The Space Race

On the 3rd October 1942, German scientists launched an A-4 rocket, which travelled 118 miles and rose to an altitude of over 50 miles. The A-4 was to become the V2 rocket, armed with a ton of explosive and used against London and Antwerp. After the Second World War, both the USA and Soviet Union began their own space programmes using the scientists and equipment they had captured from the Germans at Peenemünde.

The American space programme got off to quite a leisurely start, with number of research projects being carried out almost in competition with each other. However, the first shock came with the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviets on the 4th October 1957 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and weighed 83 kg. It orbited the Earth for three weeks sending out a weak signal, and was far heavier than the 9-kg package the US Navy was going to send up on the Vanguard rocket. A second blow followed this when the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 on the 3rd November 1957; carrying a dog called Laika, and weighed in at 508 kg. These successes led to a dramatic expansion and consolidation of the American space program, but it didn't start well with the Vanguard rocket blowing up. The US Army finally got the American effort off to the start they wanted, with the launch of Explorer 1 on the 30th January 1958. It was less than a metre long and only weighed 4.8 kg, but discovered the Van Allen radiation belts.

The first satellite to be described as a military communications satellite was launched by the Americans on the 18th December 1958, carrying a satellite called SCORE, which carried a taped Christmas message by President Eisenhower. This was followed by the launch of Discover 1 on the 28th February 1959 from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the West Coast of the United States. By the early 1960s the US had achieved some notable successes including the first weather, navigation, reconnaissance, early warning and communications satellites. But the Soviet Union had put the first man into orbit, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, launched aboard Vostok 1 on the 12th April 1961. The USA didn't follow this until the 20th February 1962, with John Glenn aboard the Mercury capsule, Friendship 7.

As the 1960s got underway, the Space Race intensified, with the Soviets catching the American lead in satellite technology. Of more concern to the West was their lead in manned spaceflight and the heavy lift capability that implied. In October 1960, while campaigning for the Presidency, John F Kennedy stated that "we are in a strategic space race with the Russians and we have been losing .... Control of space will be decided in the next decade. If the Soviets control space, they can control Earth, as in the past centuries the nations that controlled the seas dominated the continents." The Soviet lead called into question American technological superiority and self-esteem. Consequently, President Kennedy declared that the US would launch a manned mission to the moon before the end of the decade.

The US continued with its Mercury missions until May 1963, and the Soviets their Vostok missions until the following month, when Valentina Tereslikova became the first woman in space, in Vostok 6. Both countries moved onto new systems after a pause, with the US moving to the Gemini capsules and the Soviet Union resuming with Voshkod 1. Alexei Leonov became the first man to 'walk' in space, from Voshkod 2, while the USA conducted docking manoeuvres with its Gemini and Agena vehicles. The Soviets began launching the Soyuz flights in April 1967, which unfortunately started with the tragic death of Vladimir Kornarov when the re-entry capsule became entangled in its parachute. This followed the deaths of Virgil Grisson, Edward White and Roger Chaffee who were killed by a fire in their Apollo capsule while practising launch procedures. While Soyuz missions concentrated on refining docking procedures, the Apollo programme tested the techniques of sending men to the moon and bringing them back to Earth. This was finally accomplished on the 21st July 1969 when Apollo 11, with Neil Armstrong and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin landed on the moon, while Michael Collins stayed in orbit.

During the 1970s, both sides continued to increase their satellite launches but also work on anti-satellite and antiballistic missile systems, with the Americans developing the Nike-Zeus Anti-Satellite system (ASAT), Sprint and Spartan Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems, and the Soviets their own versions. The Americans launched Skylab, and after some technical difficulties and damage was repaired, it became operational in June 1973. It provided a wealth of scientific and military data. The Soviets undertook their own manned space station programme - that of Salyut, which continued into the 1980's, and was eventually succeeded by the Mir station. Both sides also sent a series of probe missions out to the other planets in our solar system. Finally, the launch of the American space shuttle on the 12th April 1981 heralded the beginning of a programme that would result in an unprecedented access to space, for the space shuttle was a fully reusable launch and recovery platform, launching like a conventional rocket, but landing like an aircraft. The next big developments are likely to be the international space station, Liberty, and a manned mission to Mars.

How to cite this article: Antill, P. (12 January 2001), The Space Race,

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