The Space Race: A Contest of Astronomical Proportions

The Space Race: A Contest of Astronomical Proportions


Space RaceIn the years following the end of the Second World War, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States scrambled to collect technologies that had been developed by Nazi Germany during the conflict. Of principle importance was ballistic technology developed by Germany for the purpose of long range bombing. The technology collected by these countries in the aftermath of the Second World War provided the technological foundations necessary for space exploration. As tensions soured between the United States and the Soviet Union, the arena of space exploration provided a non-violent avenue for the two powers to express their post war tensions.

“The cold war would become the great engine, the supreme catalyst, that sent rockets and their cargoes far above Earth and worlds away. If Tsiolkovsky, Oberth, Goddard, and others were the fathers of rocketry, the competition between capitalism and communism was its midwife.”

William E. Burrows

This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, p. 147

In the mid-1950’s, both the Soviet Union and the United States publicly announced their intentions to launch artificial satellites into outer space. Both countries set 1957-1958 as estimated timetables for their accomplishing this goal. These statements marked the informal beginning of a highly political and publicized technological competition known as the “Space Race.”

Artificial Satellites

Sputnik 1 (October 1957)

Sputnik 1 was the first artificial earth-orbiting satellite, launched by the U.S.S.R. in October 1957. Although the United States and Soviet Russia had already expressed their astronomical ambitions, the successful launch of Sputnik marked the formal beginning of what we know today as the “Space Race.”


Explorer 1 (February 1958)

Explorer 1 was America’s response to its Soviet counterpart (Sputnik 1), launched in February 1958. The launch of America’s first artificial earth-orbiting satellite marked the beginning of a long series of events in which America achieved secondary standing in the realm of outer-space supremacy.

Humans in Space

Yuri Gagarin (April 1961)

Yuri Gagarin was the first human being to successfully travel in space. His spacecraft (Vostok 3KA) launched from the Soviet Union on April 12, 1961. Yuri achieved nearly two hours of spaceflight, most of which he spent in Earth’s orbit. Once again, the U.S.S.R. beat America to the punch.

Alan Shepard (May 1961)

Alan Shepard was the second man, and the first American to achieve spaceflight. His spacecraft (Freedom 7) launched on May 5, 1961 and achieved less than sixteen minutes of spaceflight.

Race to the Moon

American Ups the Ante (May 1961)

After being bested on several occasions by the U.S.S.R, President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress in a special joint session to reassess the goals (both present and future) of America’s space program. Kennedy laid out his future ambitions, claiming “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." Kennedy publicly reiterated these goals in a speech given at Rice University four months later.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.”

John F. Kennedy,
Speech at Rice University, Houston, 12 September 1962
Apollo 11 (July 1969)

Following several years of technological innovation and trial and error, the United States finally defeated the U.S.S.R. by successfully landing man on the Moon. On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 spaceflight launched Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on a journey toward the lunar surface. The Apollo 11 crew landed their vehicle on the Moon’s surface on July 20, 1969.


The United States completed five additional voyages to the moon in the years immediately preceding Apollo 11. Having finished completed the race to the Moon, both countries directed their efforts toward creating space station technology. In 1975, the United States and the U.S.S.R. completed a joint spaceflight in which the two space-stations docked with one another, symbolizing the end of outer space competition between the two superpowers.


Sputnik Yuri Gagarin
Alan Shepard   Apollo 11


Material with book Jackets

The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration The International Atlas of Lunar Exploration / by Philip J. Stooke
New York : Cambridge University Press, 2007
TL799. M6 S76 2007
Two Sides of the Moon Two Sides of the Moon / by David Scott & Alexei Leonov
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2004
TL789.8 U5S36 2004
Space History Space History / by Tony Osman
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1983
TL788.5 O86 1983
For All Mankind For All Mankind / by Harry Hurt III
New York : The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988
TL789.8. U6 A5419 1988
Astropolotik Astropolotik / by Everett Dolman
London : Frank Cass Publishers, 2002
TL788.4 D685 2002
Race to the Moon Race to the Moon : America's Duel with the Soviets / by William Breuer
Westport : Praeger Publishers, 1993
TL799. M6B725 1993
A Man on the Moon A Man on the Moon / by Andrew Chaikin
New York : Penguin Books USA, 1994
TL789.8. U6 A5244 1994

Material without book Jackets

  • The Space Race / by Jon Trux
    London: New England Library, 1985
    TL788.5 T78 1985

This exhibit was created on January 18, 2011  by Jeremy Ritter and the website was designed by Elisha Hankins.

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Last modified: 1/31/2011 11:46 AM by D. Morita

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