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Military Origins of the Space Race

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The Scout Program


On October 4, 1957, a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched Sputnik and the Space Age. This event startled the world, giving the impression that America was behind the Soviets in science and technology. Subsequent U.S. launch failures heightened that perception. The competition to build rockets now also became a competition to reach space.


From 1954 to 1957, Soviet rocket designer Sergei Korolëv headed development of the R-7, the world's first ICBM. Successfully flight tested in August 1957, the R-7 missile was powerful enough to launch a nuclear warhead against the United States or to hurl a spacecraft into orbit.

 In October 1957 the R-7 launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. In 1961 a modified R-7 launched the first manned spacecraft, Vostok, which carried cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Refined versions of the R-7 are still in use today.

A workhorse of the Soviet space program, the R-7 rocket has launched many missions.

Courtesy of Art Dula

R-7 launch
214 k jpeg


The successful test of the R-7 missile in August 1957 showed that the Soviets had the capability to launch a satellite into orbit. Yet the flight of Sputnik in October was an unexpected demonstration of Soviet technical prowess, and it had a great impact on public opinion in the United States. Americans were upset at being bested by their Cold War rival and fearful that the Soviets could soon use missiles to launch a surprise nuclear attack.

PointerA Soviet-made full-scale model of Sputnik is displayed overhead in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall in the center of the Museum.

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