final leg of the Moon Race, with the United States leading it after the flight of Apollo 8. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Soviet moon program was in deep trouble. Without the N-1 rocket, the Soviets had no way to land on the Moon. The next two Apollo missions proved that the Lunar Module worked well, both in low-Earth orbit and in lunar orbit. It was time to proceed to an actual landing mission. Under this backdrop, Apollo 11 was being prepared for a July encounter with the Moon.

The Apollo 11 crew consisted of commander (CDR) Neil Armstrong, command module pilot (CMP) Michael Collins, and lunar module pilot (LMP) Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. They were selected as the crew in January 1969, and they trained for the mission until just before the actual launch day. On 16 July 1969, at exactly 9:32 am EDT, the Saturn V rocket – serial number SA-506 – lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida with Apollo 11 on board.

The lunar trip took just over three days. After achieving orbit, Armstrong and Aldrin transferred into the Lunar Module, named Eagle, and began their descent. After overcoming several computer malfunctions, Armstrong took over manual flight-control at about 180 metres (590 ft), and guided the Lunar Module to a landing on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility at 4:17 pm EDT, 20 July 1969. The first humans on the Moon would wait another six hours before they ventured out of their craft. At 10:56:15 pm EDT, Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon.

The first step was witnessed by at least 500 million TV viewers on Earth. His first words when he stepped off the LM's landing pad were, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." Aldrin joined him on the surface almost 20 minutes later. Altogether, they spent just under two and one-quarter hours outside their craft. The next day, they performed the first launch from another celestial body, and rendezvoused with the Columbia Command Module.

Apollo 11 safely blasted out of Moon orbit on its way back to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on 24 July 1969. When the spacecraft splashed down, 2,982 days had passed since Kennedy committed the United States to landing a man on the Moon and bringing him back safely to the Earth before the end of the decade; the mission was completed with just 161 days to spare. With the safe completion of the Apollo 11 mission, the Americans won the race to the Moon.

Additional landing included Apollo 12, Apollo 14, Apollo 15, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17.

The 1970s

Apollo 17's Saturn V in 1972
Moonwalk, 13 December 1972.

The early 1970s were rounded out by several more U.S. manned Moon landings, which featured expanded tasks including more sample returns, experiments, and extended EVAs with a lunar rover. The USSR continued for time with their N1 rocket, as well as more Soyuz flights to their Salyut stations. Unmanned spacecraft were in the limelight as well, with the USSR launching unmanned lunar sample return missions and probes to Mars and Venus. The US launched probes to Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond, as well as launching Skylab, an orbital space station. Together, the US and Soviet conducted an orbital rendezvous by manned spacecraft in 1975. By the end of the 1970s, both were working on Space Shuttles and launching science missions at a fever pitch.

Salyuts and Skylab

Having lost the race to the moon, the USSR decided to concentrate on orbital space stations. During 1969 and 1970, they launched six more Soyuz flights after Soyuz 3, then launched the first space station, the Salyut 1 laboratory designed by Kerim Kerimov, on 19 April 1971. Three days later, the Soyuz 10 crew attempted to dock with it, but failed to achieve a secure enough connection to safely enter the station. The Soyuz 11 crew of Vladislav Volkov, Georgi Dobrovolski and Viktor Patsayev successfully docked on 7 June and completed a record 22-day stay. The crew became the second in-flight space fatality during their reentry on 30 June. They were asphyxiated when their spacecraft's cabin lost all pressure, shortly after undocking. The disaster was blamed on a faulty cabin pressure valve, that allowed all the air to vent into space. The crew were not wearing pressure suits and had no chance of survival once the leak occurred.

Salyut 1's orbit was increased to prevent premature reentry, but further piloted flights were delayed while the Soyuz was redesigned to fix the new safety problem. The station re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on 11 October, after 175 days in orbit. The USSR attempted to launch a second Salyut-class station designated Durable Orbital Station-2 (DOS-2) on 29 July 1972, but a rocket failure caused it to fail to achieve orbit. After the DOS-2 failure, the USSR attempted to launch four more Salyut-class stations through 1975, with another failure due to an explosion of the final rocket stage, which punctured the station with shrapnel so that it wouldn't hold pressure. While all of the Salyuts were presented to the public as non-military scientific laboratories, some of them were actually covers for the military Almaz reconnaissance stations.

The United States also had plans to launch a piloted space laboratory as part of the Apollo Applications Program, using Apollo hardware. The original plans called for constructing the space laboratory using a spent Saturn S-IVB rocket stage (used to launch the Apollo craft into Earth orbit), however the space laboratory was ultimately pre-fabricated on Earth and launched by the modified first two stages of the Saturn V lunar launch vehicle, known as the Saturn INT-21. The orbital workstation Skylab, weighed 169,950 pounds (77,090 kg), was 58 feet (18 m) long by 21.7 feet (6.6 m) in diameter, with a habitable volume of 10,000 cubic feet (280 m3). Skylab 1, the mission to actually launch the space station, was launched on 14 May 1973, but was damaged during the flight, losing one of its solar panels and a meteoroid thermal shield. Subsequent human-crewed missions repaired the station, and the final mission's crew, Skylab 4, set the Space Race endurance record with 84 days in orbit, when the mission ended on 8 February 1974. Skylab stayed in orbit another five years before reentering the Earth's atmosphere over the Indian Ocean and Western Australia on 11 July 1979.

Apollo–Soyuz Test Mission

 the five crew members of ASTP sitting around a miniature model of their spacecrafts
Apollo-Soyuz crew: From left to right: Donald "Deke" Slayton, Thomas Patten Stafford, Vance Brand, Alexey Leonov, and Valeri Kubasov.

While the Sputnik 1 launch can be called the start of the Space Race, its end is harder to pinpoint. In May 1972, President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev negotiated an easing of relations known as detente, creating a temporary "thaw" in the Cold War. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, the time seemed right for cooperation rather than competition, and the notion of a continuing "race" began to subside.

The two nations planned a joint mission to dock the last US Apollo craft with a Soyuz, known as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). To prepare, the US designed a docking module for the Apollo that was compatible with the Soviet docking system, which allowed any of their craft to dock with any other (e.g. Soyuz/Soyuz as well as Soyuz/Salyut). The module was also necessary as an airlock to allow the men to visit each other's craft, which had incompatible cabin atmospheres. The USSR used the Soyuz 16 mission in December 1974 to prepare for ASTP.

The joint mission began when Soyuz 19 was first launched on 15 July 1975 at 12:20 UTC, and the Apollo craft was launched with the docking module six and a half hours later. The two craft rendezvoused and docked on 17 July at 16:19 UTC. The three astronauts conducted joint experiments with the two cosmonauts, and the crew shook hands, exchanged gifts, and visited each other's craft.

After Apollo

In the 1970s, the United States began developing a new generation of reusable orbital spacecraft known as the Space Shuttle, and launched a range of unmanned probes. The USSR continued to develop space station technology with the Salyut program and Mir ('Peace' or 'Earth') space station, supported by Soyuz spacecraft. They developed their own large space shuttle under the Buran program. However, the USSR dissolved in 1991 and the remains of its space program were distributed to various Eastern European countries. The United States and Russia would work together in space with the Shuttle–Mir Program, and again with the International Space Station.


Mir & Atlantis .. 1995

The meaning and nature of the space race are subject to periodic retrospectives in American and other cultures. One such occurrence was in 2003 when Columbia was lost with crew during re-entry. Some more retrospectives took place with retirement of the U.S. Space Shuttle program in 2011 and the cancellation of Project Constellation in 2010.


Advances in technology and education

American concerns that they had fallen behind the Soviet Union in the race to space led quickly to a push by legislators and educators for greater emphasis on mathematics and the physical sciences in American schools. The United States' National Defense Education Act of 1958 increased funding for these goals from childhood education through the post-graduate level. To this day over 1,200 American high schools retain their own planetarium installations, a situation unparalleled in any other country and a direct consequence of the Space Race.

The scientists educated through these efforts helped develop technologies that have been adapted for use in the kitchen, in transportation systems, in athletics, and in many other areas of modern life. Dried fruits and ready-to-eat foods (in particular food sterilization and package sealing techniques), stay-dry clothing, and even no-fog ski goggles have their roots in space science.

International Space Station in 2010

Today over a thousand artificial satellites orbit Earth, relaying communications data around the planet and facilitating remote sensing of data on weather, vegetation, and human movements for the nations who employ them. In addition, much of the micro-technology that fuels everyday activities, from time-keeping to enjoying music, derives from research initially driven by the Space Race.

Even with all the technological advances since the first Sputnik was launched, the original Soviet R-7 Semyorka rocket, which marked the beginning of the space race, is still in use today. It services the International Space Station (ISS) as the launcher for both the Soyuz and Progress spacecrafts. Most notably, during the post Space Race era it ferries both Russian and American crews to and from the station.


An unintended consequence of the Space Race is that it facilitated the environmental movement, as this was the first time in history that humans could see their homeworld as it really appears-–the first colour pictures from space showed a fragile blue planet bordered by the blackness of space. Pictures such as Apollo 8's Earthrise, which showed a crescent Earth peeking over the lunar surface, and Apollo 17's The Blue Marble, which for the first-time-ever showed a full circular Earth, became iconic to the environmental movement. The first Earth Day was partially triggered by the Apollo 8 photo. Astronauts returning from space missions also commented on how fragile the Earth looked from space, further fueling calls for better stewardship of the only home humans have—for now.

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