Space Race

What eventually became a race to land the first human beings on the Moon started in the late 1940s with American and Soviet strategists confronting the same challenge – how to strike at the heart of an enemy quickly in the event of war. Both nations began to look at means other than piloted aircraft to deliver bombs to distant targets. At first they drew on German weapons technology from World War II. Technological improvements gradually transformed the V-1 into the modern long-range cruise missile and the V-2 into the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). But whereas the American military gave relatively low priority to developing ICBMs in the early 1950s, the Soviet Union made huge strides in building large, long-range rockets (see guided missiles, postwar development). The successful test of Korolev's R-7 in August 1957 (see "R" series of Russian missiles) showed that the Soviets had the capability to place a satellite into orbit. Yet still the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957 shook the world and gave the (mistaken) impression that America had fallen seriously behind the Soviets in key areas of science and technology. Subsequent American launch failures (see Viking and Vanguard) did nothing to dispel that perception.


America's first success in space came in January 1958, when Explorer 1 was launched aboard an Army Jupiter C missile. But it was the Soviet Union that continued to break new ground and set records. From 1958 through 1961, six more Earth-orbiting Sputniks were successfully launched, all much larger than the first. Russia was the first to fly a probe past the Moon, then to hit it, and in April 1961, to put a man in space. Yuri Gargarin's flight took place a month before Alan Shepard's suborbital flight, and 10 mo before John Glenn became the first American in orbit.


Immediately after Gagarin's flight, President Kennedy wanted to know what the United States could do in space to take the lead from the Soviets. Vice President Lyndon Johnson polled leaders in NASA, industry, and the military, and reported that "with a strong effort" the United States "could conceivably" beat the Soviets in sending a man around the Moon or landing a man on the Moon. As neither nation yet had a rocket powerful enough for such a mission, the race to the Moon was a contest in which America would not start at a disadvantage. On 25 May 1961, when Kennedy announced the goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the decade, the total time spent in space by an American was barely 15 min. Yet Russia's lead in rocketry was quickly overhauled, due in large part to the vision and genius of Wernher von Braun. To get to the Moon required the development of a super-rocket and in this the United States succeeded, with the Saturn V, whereas the Soviets' giant N-1 never cleared its launch pad.


On 21 July 1969, as millions around the world watched on television, two Americans stepped onto another world for the first time. The United States landed men on the Moon and returned them safely, fulfilling Kennedy's vision and meeting the goal that inspired manned spaceflight during the 1960s. The Space Race had been won – but what next? In the United States, many hoped that Apollo would mark the dawn of an era in which humans moved out into space, to bases on the Moon and perhaps Mars. But support for manned missions to the Moon and beyond declined, and the focus for human activity in space shifted to near-Earth orbit.