While heavenly bodies have never failed to fascinate mankind, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that countries saw it as another venue for both exploration and competition. Have you ever wondered why some of the biggest nations make significant investments towards being the first to leave their mark in space? Also known as the Space Race, it might surprise you to learn just what caused it to happen. It might even change the way you look at the moon at night!

How Did the Space Race Begin?

As World War II came to a close, a new conflict began to arise from its ashes. This is what we now know as the Cold War and it pitted two of the world’s superpowers against each other: the Soviet Union vs. the United States. It was a tense period for everyone, considering the degree of impact a war between these two would have on the rest of the world.

When the 1950’s came around, though, this came to a head as both countries sought to prove their superiority when it comes to technology. They both had impressive military firepower and a solid political-economic system. It seemed that the world was on the verge of witnessing its first nuclear war, but it wasn’t just military power that these countries wanted to be the dominant player in. After all, there was still the next frontier: outer space.
It was on October 4, 1957 that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, which was the first artificial satellite to be sent into space. Sputnik gets credit for being the first man-made object to be find its place it the Earth’s orbit. While it impressed many around the world, it certainly left a bad taste in Americans’ mouths. Needless to say, they saw this as a challenge and didn’t want to be left behind. Thus, the Space Race begun.

The Creation of NASA

The following year, the United States launched a satellite of its own. Named Explorer I, it was designed by the U.S. army as directed by Wernher von Braun. In the same year, the country also established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or what we now know as NASA. The federal agency had one task: focus on advancing the country’s space exploration.
Then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower also put investment money toward space programs dedicated to security, which are meant to work together with NASA. The first was under the wing of the U.S. Air Force and was meant to look into military potential in space. The other was spearheaded by the Central Intelligence Agency. Touted as the National Reconnaissance Office, their task was to gather further intelligence on the Soviets and its allies.

Important Figures in the Space Race

As the Space Race continued to heat up, the Soviet’s space program launched their first space probe. Luna 2 was the first to land on the moon, giving them quite a significant lead. This was followed by Yuri Gagarin who gets credit for being the first person to orbit Earth aboard the spacecraft Vostok 1. The Soviet cosmonaut managed to travel safely back to earth, making history in the process.
The United States also sent their own craft into orbit, after creating a spacecraft that was much lighter than the Vostok. This craft was manned by chimpanzees during its test flight, before NASA was confident enough to send astronaut Alan Shepard aboard. Shepard is the first American in space.

With both making great strides, President John F. Kennedy made a public claim that it would be the United States who would bring a man to the moon before the decade ends. By 1962, the country did plenty of investment planning and were able to send John Glenn into orbit, which also ushered in the beginning of NASA’s Project Apollo.

The Apollo and its Achievements

To further helps its progress, the budget allotted to NASA was increased by close to 500% from 1961 to 1964. At the time, the lunar landing program had 34,000 NASA employees working on it. This isn’t counting all the contractors they had to get to make things possible. It wasn’t all progress, however, as the Apollo Project suffered a great tragedy following the loss of three of its astronauts.

On the other hand, the Soviets seemed to have slowed down their pace. Reports suggest that this was due to internal debate, whether the projects were truly necessary considering the degree of time and money being funneled into it. It was also during this period that Sergey Korolyov, the Soviet space program’s chief engineer, passed on unexpectedly.
By December of 1968, the United States was ready to launch Apollo 8. It was the first space mission manned by a human and was intended to orbit the moon. Aboard the craft were astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin. They made a successful landing on July 20th, with Armstrong officially becoming the first man to walk on the moon.

One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind

Neil Armstrong’s famous words can sum up the whole journey involved with the space race. Technically, thanks to their investments, the United States did win the Space Race. However, the efforts of the Soviets cannot be discounted as well. Eventually, however, interest in space exploration decreased.
In 1975, the Apollo-Soyuz mission saw three astronauts meet with a Soviet crew in space. The commanders of both crafts greeted each other and made the first handshake in space. For many, this was also symbolic of how much the relationship between the United States and the Soviets had improved during that period in time.

Photo Source:
Cover – Pixabay / Free-Photos,
Photo #1 – YouTube / Felix 10s,
Photo #2 – YouTube / SciNews,
Photo #3 – YouTube / International Astronautical Federation
Photo #4 – YouTube / NASA Video
Photo #5 – YouTube / CBS This Morning
Photo #6 – NASA / nasa.gov