The Space Race and American-Russian Relations
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The Space Race and American-Russian Relations
The Cold War was an influential time period for Americans in the later half of the 20th century. This war did not involve physical warfare; no fighting on the battlefield ever took place. Rather, it was a war based on intimidation and fear; it was an arms race between the two global superpowers of the democratic United States of America and the communist Soviet Union. This struggle to be the biggest and best was one that lasted from the few years after WWII up until the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. A main driving force behind this war was the space race, the competition between the two rivals to be the first to conquer the unknown outer space.

The space race is closely related to the arms race between the United States and Soviet Union. The early beginnings of this are a direct result of mans ever growing sense of technology and invention. In the mid 1920s, an American scientist by the name of Robert Goddard improved the efficiency and performance of the rocket. In TIME Magazines October 23, 1939 edition, rockets were described to the general public as a tool of the war of the future. Here, it was explained that, “One device closely watched by advance scouts is the rocket–not small signal rockets, but big rockets carrying high explosives” (“Rockets?”). The article also shows the threat of foreign rocket development with, “But experimenters abroad, especially in Germany and Russia, are reported to be busily developing rockets for use in war” (“Rockets?”). With the onset of WWII, the use of the rocket for wartime purposes was beginning to be a daunting reality.

The major type of military rocket that was developed before and during WWII was the intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. German engineer Wernher von Braun was credited with the majority of the design. Following the war, von Braun and other Nazi officials were secretly transferred to work for the United States Army (Brinkley, 469). Here, he helped developed ICBMs for America. Russia, on the other hand, already had a head start with their own program under the design of Sergey Korolyov, a Soviet rocket engineer. Their development began in the 1930s with the basic rocket design, and by the 1950s they had executed tests of ICBMs, most notably with their R-7 Semyorka. This vehicle had the capability of carrying Russias nuclear bomb several thousand miles in distance. All of this militaristic development by Russia was more or less unknown to the average American at the time, and the next turn of events would truly bring the situation to light.

The German scientists who came on board as American rocket engineers originally designed rockets and missiles to aid in nuclear deterrence, not necessarily as a means for space exploration. In October 1957, that mentality would abruptly change as communist Russia launched Sputnik I, powered by the R-7 rocket which was originally designed as an ICBM. It took the world by surprise, and as the Russians saw it as victory, many Americans stood in fear and panic. This can be sensed in an article in an article in TIME Magazine. Here, the author describes how this event changes the world with the statement, “As it [Sputnik] circled the globe for the first time, traveling at 18,000 m.p.h., the U.S. was blissfully unaware that a new era in history had begun, opening a bright new chapter in mankinds conquest of the natural environment and a grim new chapter in the cold war” (“Red Moon Over the US”). Now more than ever, the fear of communism swept the nation. In the same edition of TIME, it was mentioned that “The Red satellite was a milestone in historybut it was also a Communist achievement with serious implications for the West that the Communists themselves made clear” (“Red Moon Over the US”). Generally, use of the term red was synonymous with communism and soviet Russia. This nationwide dread of the Soviets success would spark a change in America which would help push us into the space age.

President Eisenhowers stance on the space program and of Soviet threat was rather lax during the 1950s. This is most likely why America was so ill-prepared in entering the space race. This is evident in 1953, when the President complained to his assistant for national security affairs that the members of the National Security Council “worry so damn much about what well do when the Russians attackWell, I dont believe for a second they will ever attack” (Launius, 19). The notion that the communist force was superior to the democratic world caused an alarmed reaction from the Americans. Our response to the Sputnik incident began many processes which would help us as a country to equate ourselves to the level of technology and skill of the Russians. It would be the stepping stones which would propel us through the mainstream space race. In The Unfinished Nation, Brinkley notes that immediately the “federal policy began encouraging (and funding) strenuous efforts to improve scientific education in schools” (Brinkley, 469). This was in attempt to boost the number of highly skilled engineers and mathematicians to keep our country up to par with the Russians. In July of 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, thereby creating NASA. Von Braun continued to work, now with NASA, in creating rockets to compete against Soviet technology. Nearly four months after Sputnik I, and after several embarrassing failed attempts, the US finally succeeded in launching their own satellite, Explorer I. Even though the Americans achieved the same monumental feat as the Soviets, there would still be more obstacles to overcome as the space race took off.

Even before the launch of the Explorer I, the Soviet Union already had triumphed in another chapter of the new space age: sending a living organism into orbit around the Earth. This occurred roughly one month after the successful Sputnik I launch Sputnik II was sent into orbit, this time with a dog named Laika. Although the dog died a few hours into the flight, it was seen as another major defeat by the Russians. Over the next three years they would send up three more Sputnik satellites and would successfully launch Luna 3, a Russian moon probe which gave humans their first ever glimpse of the far side of the moon. It seemed like the United States was running out of steam in regards to being successful with the space program. In fact, President Eisenhower seemed to consider the groundbreaking launch of Explorer I not a big deal, and said that it was not a response to the tremendous Russian success.

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Performance Of The Rocket And Cold War. (April 2, 2021). Retrieved from