Sending a man to the moon does not seem so ridiculous in the early 21st Century, especially in an era where entrepreneur Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic, has built two spaceships to transport regular passengers into space with an estimated launch date of 25 December 2014. But it was not until World War II were the first built (by Nazi Germany) that offered the promise of interplanetary flight.
The Space Race became an important part of the cultural, technological, and ideological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Space technology became a particularly important arena in this conflict, both for its potential military applications and for the morale-boosting social benefits.
The Space Race was an international competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to achieve dominance in space. The international rivalry involved efforts to explore outer space with artificial satellites, to send humans to space, and to land them on the Moon. The Space Race effectively began with the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957 followed by Sputnik 2 on 4 November 1957 (first animal in space). The Americans lagged behind. They were not able to successfully launch an artificial satellite (Explorer 1) until 31 January 1958.
|Title: Sputnik asm
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In 1959 the Soviet Union again became the first country to launch a man (Yuri Gagarin) into orbit around the Earth on Vostok 1. Three weeks later on 5 May 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space in Freedom 7. In contrast to Gargarin, Shepard did not achieve orbit, but he was the first person to exercise manual control over his spacecraft’s altitude and retro-rocket firing.
Date: 4 March 1964
Author: Arkiv: Sydsvenskan
Copyright statement: Photographic picture (fotografisk bild), a image of the press, and created before January 1, 1969 therefore free to use
Almost a year after Gagarin was launched into orbit, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on 20 February 1962. His Mercury-Atlas 6 mission completed three orbits in the Friendship 7 spacecraft, and splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean.
America’s space program was given a boost in April 1961 when President John F Kennedy began taking an active interest in National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) efforts to catch-up with the Soviet Union. On 25 May 1961, Kennedy announced his support for the Apollo program and set the challenge to the American people to have a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth before the end of the decade.
Focused by the commitment to a moon landing, in January 1962 America began Project Gemini. Gemini achieved several significant firsts during the course of ten piloted missions, including:
- Demonstrated the ability to change orbit under pilot control,
- Set a record of almost eight days in space,
- Achieved the first rendezvous between two spacecraft,
- Set a human spaceflight endurance record of fourteen days,
- Achieved the first docking between two spacecrafts,
- Achieved the first direct-ascent rendezvous with its Agena target on the first orbit, and
- Spent over five hours working comfortably during three (EVA) sessions, finally proving that humans could perform productive tasks outside their spacecraft.
While the United States were shifting their focus to realise Kennedy’s vision (Project Gemini), the Soviet Union continued with their own achievements in space. In a mission conducted between 11 and 15 August 1962, the Soviets achieved the first dual piloted flights with Vostok 3 and Vostok 4. The Soviet Union also launched the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, on 16 June 1963 in Vostok 6. On 12 October 1964, another Soviet space first was achieved when Voskhod 1 launched the first multi-person spacecraft, with three cosmonauts in a modified Vostok spacecraft.
Although many achievements were made in space exploration during this period, there were also many fatalities along the way. The worst disaster during the Space Race was the Soviet Union’s Nedelin catastrophe in 1960. An explosion occurred when an improper shutdown and control procedure was used on an experimental R-16 rocket. The explosion killed between 92-150 senior Soviet military and technical personnel. In the United States, the first Apollo mission crew were killed by suffocation in a cabin fire that swept through their Apollo 1 spacecraft during a ground test on 27 January 1967.
Apollo 8 launched on 21 December 1968 and became the first human-crewed spacecraft to leave low-Earth orbit and go to the Moon. On 24 December Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to enter into orbit around the Moon. They orbited ten times and transmitted one of the most watched TV broadcasts in history, with their Christmas Eve program from lunar orbit. A few hours later, the crew performed the first-ever Trans-Earth injection burn, to blast the Apollo 8 spacecraft out of lunar orbit and into a trajectory back to the Earth. Just over two days later, on 27 December, Apollo 8 safely splashed down in the Pacific, completing another first: NASA’s first dawn splashdown and recovery.
Apollo 8 paved the way for a successful moon landing with Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon on 20 July 1969. The successful landing of an American on the moon before the Soviets effectively ended the space race. International rivalry continued, however, the subsequent achievements did not capture the popular imagination in the same way as the race to the moon during the 1960s.
The Soviet Union did have a Moon program of its own. Several Soviet unmanned probes reached the moon before the successful Apollo 11. However, the Soviet project was eventually cancelled in 1970 following several unsuccessful tests and the first two successful American Moon landings.
President John F Kennedy’s ‘We Choose the Moon Speech’, 12 September 1962