The Cold War: Space Race

Figure 1.--The early Soviet success in the Sace Race were matters of immense pride to the Russian people. This little Russian boy shows off his Yuri Gagaran doll at school Note the books about Gagaran in the background. The CCCP on the doll's helmet of course means USSR.

The Soviet Union opened a brand new front of the Cold War with the launching of Sputnik (Otober 4, 1957). Often accounts of the Cold War focus on ideological differences between East and West. Technology played a critical role in the Cold War which is often overlooked. Marxists proclaimed Communism as a new, scientific approach to organizing human society. As a result, science assumed an important ideological status in the Cold war. Obviously if Marxism was the optimal organization of human society, the Soviet Union should be able to produce the best science. And Soviet propaganda trumpeted Sputnik as a symbol of the superiority of Soviet science. President Kennedy understood both the scientific and ideological importance of the space race and committed the Unitesd States to land on the moon. Both America and the Soviets mobilized their sciebtific and industrial resources for a race to the moon. In the long run, superior Western technology played an important role in the West's victory. The West's superiority was, however, not apparent in the 1950s.

Ideology and Science

The Soviet Union opened a brand new front of the Cold War with the launching of Sputnik (Otober 4, 1957). The launching of Sputnik was not just a technical achievement with military implications, it also had ideological considerations. Often accounts of the Cold War focus on ideological differences between East and West. Technology played a critical role in the Cold War which is often overlooked. Marxists proclaimed Communism as a new, scientific approach to organizing human society. As a result, science assumed an important ideological status in the Cold war. Obviously if Marxism was the optimal organization of human society, the Soviet Union should be able to produce the best science. And Soviet propaganda trumpeted Sputnik as a symbol of the superiority of Soviet science. In the long run, superior Western technology played an important role in the West's victory. The West's superiority was, however, not apparent in the 1950s. Communism was at the time an ideology embraced by millions around the world. The Russian Revolution and spread of Communism to Eastern Europe and then China seemed to show that Communism was the wave of the future. Soviet technological achieveements like Sputnik seemed to be further evidence that Communism, central planning, and atheism was the wave of the future.

German World War II Missile Program

Goebbels in his World War II propagnda warned of secret weapons. And the Germans indeed had them. The most terrifying were the V-weapons. The German V1 Buzz Bombs could be shot down, but there was no defense against the V-2 balistic missles which soon followed. The V-weapons had been supported by Hitler because of their potential as terror weapons which could strile at British cities. Because of their lack of accuracy, however, they had no real value as a military weapon. The German scientists had developed plans for larger missiles that could hit New York and other East Coast American cities. A Dutch reader tells us, "I have seen and heard the V-2 weapons in 1944/45 when I was a boy of 16 in the Netherlands. Many of them were launched from occupied Holland and Belgium to target England. They were extremely fast, sometimes like a lightning bolt and they made a loud, whistling sound. Quite a few did not function right and exploded in the air or came down in the fields or on houses and buildings often with disastrous results. We started seeing them at the end of 1944 and in the beginning of 1945. Several came down in our neighborhood. Most of them were launched near The Hague in the Netherlands and Antwerp, Belgium."

German Missile Scientists

Werner von Braun and other German rocket scientists after the War were brought to the United States through Operation Paper Clip. Both the Western Allies and the Soviet Union scoured Germany after the War for German scientists. The rocket scientists were some of the most sought after. They played a promonent role in the American space program. The German scientists were put to work in Huntsville, Alabama and other places for the development of the national space program in order to beat the Soviets during the Cold War. Without them the United State missle program would have lagged behind the Soviet program with very serious potential reperussions in the Cold war. Also the United States would not have been able to have put a man on the moon as early as it did. The Russians tried to do that also, but did not succeed. It always has been an embarrassing subject to have used the knowledge and expertise of German sientists. The connection of these scientists with the NAZIs is a matter of conjecture among historians. Some charge that they were committed NAZIs. Others that they were primarily focused on rocketry and space and only the German military offered the funding needed to persue their work. The V-2s in particular were built by slave laborers working in horrific conditions in underground facilities. A reader writes, "I think it shameful that the inventors (rocket scientists von Braun and his team) immediately after the war in 1945 were brought to the United States to be enployed in further development and research of the American space program."

International Geophysical Year--IGY (1952)

The idea of launching an artifical satellite was not originating in the Soviet Union. The International Council of Scientific Unions (CSU) set July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958, as the International Geophysical Year (IGY) (1952). This period was chosen because solar activity would be especially intense. The CSU called for the launching of artificial satellites during the IGY to help map the Earth's surface (1954). These plans in the West received little attention outsise of scientific circles. The Eisenhower Administration announced its plans to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite for the IGY (1955). The administration asked for proposals from various Government research agencies to undertake development. The military implications were not yet fully appreciated around the world. President Eisenhower appears to have been aware and interested in them. The administration choose the Naval Research Laboratory's Vanguard proposal to participate in the IGY effort for the United States. The military at the time had the only important American missle programs.

President Eisenhower

President Eisenhower was very interested in space, His primary interest was the use use of space technology for national security purposes. One of the major American problems during the Cold war was obtaining information on Soviet arms production. This was why Eisenhower reluctantly appreoved dangerous overflights of Soviet territory. Survelllance from space offered the potential to solve tht problem. Eisenhower directed that that both ballistic missiles and reconnaissance satellites be developed on a priority basis.

Popular Culture

We see a growing interest in space after World War II, especially in the early-1950s. We note all kinds of indicators of a growing interest in both modern aircraft and space. I remember as a little boy being intralled by Captain Video on our first TV. It was a hard choice between him and Hopalong Casidy. There were all kinds of space movies, commonly facing alienes. Examples include: "Rocketship X-M" (1950), "Destination Moon" (1950), "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), "Flight to Mars" (1951), "Project Moonbase" (1953), "Cat-Women of the Moon" (1953). and "Conquest of Space" (1955). Cars began sprouring of all things tail fins by the mid-1950s. The movies also had Buck Roggers short features. Space also appeared in comic books and the funny pages. I rember as a Cub Scout making a model sollasr system. All kinds of spaver toys appeared including ray guns. I am not sured whst caused this as the actual work with missles did not get all that much publicity. All this began well before Sputnik and the space race took off in the public mind. One might dismiss popular culture as inconsequential, but the little boys of the 1950s were voters of the 1960s willing to support huge budget allocations for the spave race. And some became the scientists snd engineers that took man to the moon.

Sputnik (October 1957)

The Soviets shocked the Western scientific world when they the first man-made satellite--Sputnik I (October 4, 1957). Sputnik was a basketball-sized satellite which weiged 183 pounds. Sputnik took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth. Sputnik was a shock to the American public which assumed America was technologicall far superior to the Soviet Union. Actually Sputnik itself was not a technological marvel. It was simply a round sphere cointaining a radio transmitting a signal. Whsat was imprssive was the Soviets had developed a reliable missle with the ability to launch a payload the size of Sputnik. And the Soviets did not stop with Sputnik. A month later they launched Sputnik II (November 3). Their second satellite had an even heavier sattelite which including a dog--Laika. It was a huge public relations bonanza. I can recall as a boy at the time being fascinated with the developments as astronomy and the idea of spsace travel was a subject of some interest.

Space Race

The Space Race began with the German V-2s and the Americans and Soviet coopting German rocket scientists. This was a competition that received very little public attention in the West. Sputnik changed this. The Space Race in the public mind began with Sputnik.

Eisenhower Adminisration Reaction

Eisenhower did not seem to assign much importance to Sputnik. This led to the development of a major political issue which would affect the 1960 ekection--the Missle Gap. Eisenhowe concluded, however, that classified American programs wee ahead of the Soviets. These programs (Atlas, Titan, Polaris, and Minuteman, and the Corona spy satellite) were far more advanced than the Soviet program. The larger payloads of the Soviet rockets were in fact an indicatr of the Soviet program. They had to more powerful rocket motors because theie electonics capability was so backward. They had not yet been able to miniaturize atomic bombs, electronic circuits, or develop light-weight alloys for rocket construction. Inteligence reports showed that the "missile gap", much talked about in the press, did not exist. To demonstrate this, however, he would have had to release cassified data, Herefused to do so despite the public clamor.

American Missle Program

At the time the Army, Navy, and Air Force all had largely uncoordinated missle programs. The Soviet launch brought the largely unreported IGY competition to public attention. It was not only the fact that the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, but Sputnik was huge.

Military Implications

Sputnik was more than 50 times larger than the tiny 3.5 pound Vanguard satellite that America was planning to launch. The implications were obvious. Soviet missles poweful enough to launch Sputnik could also launch nuclear weapons.

Initial American Response

The immediate American resonses to the political furor that ensued was expanded funding. The Army Redstone Arsenal led by Wernher von Braun received funding for a second American satellite program. The Army immediately began work on the Explorer project and within a few months successfully launched Explorer I (January 31, 1958).

Minaturization and Science

At the time the large Soviet payload represented by Sputnik received the greatest attention. Sputnik was indeed large and a huge public relations success, but despite its size, there was very little in the way of sciebntific instrumrents absard. Less discussed was as a result of minturization was the fact that the much smaller American Explorer sattelite was a more valuable scientific device. The instruments on Explorer led to the discovery of the Van Allen Belt. This was magnetic radiation belts around the Earth and were named in honor of the principal investigator James Van Allen.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration--NASA (1958)

Another result of Sputnik was the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). President Eisenhower proposed the civilian space agency to Congress (April 1958). Congress which was concerned about Sputnik very quickly passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act (the "Space Act") (July 1958). NASA was built around the alreadexisting National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Imortant elements pf the military rograms were moved to NASA. This included the Army's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech and von Braun's rocket group at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

National Defense Education Act (NDEA)

Another result development from the Cold war was the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). It in fact helped ne get through my undergraduste years. World War II more than any other conflixt in history involved science and was influenced by science. Major campaigns like the Battle of the Atlantic and the stratgic bombing campsigns were largely determined by science. The Germans introduced some innovatice wepons systems with curring-edge technology. They did not have, however, the industrial capcity to take advantages of these advances. This was largely the result of Hitler's strategic lunacy, to wage war againsrboth the Soviet Union and the United States with Britin still undefeated. Germany's impressive industrial capacity was dwarfed by thst of America, Britain, and the Soviet Union. The war was of course ended by the most stunning scientific achievement of the war--the atomic bombs. One of the greatest prices of the war wre the Germsn scientists that the Soviets , Americans, and British picked up. Stlalin even before the war was waging aold War with the west and continued thst War after the NAZI surrender. Thus after the war as Stalin decided to establish NKVD police states in Eastern Europe, the War-time cooperation broke down. It was clear to both sides that science would play a major role in the outcome of the Cold war. The Soviet Union did not have the industrial capacity of the United States, but it had an excellent ediucatio system, at least in mathematics and the sciences (except biology). As the Cold War developed, the U.S. Givernment becme comncerned tht our schools and iniversities were mnot yurning out the scients, technicials, nd other need to confron the soviet Union. American schools focused on the liberal arts and did not put the emphasis on math and science that Soviet chools did. Liberal arts was seen o prepare young people for life challengs, bit to fight a long and dangeros conflict with a totalitarian power. A movement dpear headed by the vocational educator Charles Prosser saw itself as promoting 'true democracy' in education. Some academicians criticised this approch s 'soft'. Members of the National Science Foundation and others interested in math and science chrged that education professors and schools of education were creating an education system leading to poor achievment levels when compared to other countries, especiually in math and science. There was also a concern with foreign languages--a vital skill needed to fight a global conflict. The criticism of American education, especially the public schools, increased greatly with the Soviet launching of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite (October 1957). Actually the idea was not new to the United states. The Eisenhower administration was prepring to layunch attlelite as well as part of the Inyernstion Geophisical Year (IGY). What the Administration did not understand was the impact Sputnik would have on the world and Cold War image of the Soviet Union. Thus the American satellite was not a high priority--at least not until the Soviets launched Sputnik. Now not just academicians, but the general public began questioning the public schools. Public support builr for reforms and increased spnding. President Eisenhower in his Message to Congress called for matching educational programs with national defense needs and recommended the federal government play an important part in this activity (January 27, 1958). Ununyol this point the Federal role in education was minor. One result of this new effort was the NDEA passed by Congress ad signed by President Eisenhower (September 2, 1958). The NDEA provided needed funding to improve both public schools and to promote postsecondary education. The goal was to strengthen the educational system;s to meet the Cold war challenge posed by the Soviet Union. and the emnphasis was on nath and the sciences.

Star City

The Soviet Union's Star City ( Звёздный городо́к ) was the popular name for an area Moscow Oblast which became the hub of the Soviet space program (1960). It was located in a dense forest, about 30 miles from Moscow. The Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) was established here. The Official name shows the Soviet paranoia over secrecy--the 'closed military townlet No. 1' It was also known as Shchyolkovo-14 (Щёлково-14) and Zvyozdny (Звёздный). Cosnonauts made their homes there and important training centers were opened there. It was off limits to almost all foreigers, especially westerners. Star City was run by the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Gagarin's family still lives in Star City. Despite the collpse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War and the area no longer being a closed military zone, it continues to be very difficult for Weterners to visit. [O'Callaghan]

Vostok (1960-65)

Vostok was the first manned space craft and the workhorse of the Soviet space program. It was the producgt of a team of scientists and engineers led by the Soviet Union's pioneer aerospace engineer, Segei P. Korolev. The Vostok 1K was the prototype used for six unmanned test missions (1960). Vostok 3KA was used by Yuri Gargaran for the first manned trip into space and the first earth orbit (1961). Soviet Air Force Lieutenant Yuri A. Gagarin become the first man in space when his Vostok spacecraft (Swallow) was launched into space by the massive SS-6 Sapwood ICBM (April 12, 196). Gargarin and Shallow made one Earth orbit and 108 minutes after launching he returned to Earth, landing near the village of Smelovaka. The design of Vostock proved so effective that derivatives were still being used by the Soviets and then the Russians more than 30 years later for various purposes, including military photo-reconnaisance, earth resources, mapping, and biosat missions. Vostok 3KV was also known as Voskhod (1964) This was an adaptation of the basic Vostok spacecraft to conduct three-man flight before the American Gemini program. Vostok 3KD was also known as Voskhod (1965). It was a the Vostok modified by adding aninflatable airlock so cosmonautd could carry out spacewalks. The Vostok and Voskhod spacecraft proved be reliable spacecraft. They had, however, serious limitations. Vostok like the American Mercury capsule could not maneuver in orbit. Once injected into an earth orbig they only had the capability of ending the otbit. They essentially could only move into a fixed axis. Once the mission was completed the the main engine could be used to slow down or brake the space craft and reenter the earth atmosphere. Vostock had only very basic instrumentation. Voistok did not have the instrumentation that appeared in American spacecraft, especially Gemini. There was no gyros or eight-ball used for maneuvring. Vostock reentries were done automatically by ground radio command.

President Kennedy

Senator Kennedy made the so-called "Missle Gap" a major issue in the 1960 presidential election. The missle-gap at the time was overstated. The importance of the space in the Cold War was not. President Kennedy understood both the scientific and ideological importance of the space race and committed the Unitesd States to land on the moon (May 25, 1961). Both America and the Soviets mobilized their scientific and industrial resources for a race to the moon.

Project Mercury (1958-63)

Project Mercury was NASA's first effort with human spaceflight. NAZA at the time was playing catchup with the Soviets. Nothing except what could be deduced from the soviet effort was know about the ability of humns to live and work in space. The purpose of the Program was to determine if man could survice and function effectively in space. There were several tests of the Mercury capsule before risking humans on board. The first living creature was not a test pilot, but a chimpanzee named Ham. NASA began with with tests lasting only a few minutes and than hours. Each mission involved only one person at at time. That was all the space there was in the capsule. America's first seven astronauts were chosen (1959). They attracted enirmous punlic attention. They and their families became instant celeberties. Life Mgazine depicted the astronauts as American heroes fighting Communism with daring space missions. This was the beginning of the Pace Race, America and the Soviet Union competing to put a man in space first. The Soviets with a more reliable booster rocket won this race. Mercury did, hoever, provide the needed technical expereience for the next phase of the space race--the difficult challenge of orbital missions--Gemini.


Apollo (1961-75)

The Apollo Space Program built on the achievements of the Mercury and Gemini Programs. The goal of the program was to put Americans on the moon. This program was culmination of President Kennedy's commitment to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. It was an enormous effort. Thousands of workers, scientist, and engineers were involved in Apollo. But this was only the individuals directly involved in the program. One estimate suggested that one out of every 10 Americans were involved in some way. There were many aspects of the program. The most critical aspect of cpurse was the space craft and rocket. Aerospace pioneer Dr. Werner von Braun played a central role in building the enormous Saturn V rocket engines thast would lift the Apollo capsules into spase. An early tragedy marred the program. Fire swept through the Block One Apollo 1 spacecraft (January 27, 1967), killing Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee during a "plugs out" test on the pad. The capsule was then redesigned. This involved a 1 year delsay. It produced a safer spacecraft for the 45 astronauts that flew in them from Apollo 7 (October 1968) to Apollo-Soyuz in (July 1975). Apollo 8 orbited the moon (1968). The project suceeded in putting the first men on the moon with Apollo 11--Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (July 20, 1969). There were six Apollo missions that took men to the moon (11, 12, 14,, 15, 16, and 17). There would be a total of 12 men who would walkon the moon. Ironically, one of NASA's greatest achievements was getting the Apollo 13 astroinauts back after an explosion forced Mission Control to abort the mission. The Apollo Project cost about $24.5 billion.

Soviet Lunar Program

In sharp contrast to the American space program conducted in the bright light of the world media, the Soviet program was conducted in a strange combination of deep secrecy and propanganda spotlight. The Soviets did not even release the name of the genius who oversaw the program, rocket engineer Sergei Korolev. Premier Khrushev even refused to give the Nobel Prize Committee his name when they wanted to award him the Nobel Prize. Missions were not announced in advance, but only afterwards and if they were successful. Many failures were kept secret. Only after Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policy did we learn about the failures (1980s). It looked for a time like the Soviets would be the first to the moon. Khruschev at first failed to fund it because of the enormous cost. Only after the American program gained momentum did he change his mind--just before he was rmoved fom office (1964). By that time, however, the Soviets had lost much of their lead. And the rush to keep up with the Americans brought disasters. Notable setbacks occured just as Apollo was achieving a series of sucesses: the deaths of Korolev (only then was his name made public), Vladimir Komarov (Soyuz 1 crash), and Yuri Gagarin (fighter jet mission) (1966-68). Korolev death from a routein procedure was not a failure of the space program, but an indtement of the Soviet medical system. Korolev's successor was Vasily Mishin, a competent engineer, but was much less respected by the Cosmonauts. His failure is variously blamed on a flawed N-1 program or overly political administration. Korolev had prestige to stand up to the leadeship, Mishin did not. Soyuz was the progrm that was to carry the Soviets to the moon. Their mamoth N-1 rocket was intended to power the manned lunar missions. nd it looked likethey were going to be first. The catastrophic exposion of the N-1 was the largest non-nuclear explosion in history. Important individuals involved in the program were killed. As a result, the Soviets decided not to put a man on the moon. If they coudn't be first, it would only highlight their falling behind the Americans.

Economic Implications

The Space Race is often seen in military terms, but there were very real ecomomic implications. The cell phone and internet are two of the many benefits of the space race. Other indistries were significantly aided by the space race such as the comuter industry. Technology today is a very important sector of the American economy and many major U,S, companies such as Cisco, Google, IBM. Intel, Microsoft, and many other high tech companies were aided by the Space Race or utilize technologies that flowed from the space race. One important question is why all these benefits flowed to the American economy and virtually no lasting bebefits flowed to the the Soviet Union/Russia. The Soviets did not land a man on the moon, but they had a very important space program with many major achievements. Yet there are no Russian comnpnies today that are technology leaders like the Americans companies which export high-technology goods and services. This is a stuning contrast. It cetainly is not because there were no competent scientists and technicians. There were many. The critical difference was American free market capitalism and open society contrasted with Soviet Communism and police state resrictions on the use of scientific research.. It would not be surprising to find that one of the two programs varied in their economic impact. What is surprising that there seems to have been virtually no generatioin of world-class high technology industries in the Soviet Union.

BBC Assessment

The BBC produced an informative documentary about the space race, "Cosmonauts: How Russia Won the Space Race" (2014). It is a useful documentary because it focuses on the Soviet Space Program and its energentic director, rocket engineer Sergei Korolev. There are several serious flaws in the program, many of the ideological, somethijg we commonly see in BBC and PNC which carries BBC programing in America. The producers are intent on making a case for the Soviets winning the Space Race. The BBC tells us, "When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969, America went down in popular history as the winner of the space race. But that history is bunk. The real pioneers of space exploration were the Soviet cosmonauts." In fact, the Soviet people did not benefit from the their country;s space program. Not only did American benefit from the pace race, but the technology developed by the americans reshaped the modern world. Several aspects of the program are wirthwhile noteing. First there is no mention of the boost from German technology. (Something of course which also benefitted the American program.) Second. there is a big section about American Anti-Communist 'paranoia', presented as if there was no real danger. The producers simply ignore the massive Soviet espionage effort in An=merica, as wll as Britain and the maby countries conquered and added to the Soviet empire nd the terrible atrocities committed by the NKVD and local affiltes. It is as if there ws no real danger and the american security umbrellaas unecessary. Third, There is no mention whatsoever of Soviet crimes and violations of humany rights. The Space Race is simply presented in a vacuume. Nor do the producers seem to understand how the supression of freedom nwould ultimately lead to the Soviets failure to utilize the technology thry developed. Four, there is a light-hearted presentation as to why America caught up in the space race. The producers maintain that the reason was simple--money. They ignore the reason why the Soviets led at first. They has lavished substantial resources (money) on their space programs. Unsaid but rather promoted is the idea that there is something wrong with money. And completely ignored is why the Americans had so mich momey. They had a sucessful economy because it was based on Communusm. The Soviet Union had a population and vast resources equal to America, but becaus of Communism an economy only a fraction of the size. Five, while much is made of America's anti-Communist paranoia by tge producers, nothing is said about the much more intense Soviet paranoia and secrecy. It is mentioned, especially keeping Korolev's identity secrt, but it is not labeled paranoia, even when Premier Khruschev refused to identify him to the Nobel Prize Committee. Six, the producers not only fail to mention Soviet paranoia, but seem oblivious to the economic consequences. Not only did Anmerica's hild on high tchnology strengthen, but Whole new industries flowed out of the American space program which has changed out modern lives--personal computers, the internet, cell phones, microwaves and much more. And what is Russia today. It has an economy based on exporting raw material like a backward Third World country. Soviet space race technology was kept secret, virtually nothing transfrred to the economy. The merican spending payed for itself in industrial growth. The Soviet space spending was a drag on the economy. Seven, the producers at the end of the program break away from their ideological straight jacket. They allowed one of the Cosmonaughts to explain the image of earth he observed from space: South America (a vast green expanse with the Amazon ribbon of water), America (a vast sea of lights, Eurooe (a sea of lights compressed in the West), and Russia (a vast dark expanse with acattered bright spots from cities). Lights of course meant energy, dymacism, and developmnt. And that at the end the image of the Soviet N1 moon rocket ending up as a pig sty.


O'Callaghan, Jonathan. " Back, in the USSR: Inside Russia's retro 'Star City' where cosmonauts have trained for 50 years." Daily Mail, com (August 20, 2014).


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Created: 4:34 PM 6/5/2007
Last updated: 3:38 PM 5/29/2016