"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project...will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important...and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish...." 
—President John F. Kennedy, 1961 

In 1961, President John Kennedy called on the nation to send a man to the Moon. In 1969, the United States did just that. Today, many are familiar with the story of Neil Armstrong’s first few steps on the Moon (cue the “That’s one small step...” quote), but have you ever questioned why we invested so much time, effort, and national attention in getting there? 

President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961, declaring to Congress the goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. (NASA)

From an Arms Race to a Space Race 

The Space Race began as an arms race between the respective militaries of the United States and the Soviet Union. World War II had demonstrated to the world that rocket technology would drive modern warfare, and as such the U.S. and Russia locked themselves in a race to have the most superior technology. As technology advanced and powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were developed by both countries, the arms race gave way to another race—the Space Race.  

At the start, there were no set rules for the Space Race. What was the goal? What would count as winning? For Americans, President Kennedy's declaration focused the Space Race on a clear goal: landing a man on the Moon before the Soviets. The Space Race became a race to the Moon. 

Both countries made announcements to launch the first artificial satellite into space, but it was the Soviet Union that brought humanity into the Space Age with their Sputnik satellite, which was successfully launched on October 4, 1957. 

The launch of Sputnik, the first satellite in space, aboard an R-7 rocket. (Smithsonian Institution)

The Space Race became a symbol of the broad ideological and political contest between two rival world powers. In the Soviet Union, all space programs were integrated into a secretive military-industrial bureaucracy. Launches were not announced in advance, and only the successes were publicized. Comparatively, in the United States there were separate civilian and military agencies. Only military space programs were secret. Civilian space activities—especially the race to the Moon—were openly publicized for the world to see, failures and all. For years, the Soviets officially denied being in a race to the Moon. However, we now know there is ample evidence that they indeed competed to reach the Moon first. 

Not Yet a Moon Shot 

Before Kennedy’s call to send a man to the Moon, the early years of the Space Race marked successes through headline making “firsts”: the first satellite, the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first spacewalk. To the dismay of the United States, each of these early feats was achieved first by the Soviet Union. These events triggered a drive to catch up with—and surpass—the Soviets. 

Despite the United States’s hopes that it would beat the Soviet Union in launching the first artificial satellite into space, initial launch attempts using the Navy’s Vanguard rocket ended in disaster. Public response to the Vanguard failures prompted national soul-searching in the United States. The media questioned why "Ivan" could accomplish things that "Johnny" could not. 

The first U.S. satellite launch effort failed spectacularly when its Vanguard rocket exploded during liftoff on December 6, 1957. (NASA)

After the first Vanguard failure, the Army gained approval to attempt a satellite launch. On January 31, 1958, a modified Redstone missile, the Jupiter-C, lofted America's first satellite, Explorer 1, into space. In March, the Navy's Vanguard succeeded in its third attempt to launch a satellite. Although still behind, America had rallied after its initial stumble and was now in the Space Race. 

Shooting for the Moon 

President Kennedy wanted to know what the United States could do in space to take the lead from the Soviets. Vice President Lyndon Johnson polled leaders in NASA, industry, and the military. He reported that "with a strong effort" the United States "could conceivably" beat the Soviets in sending a person around the Moon or landing a person on the Moon. As neither nation yet had a rocket powerful enough for such a mission, the race to the Moon was a contest that the United States would not be starting at a disadvantage. On May 25, 1961, when President Kennedy announced the goal of landing a man on the Moon, the total time spent in space by an American was barely 15 minutes. 

Although the United States has turned its sights on the Moon, there were many other “firsts” that needed to be met before they would be ready for a crewed landing on the surface of the Moon. The Soviets would beat the Americans to the finish line in many of these. Although it seemed that the U.S. still lagged behind the U.S.S.R. in space, in reality the United States was following a methodical step-by-step program, in which each mission built upon and extended the previous ones. The Mercury and Gemini missions carefully prepared the way for the Apollo lunar missions. 

Dr. Robert R. Gilruth (left), MSC Director, presents President John F. Kennedy with a mounted model of the Apollo spacecraft. (NASA)

The one-person Mercury missions developed hardware for safe spaceflight and return to Earth and began to show how human beings would fare in space. From 1961 through 1963, the United States flew many test flights and six crewed Mercury missions. 

After Mercury NASA introduced Gemini, an enlarged, redesigned spacecraft for two astronauts. Ten crewed Gemini missions were flown from 1964 through 1966 to improve techniques of spacecraft control, rendezvous and docking, and spacewalking (extravehicular activity). One Gemini mission spent a record-breaking two weeks in space, time enough for a future crew to go to the Moon, explore, and return. 

A Moon Landing and New Priorities  

The Apollo program saw many triumphs, such as the success of the Saturn V rocket, and quickly put the United States on path to the Moon. On July 21, 1969, as millions around the world watched on television, two Americans stepped onto another world for the first time. The United States successfully landed humans on the Moon and returned them safely, fulfilling President Kennedy's vision and meeting the goal that inspired manned spaceflight during the 1960s. 

When the race to the Moon ended, the Soviet and American human spaceflight programs moved in different directions. For many Americans, landing on the Moon ended the Space Race. Some expected the Apollo missions to be the beginning of an era in which humans would begin to inhabit outer space as they did Earth. Others questioned whether costly human spaceflight should continue now that the race, at least in their eyes, was won.

Returning from the first lunar landing mission, the Apollo 11 astronauts received a tumultuous welcome from New Yorkers, who dropped a record tonnage of paper during a ticker-tape parade traditionally accorded returning heroes. (NASA)

For the Soviets, the competition with the United States did not end. They began to pursue longer term goals, such as establishing a permanent presence in space with a series of Earth-orbiting space stations. They also began to explore the other planets with robotics and probes, just like the United States. 

While the race to space may have slowed down slightly after the first human landed on the Moon, the Cold War still raged on for another two decades. Finally, between 1989 and 1990, the Berlin Wall—which separated Soviet-controlled East Germany from Western Germany—fell and Germany was reunified. In 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved, and with it, the Cold War.

Competition in space has continued throughout the three decades following the collapse of the USSR and the seeming end of the Cold War. The United States and Russia have entered into cooperative agreements, most notable the assembly and occupation of the International Space Station that began at the beginning of this century. In contrast, each side has maintained its own independent security and industrial interests in space.

The International Space Station. (NASA)

Reconnaissance, surveillance, and military communications spacecraft retain their importance in the American Department of Defense and the Russian Ministry of Defense. And, as is true with other large and powerful nations, each has its own location, timing and navigation satellite system. While systems such as the U.S. GPS has a familiar civilian use, the highest capabilities of these systems are reserved for military uses.  

Sabotage or reduction of each other’s space based infrastructure is a continual effort on both sides of the continuing space race. Twenty-first century militaries rely on space-based infrastructure for successful operations. Finding the means to diminish that reliability for the other side could determine the outcome in battle. And Russia and China, over the objections of the rest of the world, continue to experiment and test space-based weapons that can physically attack another nation’s orbiting satellites. So, while examples of cooperation and collaboration had replaced some of the modes of high-profile competition of the 20th century Space Race, the race to achieve technological advantage in space continues today. 

Related Topics Spaceflight Human spaceflight Moon (Earth) Society and Culture War and Conflict Cold War
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