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The Space Race Previous Next
Digital History ID 3426


In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. The 184-pound, 22.5-inch sphere orbited the earth once every 96 minutes. Sputnik transmitted radio signals for 21 days and later burned up in the earth's atmosphere. A second Sputnik, launched in November 1957, carried a dog named Laika. This satellite weighed a thousand pounds.

In December, the United States made its first attempt at a satellite launch. A Navy Vanguard rocket, carrying a payload only one-fortieth the size of Sputnik, lifted a few feet off of its launch pad before falling back to earth. It exploded in a ball or orange flames and black smoke. Premier Khrushchev boasted that "America sleeps under a Soviet moon." Because Sputnik was launched on an intercontinental ballistic missile, Soviet leaders cited it as proof that they could deliver hydrogen bombs at will.

Sputnik's launch meant that the Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the United States would take place, not only on earth, but also in outer space. Americans, who thought of themselves as the world's technology pacesetters, felt vulnerable; a sensation that was reinforced in 1959, when the Soviet Union fired the first rockets to circle the moon and brought back pictures of its dark side. In April 1961, the Soviets launched the first manned spaceship into orbit, piloted by 27-year-old Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. In 1966, the Soviets were the first to land an unmanned vehicle on the moon.

Sputnik led Congress to pass a series of massive federal aid-to-education measures. Science became a priority in schools and universities. Soviet space successes led President John F. Kennedy to tell a joint session of Congress in May 1961 that the United States would land a man on the moon and bring him home by the end of the 1960s.

The U.S. space program passed through several stages. There were six one-man flights in the Mercury program, which expanded from suborbital flights to an orbital mission that lasted more than 34 hours. The Gemini program followed with ten two-man flights, including the first spacewalk and the rendezvous and docking of two spacecraft. One mission lasted 14 days.

Then disaster struck. In January 1967, a fire destroyed a prototype command module, killing the crew of Apollo 1. Four manned flights in late 1968 and early 1969 paved the way for a historic launch of Apollo 11. The launch was witnessed by a million people assembled along Florida's beaches.

At 4:17 p.m. Eastern time, July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong announced: "Houston...the Eagle has landed." The landing vehicle had less than a minutes worth of fuel remaining. The astronauts spent only two-and-a-half hours walking on the lunar surface.

Eight years after President Kennedy had called on the United States to land a man on the moon, the mission had been successfully accomplished. A total of 400,000 American employees from 20,000 companies had worked directly on the Apollo program. The cost was $25 billion.

Today, more than half of all Americans are too young to remember that historic mission. At the Johnson Space Center in Houston, a Saturn V rocket--bigger than a 40-story building--lies on the ground. It is not a mockup. It was intended to carry Apollo 18 to the moon. But due to budget cutbacks, the mission was never carried out.

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