For those who had the pleasure of experiencing the space race and Apollo missions live, 50 years ago, none would say that it wasn’t thrilling.
The space race was a series of competitive technological demonstrations by the world’s two superpowers at the time: the U.S. and the Soviet Union, on who would dominate spaceflight. It came hot in the heels of the mid-20th-century Cold War, and the primary logic behind the race was that if you dominated in space, then you could also dominate on Earth.
Where it All Began
The space race started with the launch of Sputnik 1, a Soviet Union satellite sent into space on October 4, 1957. The launch came as a shocker to many, considering how the nation had been devastated during World War II.
The U.S. had been planning to launch its own artificial satellites into space, but the Soviets had beaten it. Hardly a month later, after the launch of Sputnik 1, the Soviets had another triumphant first when they put a dog into space with their Sputnik 2 satellite.
It wasn’t until 1958 that the U.S. was able to launch its first satellite into space, the Explorer 1. Consequently, that same year, NASA was founded.
For the next few years, and a better part of the first half of the space race, the Soviet Union triumphed over the United States. It succeeded in having many firsts, including having the first satellites to leave Earth orbit, the first probe to land on the moon, and the first space vehicle to fly by Venus. They also made history with the first man to fly in space, Yuri Gagarin, beating America’s astronaut Alan Shepard by a few weeks.
The Turning Point in the Space Race
Perhaps the most significant turning point in the space race was the declaration by John F Kennedy, in 1961, that he had committed NASA to land humans on the moon before the end of the decade. The Apollo program was formed, and the Apollo missions commenced.
Unfortunately, the Apollo missions got off to a dreadful start on January 27, 1967, when all the three astronauts in the Apollo 1 probe died in a ghastly fire during a launch rehearsal test. These raised concerned about the safety of the missions leading to extensive redesigns of the space vehicles and a commitment to safety.
A year and a half later, NASA’s Apollo 7 mission succeeded in launching a Saturn I rocket with several astronauts into space. This was followed by the Apollo 8 mission, which carried a crew around the moon and back to Earth.
NASA’s Apollo missions continued to triumph, and on July 20, 1969, the space race reached its climax with the Apollo 11 mission when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men on Earth to land on the moon.
End of an Era
After the successes of the Apollo missions, the space race was widely considered to have been won by the U.S. Although there were other competitive missions by both nations afterward, both sides decided to cooperate after World War II. (For more space info, please click here.)