History

What was the Space Race?

It’s only natural for curious would-be astronomers and ambitious can-do rocket scientists to want to bring a new generation to outer space. Renewed interest in space exploration sees modern star gazers aiming for the moon, Mars and beyond. These renewed interests bring back memories of a time when the world was entranced by the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s.

This now-historic race to space set the stage and introduced the players that would define space exploration for the next half century. But what exactly was the Space Race? Who was involved? Why was it a race?

Start your rocket engines and blast off with us as we explore the ins and outs of the Space Race.

What was the Space Race?

Vintage photo of an astronaut standing in front of a rocket
Credit: NASA

The Space Race was an attempt to set a number of space-flight firsts during the Cold War Era between two world powers: the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States. Cold War tensions were high, and the two nations were in an active arms race that was exacerbated by the threat of nuclear war.

Amidst the conflict, in October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite into space. Its launch marked the beginning of what’s officially coined in history books as the Space Race.

Accomplishments of the Space Race

Vintage black and white photo of a spacecraft in water
Credit: NASA

The United States and the Soviet Union spent the next decade toiling and tinkering to beat each other to a number of space firsts, which included:

  • The first object sent to the moon
  • The first person in space
  • The first person to orbit the Earth
  • The first space walk
  • The first person to set foot on the moon

The Space Race spanned 12 years — kickstarted by Sputnik 1’s launch in 1957 and culminating in the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission in 1969 — and the entire world was watching as humans shot for the stars.

Who was involved in the Space Race?

Photo of a satellite above Earth
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The Soviet Union and the United States embodied two opposing political ideologies — Western democracy and communism — shortly after the conclusion of World War II. The Cold War and the Space Race were attempts for one nation to best the other through economic, developmental, and cultural achievements. Naturally, when space entered the picture, it served as another theater around which the two nations could compete.

Both the Soviet Union and the United States succeeded in a number of Space Race endeavors.

The Soviet Union

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The Soviet Union was officially the first to reach space. The Soviet Union announced that it, too, would launch a satellite into space only four days after the United States made a similar claim, and the Soviets beat the U.S. to the punch.

Sputnik 1 launched on October 4, 1957. The United States didn’t reach space for another three months.

The Soviet Union was also the first in the Space Race to send a man into outer space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin will always be known as the first human in outer space. Gagarin completed one full orbit of Earth aboard the Vostok 1 capsule on April 12, 1961.

The Soviet Union laid claim to a number of space firsts over the next few years. These included the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova, 1963) and the first spacewalk (Alexei Leonov, 1965).

The United States

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The United States reacted to the launch of Sputnik 1 but didn’t catch up until the following year. On January 28, 1958, Explorer 1 launched and made it out of Earth’s atmosphere.

Astronaut John Glenn became the first American in space and the first American to orbit the Earth. He spent almost four hours in space and circled the Earth three times on February 20, 1962.

The United States beat the Soviet Union as the first to orbit the moon in December 1968 when the Apollo 8 made its voyage. A year later, on July 16, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins took the Apollo 11 to the moon’s surface. The crew landed four days later, and Armstrong voiced his “one small step” sentiments to the world.

Who won the Space Race?

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In context of their accomplishments, both the Soviet Union and the United States are “winners” of the Space Race.

Many people consider Neil Armstrong’s stepping on the moon as bragging rights for the United States to claim victory over the Soviet Union. Americans were captivated by the country’s space program at the time, and attempts by the Soviet Union to land a man on the moon in the following years proved unsuccessful. In the hearts and minds of the people of the United States, America won the Space Race.

A new Space Race is likely around the corner

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While space exploration has continued through a number of different fields and focuses, the world took a break from avid space travel for a while after the Space Race.

However, a handful of countries are trying to turn that around. India announced in July 2019 that it plans to go to the moon, the United States has set its sights high with development of the moon and Mars, and private companies are privatizing trips to outer space. Is another Space Race right around the corner? Only time will tell.