During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union engaged a competition to see who had the best technology in space. This included such events as who could put the first manned spacecraft into orbit and who would be the first to walk on the Moon. The Space Race was considered important because it showed the world which country had the best science, technology, and economic system.
The Race Begins
After World War II both the United States and the Soviet Union realized how important rocket research would be to the military. They each recruited the top rocket scientists from Germany to help with their research. Soon both sides were making progress in rocket technology.
The Space Race began in 1955 when both countries announced that they would soon be launching satellites into orbit. The Soviets took the US announcement as a challenge and even established a commission whose goal was to beat the US in putting a satellite into space.
On October 4, 1957 the Russians placed the first successful satellite into orbit. It was called Sputnik I. The Russians had taken the lead in the Space Race. The Americans successfully launched their first satellite four months later called the Explorer I.
The First Man in Orbit
The Soviets again won the race for putting the first man into space. On April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin was the first man to orbit the Earth in the spacecraft Vostok I. Three weeks later the US launched the Freedom 7 and astronaut Alan Shepherd became the first American in space. Shepherd's craft did not orbit the Earth, however. It was nearly a year later on February 20, 1962 when the first American, John Glenn, orbited the Earth on the Friendship 7 spacecraft.
Race to the Moon
The Americans were embarrassed at being behind the Space Race. In 1961 President Kennedy went to congress and announced that he wanted to be the first to put a man on the Moon. He felt this was important for the country and the western world. The Apollo Moon program was launched.
The Gemini Program
In conjunction with the Apollo program the US launched the Gemini program which would develop technology for use on the Apollo spacecraft. Under the Gemini program the Americans learned how to change the orbit of a spacecraft, spent significant time in orbit to learn how the human body would be affected, brought two spacecraft together in a rendezvous in space, and also went on the first space walks outside of a space craft.
Man on the Moon
After many years of experiments, test flights, and training the Apollo 11 spacecraft was launched into space on July 16, 1969. The crew included astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. The trip to the Moon took three days.
Upon arriving Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin moved to the Lunar module, called the Eagle, and began their descent to the Moon. There were some malfunctions and Armstrong had to land the module manually. On July 20, 1969 the Eagle landed on the Moon. Neil Armstrong stepped outside and became the first man to walk on the Moon. With his first step on the Moon, Armstrong said "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind".
The End of the Space Race
With the Gemini and Apollo programs the US had taken a huge lead in the Space Race. In July of 1975 with relations between the US and the Soviet Union beginning to thaw, the first US-Soviet joint mission occurred with the Apollo-Soyez project. The Space Race was effectively over.
Interesting Facts About the Space Race
The Russians called their space pilots cosmonauts meaning "sailors of the universe". The Americans were called astronauts meaning "star sailors".
Before Kennedy was assassinated, the Russians and the Americans were discussing working together to put a man on the Moon. After he was killed, the Russians backed off the joint venture.
The US would likely have had the first satellite in orbit if they had been allowed to use military rockets from the start. However, Eisenhower was worried he would be called a warmonger if he used military rockets for space. He told the scientists they must use research rockets instead.
The Space Race was not a long series of successes. Both sides had plenty of failures including crashes and explosions that resulted in the death of several astronauts.