The tension that existed between the U.S. and Russia during the years after WWII was not only a time that both countries patiently tried to keep the world from another war, but was also a time of great rivalry in the exploration of space. As both counties diligently experimented with plans for creating a way to get into the vastness of space, spies on both sides were already in place to steal those ideas. And so the space race begun. Both countries wanted to be the first to succeed so millions were spent as the world watched as the U.S. and Russia went head to head in a battle that would change the world forever.
The space race began with the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957 as Roy Silver and other reporters announced the next day reported that Radio signals from the first satellite launched yesterday by the Russians were broadcast to radio and television audiences here last night.The competition was to be the first to loft a satellite into space and had begun way before Sputnik launched. After the end of World War II, research on rockets for upper-atmosphere research and military missiles was extensive. Engineers knew they would be able to launch a satellite to orbit Earth sooner or later. The first United States proposal to place a satellite in orbit was made in 1954 by the U.S. Army. It was not until January 31, 1958, that the United States joined the Soviets in space. The Space Age began for the world’s superpowers when the Soviets put Sputnik I, the first man made satellite, into a shallow Earth orbit. Sputnik carried a battery-operator radio transmitter that beeped as it circled the globe every 95 minutes. The 185-pound Sputnik became a symbol of Soviet success, for the first time man had broken his gravitational shackles. To military strategists, Sputnik was confirmation that the intercontinental ballistic missile had surpassed the strategic bomber as the weapon of the future. In late July of 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that the United States would launch several small satellites, which was to begin July 1, 1957. Within a couple days, the Russians announced similar intentions, but the Soviet satellite would be larger than the American one. By mid-1957, the official Soviet press suggested the first launch was months away. Few people in the United States paid much attention to the prediction though. On October 4, 1957, Sputnik lifted off. Sputnik was only in orbit for three weeks, but those who tracked it gained valuable information about the destiny of the upper atmosphere and the manner in which it altered the satellite’s orbit. On January 4, 1958, after ninety-two days in orbit, Sputnik I re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up. On November 3, 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik II. It was a much heavier satellite, which carried the first living mammal into space. It was a dog named Laika. Laika died after ten days in space. Some of the information sent from the satellite showed that Laika was alive until there was no more oxygen left on board. Sputnik II re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up on April 14, 1958, after 162 days in space.
President Eisenhower announced on November 7, 1957 that James R. Killian would be the first White House science advisor and soon approved one billion dollars for the first direct federal aid to education–The National Defense Act. Plans for the establishment of a civilian space agency got underway. On July 29, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, authorizing NASA. The administration was formally founded on October 1, 1958. Until NASA was up and running, the military was in charge. The US Army and Navy had ballistic-missile projects in process, and each wanted to be the first to orbit an American satellite. The Navy got first shot on December 6, 1957. The result was a spectacular failure. The Vanguard rocket rose a few feet above the launch pad, and then fell back and blew up. Washington’s officials then turned to the Army, where a group of booster pioneers were creating a satellite at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Al. On January 31, 1958, it launched its Explorer I satellite from Cape Canaveral on a modified Redstone ballistic missile. The thirty-one pound Explorer I was considerably smaller that Sputnik I, but its orbit was much higher than Sputniks. Explorer I also carried a Geiger counter designed to detect the presence of cosmic rays. Explorer I’s instruments recorded an increasing number of cosmic particles as its altitude increased. Eventually James Van Allen described the discovery as zones or belts of electrically charged particles trapped by Earth’s magnetic field. By the first anniversary of the Sputnik I launch, the United States was closing the gap in the space race. America had launched three Explorers and one Vanguard, while the Soviets had launched three Sputniks. However the Russians could not only claim the first launch of an artificial object, but it could also claim the first launch of a living creature as well. Also, at 185 pounds, Sputnik I weighed more that all four US satellites combined and Sputnik III weighed more than 2,950 pounds. Although the Sputnik I launch is widely believed to have signaled the start of the space race, some space policy historians do not believe that the real competition actually started until seven years later. Some say that initially, Eisenhower attempted to avoid an overreaction to the Soviet accomplishments in order to foster a strong US program based on the United State’s own goals and abilities.
A new rivalry began on April 12, 1961, when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made the first manned space flight, an orbital mission in Vostok I. A month later, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space. He made a brief suborbital flight. On February 29, 1962, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the planet. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy set the national goal of landing astronauts on the moon and returning them safely to Earth within the decade. The Soviets denied that they had any plans to put humans on the moon, but historical documents have proved this wrong. Also their Luna launches proved that they had an interest in the moon. On September 13, 1959, the USSR’s Luna II crashed on the moon carrying a copy of the Soviet coat of Arms. Then on October 4, 1959, Luna III set out to orbit the moon and photographed seventy percent of its farside. The last great first in space exploration came on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and his crew on Apollo 9 reached the moon.
It was difficult to tell which nation was really ahead in the space race each country racked up a series of important firsts. The moon marked the finish line for the space race and once that was conquered there was little left to explore with the current technologies. But the space programs continue and with them bring us new technologies and products. The cold war although was still in its prime but with the end of the space race closed one of the sources from which it was fueled.