Space race Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The space race was a boon to the many U.S. aerospace companies that built the necessary hardware. Technical developments and discoveries made as part of the space program led to new products and markets for American consumers. Communications and weather satellites changed the nature of television broadcasting and meteorology. Money flowed to education because of a perceived technology gap, and parts of American industry benefited from space technology spin-offs.

The launching of artificial satellites as part of a study of Earth had been planned for several years by nations participating in the International Geophysical Year, which covered eighteen months in 1957 and 1958. Citizens of the United States were unprepared, however, for the Soviet Union to put the first satellite into orbit on October 4, 1957. At that time, the United States had launched an ambitious interstate highway transportation network, color television was in many homes, Jonas Salk had created a vaccine against polio, and it seemed that American science and industry were dominant in the world.Space race

Americans largely assumed that their country led the Soviet Union in all fields of technology. Sputnik’s launch came as a shock. It caused Americans to wonder what else the Soviets could achieve before the United States. The two nations had been locked in the Cold War since the end of World War II, as each had tried to limit the other’s sphere of influence in the world. Both countries had built arsenals of nuclear weapons, and the thought was inevitable that a country that could put an object in space could also deliver a nuclear bomb across an ocean.

The Race Is On

Congress reacted by passing the National Defense Education Act of 1958National Defense Education Act of 1958, authorizing more than $1 billion for a variety of educational initiatives, such as building new schools, offering financial aid for promising technology students, and supporting more classes in mathematics and physical science. Money began to flow to the educational establishment, from the childhood level through postgraduate, but mostly in the areas of science and technology.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law on July 29, 1959, an act creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, had been running on a $5 million annual budget; the NASA budget quickly grew to $5 billion, much of which went to private contractors and boosted the Aerospace industryaerospace business significantly.

Not all the members of the Eisenhower administration were displeased about Sputnik. They believed that, because the satellite passed over many countries while in orbit, its launch would preclude future Soviet objections to U.S. spy satellites passing over the Soviet Union. The same logic would help clear the way for orbiting communications and weather satellites.

The Soviets launched a second Sputnik thirty days after the first, this one carrying a living animal, a dog, on a one-way trip to provide data about the effects of space travel on living creatures. The U.S. Navy’s more sophisticated Vanguard satellite was scheduled to be launched on December 4, 1957, but it exploded two seconds after launch. It was not until February 1, 1958, that the United States successfully orbited a satellite. On December 18, 1958, a U.S. satellite broadcast a Christmas greeting by the president from space. In 1959, the Soviets launched the first space probe to impact the Moon.

On July 26, 1963, the United States put Syncom-2, the first geosynchronous satellite, into orbit. A geosynchronous satellite orbits Earth at the same speed as Earth turns, remaining in a fixed orbit over a single location on the ground. This technology led to the development of satellite television, allowing home television customers to purchase dishes that could focus on “stationary” satellites to receive television transmissions.

On April 12, 1961, Soviet major Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, when he made a single orbit of Earth and returned safely. The first American in space, Alan Shepherd, rode a spacecraft on May 5, 1961, but did not orbit. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the planet on February 20, 1962. The Shepherd and Glenn flights were among those used to develop the hardware and techniques required for a piloted Moon landing, the goal set by President John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower’s successor.

Kennedy ordered his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, to come up with a way to counter the Soviet successes in space. Johnson’s proposal was to put an American on the Moon before the end of the decade and return him safely to Earth. Kennedy publicly announced this goal in a speech before Congress on May 25, 1961.

A dramatic moment in the space race was astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s walk on the moon.


Thus, the space race, which had included launches of satellites and humans into space, settled into a Moon race for the remainder of the 1960’s. The U.S. Apollo program sent several astronaut teams into orbit around the Moon, and a successful landing was made on July 20, 1969, with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepping down from their landing craft. Five other pairs of U.S. astronauts made Moon landings after that, the last in 1972.

The program generated advances in many fields, including avionics, engineering, telecommunications, and computing. Computers went from the size of small buildings to laptops and handheld devices, thanks largely to the miniaturization necessary to limit the poundage of piloted and unpiloted space probes. Flight computers designed for the Moon landings spurred early research into integrated circuits. The fuel cell also grew out of this program, as did computer-controlled machining, later widely used in manufacturing industries. Microtechnology developed in the space program has led to business applications ranging from time-keeping to downloading music.

Spin-off Technologies

In 1962, NASA created the Technology Utilization Program, aimed at disseminating information about space technologies to the scientific community and furthering the development of commercial products in the private sector. The program was initially supported by four industrial applications centers, a number that had increased to ten by the 1980’s.

After the effort to spin off space technologies for applications in a variety of businesses and industries, NASA began issuing Technology Utilization Program reports in 1973 as part of its presentations at annual congressional budget hearings. These reports proved popular enough to generate an annual book describing the space program’s industrial and commercial spin-offs. The first volume was published in 1976. Copies were sent to private company executives, technology transfer professionals, economic decision makers, academics, and other groups. Since the book was first published in 1976, more than fifteen hundred NASA technologies have been listed as creating jobs, benefiting industry, and improving the quality of life in the nation.

Early U.S. Moon missions orbited the Moon to seek suitable landing sites for future missions. To help achieve this goal, NASA scientists developed computer-aided topography (CAT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Both technologies were adopted for medical applications and came to be used in hospitals throughout the world. CAT scans allow painless X-ray imaging, more clear than traditional X-ray imaging, of internal organs to diagnose problems ranging from cancer and cardiovascular diseases to muscle or bone trauma. MRIs also provide detailed internal images, using no radiation, to delineate the structure of the body. Other medical procedures growing out of the space program include needle breast biopsies and a type of kidney dialysis machine. Cardiovascular conditioners, made to keep astronauts fit in zero-gravity conditions, have led to the development of physical therapy devices used by athletes and medical rehabilitation centers.

Astronauts needed a way to keep food fresh on long flights, such as Moon orbits or landings. NASA’s solution to this problem was to freeze-dry the food, using a technique similar to that employed to preserve blood plasma during World War II. Freeze-dried foods would come to be found in many homes. Conventional power tools of the 1960’s were not practical for use on the Moon. There was no place to plug them in. NASA created cordless tools that relied on such power as rechargeable batteries, eventually spawning the cordless power tool industry.

Space suits had to be made of new materials to protect astronauts from the extreme hot and cold temperatures of space. These materials were later used to manufacture clothing for such groups as nuclear-reactor technicians, race car drivers, shipyard workers, and people with diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

By the early twenty-first century, more than one thousand satellites were in orbit around Earth, relaying communications, tracking vegetation, and providing climate data, among other functions. The conclusion of the space race between the two international superpowers is generally dated to July 17, 1975, when a linkup between an Apollo craft and a Soviet Soyuz craft was made as part of a joint space mission. The Soviets claimed to have won the race by placing the first man in space, and the United States made the same claim based on landing the first humans on the Moon. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States and Russia joined other nations in such space ventures as the International Space Station, where scientific research is done in a space environment.

The Hubble Space Telescope, put into orbit in 1990, is mainly known for the unprecedented clarity of its images of astronomical objects. It, too, has spun off technologies used in commercial enterprises, such as digital images of breast biopsies capable of replacing surgical biopsies as a diagnostic tool to check on tumors.

Also in 1990, Japan became the third nation to launch an unmanned flyby rocket to the Moon. Thus, the space race may be continuing, as other nations develop the technology to achieve space “firsts” and spin off still more technologies as space exploration continues.

Further Reading
  • Bizony, Piers. Space: Fifty Years of the Space Age. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 2006. Starting with Sputnik, this book gives an overview of the first fifty years of the space age and projects what might happen in space over the next fifty years.
  • Cadbury, Deborah. Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Focuses on Wernher von Braun, arguably the best-known face of the U.S. space program, and Sergei Korolev, the Soviet rocket designer who headed his country’s space program for two decades. Covers rocket research dating back to Germany’s rocket weapons in World War II and how it helped pave the way for the lunar landings.
  • Chaikin, Andrew. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. New York: Penguin, 2007. Provided the basis for the twelve-part 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, coproduced by actor Tom Hanks (who provides a foreword). Chaikin interviewed all twenty-four of the lunar astronauts and many others to compile information about the Apollo program; also touches on the earlier Mercury and Gemini programs.
  • Cooper, Henry S. F. Thirteen: The Apollo Flight That Failed. Minneapolis: Tandem Library, 1995. Shows how the people on the ground in Mission Control worked with the three Apollo 13 astronauts to bring them safely back to Earth after an accident in space that riveted world attention.
  • Dickson, Paul. Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. New York: Walker, 2007. Details the creation and launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik and the space race that resulted, including its economic, political, and social implications; provides as background a history of all the research preceding the launch.
  • Moore, Sir Patrick, and H. J. P. Arnold. Space: The First Fifty Years. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2007. Covers the space race from the first Soviet satellite through the Apollo flights to the Moon, with additional details about space stations and unmanned probes.
  • Tobias, Russell R., and David G. Fisher, eds. USA in Space. 3d ed. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2006. Comprehensive coverage of every major program, mission, craft, and center in the American space program.



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