Because of yesterday’s eclipse, I thought I would write about space; or the space race rather…
If you are roughly my age, then you grew up and learned in school that the US unquestioningly won the space race. This was towards the end of the Soviet Union, before the forming of the current Russia. As I got older and learned more about history and politics, I learned that this wasn’t entirely true depending on how you measured the winning of this race.
So, what do I mean?
If you measured simply by who made it to the moon first, then yes, the US unquestioningly won the space race. However, if we tallied each of the firsts reached, then the space race looks a bit different.
To understand what I mean, let’s look back at the milestones in the space race and count who reached them first. But before we look at the race itself, let’s take a look at the political climate that led to the space race.
At the end of World War II, there was a rush to gather up German scientists, engineers, and technicians. This was done covertly because the US was taking known Nazi war criminals and not only giving them jobs working for the US government but forgiving their war crimes. This was Project Paperclip.
The US scooped up over sixteen hundred people in project Paperclip including Wernher von Braun, a young engineering genius, and his team who invented the V2 rocket. The V2 rocket was the most advanced rocket at the time and at the end of WWII was capable of delivering heavy payloads intercontinentally.
The Soviet Union had their own version of Project Paperclip where they claimed over two thousand people for the same purpose.
The reason for claiming these people from Germany and giving them amnesty was simple. At the end of WWII, the US and USSR were both superpowers both in economy, production, and by the size of their militaries. Both sides were worried that if they failed to keep up with the other they would be left behind and possibly become subjugated by the other country.
On July 29th, 1955, the press secretary for President Eisenhower held a press conference where he announced the intentions of launching a satellite into orbit. Four days later the Soviet Union publicly expressed the desire to beat the US at placing a satellite into orbit.
On September 20, 1956, von Braun and his team launched a test flight, which didn’t house a satellite. When the USSR heard about the launch, they assumed that the launch of the satellite was unsuccessful. Because they believed that the US had almost placed a satellite in orbit but failed, they increased funding for their own satellite program.
Initially, the satellite that the Soviet Union was planning on sending into orbit had a complex array of instruments capable of recording several different types of readings. But because of the fear they would not beat the US, they changed plans. Instead, they quickly built a “prosteishy sputnik”, or simple satellite. It was capable of two shortwave radio signals. The first transmitted hull pressures to detect if there were any meteoroid collisions that penetrated it. The second read and sent the density of the Earth’s thermosphere.
On October 4th, 1957, Sputnik 1 was launched and achieved low-Earth orbit. Ninety-five minutes after launch, it completed its first orbit and sent information back to the Soviet Union. The first manmade object was orbiting the Earth.
For most people, this was the official start of the space race.
According to witnesses at the time, there was a very real fear in the general population of the United States. We were neck deep in the cold war, and now there was a USSR made machine that flew over the US once every hour and a half. We didn’t know what it was capable of and our best scientists could only speculate what it could do.
Eisenhower signed an executive order moving up the timetable for the launch of the Vanguard rocket that would send up the first US satellite. On December 6th, 1957, a Vanguard rocket launched and blew up two seconds later. The failure was felt around the world.
Luckily, the Vanguard rocket wasn’t the only US rocket being worked on. von Braun and his team were working on a rocket. On January 31, 1958, four months after the launch of Sputnik 1, the US launched a Juno rocket carrying Explorer 1. Explorer 1 became the first US satellite to orbit Earth.
At this point, the US was trailing behind the Soviet Union in the space race.
USSR 1 – US 0
From this point, I am going to just hit on some highlights and not go into any great detail, because if I did, this would be a very long article.
On September 14th, 1959, the Soviet Union successfully launched the Luna 2 which impacted on the moon as planned and sent back our first recorded data from that celestial body.
The Luna 3 performed a successful flyby of the moon and sent back the first images from the dark side of the moon on October 6, 1959.
The first unmanned craft to reach the moon from the US was the Ranger 3 launched on January 26th, 1962. However, a miscalculation made this craft miss the moon without sending back any scientific data.
The first US craft to impact on the moon was the Ranger 7 on July 31, 1964.
The USSR had two successful missions, which sent back information from the moon five years before our first successful trip from the US.
USSR 3 – US 0
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to complete a single orbit. He was the first human in space. The Sovi
et Union gave him the name Cosmonaut that roughly translated from Russian and Greek as “sailor of the universe”. April 12th became a Soviet holiday and later would be recognized by the United Nations as International Day of Human Space Flight.
A month later on May 5th, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. He never achieved orbit, however, he achieved something that the Soviet Union had not yet done. Shepard took control of the crafts attitude and retro-rocket making him the first person to fly a spacecraft.
Interesting fact, Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect video games was named after Alan Shepard.
USSR 4 – US 1
Up to this point, Kennedy was vocally against the space race. He attacked Eisenhower during his campaign because of the cost. However, because of Gagarin’s orbit combined with the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy realized that his administration needed a big win.
For the record, the Bay of Pigs invasion was planned before Kennedy took office, but took place after he became president.
After meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy decided that that win could come from the space race. Instead of pursuing the next logical step in working on a space station like the Soviet Union was doing, they decided to direct their focus on the moon.
Kennedy went before Congress on May 25th and asked for support in funding a manned moon mission. In his address, he talked about how it was vitally important to national security. He also talked about the scientific and social advancements that would be made.
He gained Congresses support and on September 12th, 1962 he made his famous speech, “We choose to go to the Moon.”
The Soviet Union never publicly announced that they were pursuing a moon mission, but secretly began funding one.
On September 20th, 1963, while speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, President Kennedy proposed a joint US-USSR program to help get a human to the moon faster and cheaper. At the time the Soviet Premier Khrushchev rejected the proposal.
Later, Khrushchev’s son reported that his father changed his mind, but before the proposal could be presented again, Kennedy was assassinated. Reportedly Khrushchev didn’t trust Lyndon B. Johnson, and once again backed away from the program.
Johnson decided to continue pursuing the moon mission. A week after the assassination, Johnson signed an executive order that renamed Cape Canaveral and the launch facilities after Kennedy.
The Soyuz was the Soviet Union’s ship that was being developed and tested to send cosmonauts to the moon. While testing this ship, they performed the first EVA or extravehicular activity. We would come to know this as a space walk.
USSR 5 – US 1
Another first that cosmonauts were able to achieve was the first flight without a space suit. Cosmonauts were now able to spend time in the Soyuz while wearing regular flight clothes.
USSR 6 – US 1
On June 16th, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman and first civilian to fly in space. Her mission was purely for propaganda value.
USSR 7 – US 1
1967 was the most disastrous year for both the US and USSR moon missions.
On January 27, the same day that the US and USSR signed the Outer Space Treaty, a fire started in the command module during a ground test. The entire first Apollo mission crew was killed.
On April 24, 1967, the Soyuz 1 suffered from several problems. The ship started spinning which the cosmonaut was able to bring back under control. However, the Soyuz 1 still crashed landed killing the cosmonaut on impact.
After the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire, the Apollo program was able to move forward and it began to claim some firsts in the race.
On December 24th, 1968, Frank Borman, James Lovel, and William Anders became the first humans to orbit the moon in Apollo 8. The broadcast of the orbit became one of the most-watched programs in human history.
USSR 7 – US 2
Apollo 11 became the first mission to land a man on the moon. Michael Collins remained with the command module orbiting the moon while Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin separated and landed the Lunar Module on the surface of the moon.
The two waited inside the lunar module for six hours before they left the module. On July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step onto the surface of the moon.
The first step was broadcast and watched by one fifth of the world’s population, about 723 million people.
After spending a little more than two hours on the surface of the moon, they returned to the lunar module. The following day they became the first humans to launch from the surface of the moon.
They rejoined with Collins and flew back to Earth safely.
I’m going to give the US two points for both landing on the moon and successfully taking off from it.
USSR 7 – US 4
With the successful Apollo 11 mission, both the US and USSR began to wind down the space race.
The US was able to send several more Apollo missions to the moon ending with Apollo 17
Yes, I skipped over Apollo 13. The Apollo 13 mission was a failure to get on the moon but is still a great story. If you don’t know about it I recommend you look into it.
While the US was sending its last missions to the moon, the Soviet Union scrapped their moon plans. At best they could only be the second country to reach the moon. Instead, they refocused on their space station programs.
The Salyut 1 laboratory was a Soviet-made station that was launched into orbit on April 19th, 1971.
USSR 8 – US 4
The Salyut became the first space station but had a short and tragic life. The Soyuz 11 crew docked with the Salyut and stayed in orbit for twenty-two days. When the crew undocked to return home, the cabin suddenly lost pressure and the crew asphyxiated. The crew became the first humans to die in space.
The Salyut 1 continued to have more problems including a poor orbit, which there were several attempts to correct. However, after a short 175 days orbiting the Earth, the Salyut 1 re-entered Earths atmosphere.
The first US space station was Skylab 1, which launched on May 14th, 1973. It stayed in orbit for five years.
In May 1972, President Nixon and Soviet Premier Brezhnev negotiated a “thaw” in the cold war. Both sides decided that they had more to gain by working together than against each other. From the agreement came the Apollo-Soyuz test project.
On July 17, 1975, an Apollo craft and a Soyuz craft docked in Earth’s orbit. The crews from both ships shook hands exchanged gifts and ended the space race.
The Soviet Union began to build the Mir space station but the Soviet Union dissolved before it was complete. The newly formed Russia inherited the Mir as well as all other space programs that the Soviet Union had been working on.
If we go by the numbers of achievements reached, the Soviet Union is in the lead. However, I propose looking at the winner a new way. Instead of declaring the US winners because we got to the moon first, or the USSR winners because they had more firsts, I say we as a race all won because of the scientific advancements that were learned in the race.
The way we grow and ship food has changed because of this race. We have more advanced computers and other technologies because of this race. And our understanding of who we are has grown because of our growing understanding of the universe around us.
The humans won the space race.
Now, we are on the verge of a new space race. This race, however, isn’t between two countries, but private companies. Blue Origin an Amazon company and SpaceX lead the way in this new space race.
It’s exciting to see what will come from this new race because both sides have promised big things. One of these big promises is Elon Musk announcing plans to spend a couple of space tourists around the moon in 2018.
I will have to write an article about this new space race at another time. But for now, what are your thoughts on the space race? Who do you think won?