3 Apr 2022



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The rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union dates way back after the end of the World War II; It marked the start of a military, political and technological battle. Due to the absence of real fighting, space exploration became a battling platform for these two super powers 1 . 

Events of the space race

The American pride diminished due to the early success of the Soviet Union in space technology. The Eisenhower administration concentrated more on military and weapons development thus cut down funding to all scientific funding 2 . 

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Launch of the Sputnik on October 4, 1957, by the Soviet Union

This launch was a great wake up call. The USA feared that the world would perceive the Soviet system as superior. Many people were questioning the free and open American society of the 1950s. They doubted whether this American culture was as dominant as they thought. The US military experts took this satellite launch as evidence that the Soviet Union was ahead regarding ballistic missile development 3 They felt that if the Russians were able to take a satellite into space, they could also drop a warhead on the American soil. The USA officials thus scrambled to put together a space program. It was an attempt to salvage international prestige and national pride. President Eisenhower thus established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. NASA was to oversee the American space program and ensure that the US caught up with Russia. This space race went on through the 1950s and 1960s. 

The moon exploration run

Since it had lost the initial leg of the race, the USA wanted to be the first to land on the moon. However, the first launch failed in 1958. The rocket that was carrying the Pioneer on moon probe ended up into an explosion on the launching pad. They tried to start the Pioneer probes one, two and three but they were all unsuccessful. At the same time, the Soviet Union was working on a moon launch. In early 1959, the Soviets launched the Luna 1 probe, but it never reached the moon. However, they later dominated since the Luna program got off the ground. They were able to rack up more firsts i.e. the first impact on the moon, the first solar orbit and the first photographs of the moon from the lunar orbit. The series of achievements allowed the Russians to name a lot of the moon's geological features.

The first man in the space race

The Americans tried to redeem their pride by working to send the first man on the moon. The project started in 1958.The aim of this project was to orbit a manned spacecraft around the Earth. It would allow the Americans to study man’s ability to function in the moon. Once this happened, they were supposed to retrieve both the spacecraft and the man safely. However, the Soviet Union stole the show again. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968) who was a Russian cosmonaut became the first man to get to space 4 . The United States was not left very far behind since; Commander Alan Shepard (1923-1998) made it to space on May 5, 1961, thus becoming the first American in space. He was able to orbit the Earth in the Mercury 7 capsule. 

The orbit race 

The rivalry between these two superpowers was increasing with time. President Kennedy met with advisors, and they concluded that if they took the first man on the moon, they would win the space race. He went to the extent of rallying the nation around the space program in his speech on May 25, 1961. He termed the rivalry between USA and Russia as a battle between freedom and tyranny. It was very evident that the rivalry was at the pick between these two super powers. On August 6, 1961, Cosmonaut Gherman Titov (1935- ) and the Vostok 2 capsule spent more than 25 hours in space. They orbited the earth 17 times. Russia was in the lead still. John Glenn (1921) an American orbited on February 20, 1962. The next seven years was a race between the two nations. 

The space walk

In 1963 the Soviets sent the first woman to space. Her name was Valentina Tereshkova (1937). Later in 1965, a Russian cosmonaut took the first spacewalk. The first American spacewalk happened after a few months 5 . Later the Soviets were the first to impact on Venus. They also made a soft landing on the moon and also orbited it. The Russians were always ahead. 

First man on the moon

The USA was the first to send the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong (1930). In 1971 the Soviet shifted to long-term living in the space program. The Salyut program began, and some space experiments were done. The USA set up a space station Skylab in 1973. By this time the cold war was coming to an end. The cold war ended peacefully without the two going to war. They only competed for the patriotism of their citizens and international pride. This rivalry has since then cooled down. The relations between the two countries have then improved with time. The space race had set the two superpowers apart. 


Bilstein, R. E. (1996). Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles. Washington: Scientific and Technical Information Branch, National Aeronautics and Space Administration , ISBN 0-16-048909-1

Burrows, W. E. (1998). This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-679-44521-0.

Cadbury, D. (2006 ). Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominance of Space. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-06-084553-7.

Dallek, R. (2003). An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy , 1917–1963. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-17238-3.

Hardesty, Von; Gene E. (2007). Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race. Foreword by Sergei Khrushchev. Washington: National Geographic Society . ISBN 978-1-4262-0119-6.

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StudyBounty. (2023, September 15). SPACE RACE BETWEEN U.S.A AND SOVIET UNION.


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