The Space Race: The U. S – Soviet/ Russian Relationship in Regards to Space Exploration

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Michael Garcia

Ethics of Dev. In a Global Environment

May 30, 2005

Professor Lusignan

The Space Race:

The U.S – Soviet/ Russian Relationship in Regards to Space Exploration

Throughout history, technology has played a crucial role in international relations. The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1950’s and 60’s is indeed a major landmark in the history of technological feats accomplished by man. To historically understand of the significance of this race, it is important to not only look at the events that transpired during these years but to also examine what motivated each of these world powers to take part of such a competition. Significantly, the events that took place during this time have shaped current U.S. and Russian involvement in space exploration and these current involvements also deserve our attention.

The Origins of the Space Race

What motivated the U.S. and the Soviet Union to spend countless dollars and resources in an attempt to reach the moon? To answer this question, we must first look at the true origins of the “space race.” Interestingly, it was neither the Soviet Union nor the U.S., but rather the German military that began and led the advancement of rocket technology during World War II.

At the end of the war, all of the major allied powers began to investigate and exploit the advances in German missile technology. Nordhausen, a major German rocketry center for the A-4 missile program, became a prime target of the Soviets. However, when they reached Nordhausen to obtain crucial rocketry information, they found that the German engineers working on the A-4 program had already willingly surrendered to the U.S. Army. Within days of the surrender, parts for at least 100 A-4 missiles were shipped into the U.S. zone from Nordhausen along with crucial rocket technology documentation ( In response to the Americans swift takeover of Germany’s rocketry technology, Stalin was reported saying:

This is absolutely intolerable. We defeated the Nazi armies; we occupied Berlin and Peenermunde; but the Americans got the rocket engineers. What could be more revolting and more inexcusable? How and why was this allowed to happen? (Siddiqi 24)

Such a victory by the U.S. boosted its advancement in missile and rocket technology. However, this loss by the Soviet Union did not seem to hinder their progression in rocketry. By 1948, the Soviets were able to reach a level of technological ability equivalent to the wartime German accomplishments. During this time, the Soviets not only focused on missiles, but also on researching artificial satellites and launch vehicles. The progress that the Soviets made between the years of 1949 and 1953 was quite remarkable. By 1953, the “Soviets had almost completely left behind the German antecedents of the missile program and moved into the realm of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development, effectively laying the foundation for the birth of the Soviet space program” (Siddiqi 69).

Meanwhile on the American side, in 1950, a U.S. Army team stationed in Huntsville, Alabama began work on developing a series a Redstone rockets. These rockets were tested at Cape Canaveral Air Force base. During this time, work was also being done to complete the Atlas, the first U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (Koman). However, despite all the American progress that was taking place, the Soviets were not only pulling ahead in rocketry progress, they were also broadening the “missile gap.”

By 1954, the Soviets successfully tested an H-bomb and were mass producing a medium-range ballistic missile, the SS-3. Within the next three years, the Soviet Union was able to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile that had a range of over five thousand miles. The U.S. officials were stunned by the rate at which the Soviets were able to advance their rocket technology. However, the American public did not fully realize the technological successes of the Soviets until the launching of Sputnik (Koman). The launching of this artificial satellite fueled a major fear of the United States that it was quickly falling behind the Soviets in what would quickly become known as the “space race” (
Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age

On October 4, 1957, the launching of Sputnik changed the course of history. For the first time, man had been able to overcome the bounds of Earth and break free from this planets atmosphere and send their handiwork into space. With this great soviet accomplishment came heavy social, political, and military implications for the U.S. and for the world.

The Soviet satellite served as a distinct milestone; it moved the Cold War into a new phase – one characterized by the very real possibility of Soviet dominance in the new arena of space, and thus by extension, on Earth. With only a ball of metal, the Soviets had managed to achieve what they were unable to convey with decades of rhetoric on the virtues of socialism: that the USSR was a power with which to be reckoned” (Siddiqi 171).

sputnik indeed had its roots in military technology. The artificial space satellite was launched with the same rocket engine as the intercontinental ballistic missile SS-3, a demonstration of the power of the Soviet military. For much of the American public, the Soviet’s ability to launch satellites into orbit translated into the Soviet’s capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear bombs from Europe to the United States. Senator Lyndon Johnson was quoted saying; “Soon, they will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses” (

The Soviets success could also easily be heard and seen by the world by looking into the heavens. The satellite was a small sphere, about two feet across with long “whiskers pointing out from one side, and although it was only 184 pounds, it carried radio transmitters to allow the world to hear its powerful and recognizable “beeps.” Its rocket booster, which weighed nearly four tons, also reached orbit and could easily be seen from Earth. The satellite was also successful in obtaining valuable information about the densities of the upper layers of the atmosphere and the propagation of radio signals in the ionosphere. (

Interestingly, in 1957, there was actually no set out Soviet space program governing body nor were there any long-range goals, no financial planning, and no agenda. This lack of total Soviet space program structure lasted for a few years. However, massive amounts of propaganda produced by Soviet officials suggested otherwise to the U.S.S.R public, “hailing the glorious benefits of a nationwide effort” (Siddiqi 171).

Nevertheless, the launching of Sputnik called for immediate action in the U.S. By January of 1958, the U.S. launched its own artificial satellite, Explorer 1, after a failure of an initial launch in December of 1957. Explorer 1 indeed had its successes for the U.S. The U.S. satellite led to the first scientific discovery of the space race. It showed that the Earth was surrounded by heavy bands of radiation that would be named Van Allen named after James A. Van Allen, the director of the operation.

The launch of Sputnik also directly led to the proposal of America’s own space program. The creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was proposed in the National Aeronautics and Space Act, commonly called the “Space Act” ( The proposal stated:

The Congress declares that the general welfare and security of the United States require that adequate provision be made for aeronautical and space activities. The Congress further declares that such activities shall be the responsibility of, and shall be directed by, a civilian agency exercising control over aeronautical and space activities sponsored by the United States, except that activities peculiar to or primarily associated with the development of weapons systems, military operations, or the defense of the United States (including the research and development necessary to make effective provision for the defense of the United States) shall be the responsibility of, and shall be directed by, the Department of Defense. (National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958).

The congress approved the Space Act and it was signed by President Eisenhower on July 29th, 1958. As a result, NASA was officially created on October 1st, 1958.

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