What exactly was the Space Race? Why did we care so much?

The Space Race grew out of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the most powerful countries after World War II. For a half-century, the two superpowers competed for supremacy in a global struggle across a variety of areas from military might to consumer goods. Space was a crucial and new arena for the Cold War rivalry. Before a watchful world, each side sought to demonstrate its superiority through impressive feats in rocketry and spaceflight. In addition to these milestones, technologies used for spaceflight had further applications. Rockets could launch missiles, while satellites could keep an eye on adversaries.

Setting the Stage See more resources about the Cold War

What was the Cold War?

After the close of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union entered into a conflict known as the Cold War. While not a war in the traditional sense, the two countries were in a state of military and political tension that lasted nearly 50 years and were involved in proxy wars such as the war in Vietnam.

The democratically governed United States and the communist government of the Soviet Union were at odds with each other. Both countries sought to vie for supremacy across cultural, military, political, and technological fronts. There were periods of the Cold War that were considered significantly hot, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. An important element of the Cold War was the Space Race, in which both countries raced to build new technologies to be used for space exploration—with President John F. Kennedy eventually setting his sights on the Moon.

What was the Soviet Union?

Some may be quick to equate the Soviet Union with contemporary Russia, however the two countries are not the same.  The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), or Soviet Union, existed from 1922 to 1991. In 1922, after a revolution and a civil war, 15 socialist republics (constituting much of the former Russian Empire) formed the Soviet Union. For nearly 70 years, the USSR spanned across large parts of Europe and Asia. It was governed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The largest and most powerful republic was the Russian republic, which now makes up modern day Russia. In the late 1980s, many republics in the Soviet Union began demanding independence, and in 1991 the Soviet Union came to an end. In its place, 15 separate countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. However, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were not recognized in the West as being part of the USSR. They were considered occupied lands from 1940-1991.

The Origins of the Space Race Meet the Military Rockets that Launched the Space Age

Both the United States and the Soviet Union began building rockets to use as long-range weapons in the years immediately after World War II. However, this race to build rockets for defense soon turned into a race to build missiles for space exploration as well—giving life to what is now referred to as the Space Race. 

The Space Race Begins

The early years of the Space Race were marked by successes through headline making “firsts”: the first satellite, the first living being in space, the first human to orbit the Earth, the first human to spend a day in space, and the first object to impact the Moon, to name a few.

Trying to Get Ahead in the Race Eyes in the Sky

There are many different methods through which humans might spy on one another. But what if you could spy on your enemies from the sky? As the United States entered the aerial age in the early 20th century, such tactics became more and more commonplace.

Learn more about military reconnaissance
Competing Technologies Project Paperclip

Project Paperclip was a program that brought German and Austrian engineers, scientists, and technicians to the U.S. after World War II. It made a significant contribution to American technology, rocket development, military preparedness, andeventuallyspaceflight. But there was a moral cost to the program: the coverup of the Nazi records of many of the specialists.

Building a Moon Rocket

When the Space Race began, there was no rocket powerful enough to send a man to the Moon and back. Both the Americans and the Soviets had to develop a rocket more powerful than had ever existed, and as such began their separate quests for a Moon rocket.

A Soviet Moonshot

The beginning of the Space Race was marked by the Soviet Union’s landmark firsts. However, it was the United States that was able to land the first person on the Moon in 1969. So what happened? Why did the Soviet Union suddenly seem to fall behind? The diaries of rocket engineer Vasily Mishin shed some light on why the United States was able to catch up to the Soviet Union's early lead in space.

American Space Programs During the Space Race

The Mercury Program

Both the United States and the Soviet Union started programs to send humans into space. In the United States, that first program was Project Mercury.  

Read about the Mercury Program
The Gemini Program

Whereas the Mercury Program focused on getting people up into space, the Gemini Program's goal was for humans to learn how to do things in space, like practicing the maneuvers and techniques need to carry out a lunar landing. 

Read about the Gemini Program
The Apollo Program

In 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the lunar surface, the United States won the race to the Moon, and for many Americans, the Space Race itself. There were 14 missions in total during the Apollo program, each more sophisticated than the last. 

Visit our topic page about the Apollo Program
From Competition to Cooperation

After the end of the Apollo lunar missions, both the US and Soviet space programs envisioned a permanent human presence in space. Eventually, the Americans and the Soviets—and later the Russians—began to work with each other rather than against each other in space.

Read more about early space stations
Explore more stories about the Cold War
Modern Military Aviation National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC Upcoming Exhibition The Cuban Missile Crisis October 27, 2023 What Was the Space Race? August 23, 2023 The Military Rockets that Launched the Space Age August 09, 2023 The Pan Am Stewardess at War and Peace  Presented Online
National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC
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Military Reconnaissance May 09, 2023 Project Paperclip and American Rocketry after World War II March 31, 2023 The Space Race March 06, 2023