The Space Race: The Cold War rivalry that put humans on the Moon

World War II was over, but the dust had barely settled from mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki before new hostilities were brewing. The US and the Soviet Union, once allies united against Nazi Germany, were now enemies. Their new battlefield, writes science journalist, space historian and author Piers Bizony, was the final frontier

Launch of the Apollo 16 mission, 1972. ((Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

During the Cold War, the only thing that prevented nuclear Armageddon was, ironically, the power of the weapons involved. The advancements in arms – from the first ballistic missile, the V2, developed by the Nazis, to nuclear bombs – made it far too dangerous to fight. The threat of mutual destruction kept a fragile peace, while the arms race made nuclear weapons ever more dangerous.

Advertisement

However, there was another way to boast technological prowess without bloodshed. And so both the US and USSR set their sights on the stars, and started a new race for supremacy in space. It would cost billions, employ thousands and put humankind on the Moon.

1

The build up

Soviet Russia launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, on 4 October 1957. The craft itself was little more than a simple metal sphere with a radio bleeper. But in the West, concerns sprang up over the ‘R-7’ launch vehicle, the primary function of which was to serve as the first intercontinental ballistic missile. Potentially, it could be used to slam massive nuclear warheads into the US’s heartland.

US President Dwight Eisenhower knew (through secret reconnaissance missions) that Soviet claims about their missile capacity were exaggerated, and he thought the US had a decisive military advantage. But the pressure to catch up grew impossible to resist. Eisenhower’s successor, John F Kennedy, was embarrassed when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made the first human spaceflight on 12 April 1961, again launched by an R-7.

Little more than a month after Yuri Gagarin's spaceflight, John F Kennedy announces the US’s intention to reach for the Moon (Photo by NASA)
Little more than a month after Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight, John F Kennedy announces the US’s intention to reach for the Moon (Photo by NASA)

On 25 May, Kennedy made one of the most famous speeches in history: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

John Logsdon, former Head of the Space Policy Institute in Washington, DC, raises a fascinating idea. “The Russians only beat America [to putting a human in space] by three weeks. NASA’s Alan Shepard was supposed to go first, in a Mercury capsule … His flight should have happened in March, but a previous test on 31 January had a chimpanzee called Ham on board. The braking rockets fired late, sending Ham more than a hundred miles down range of the correct splashdown zone, and it took several hours to recover him. That made for one very unhappy chimpanzee, by the way.”

The problem was easy to fix, but NASA wanted to run another unmanned test before committing an astronaut. “So we have an interesting question,” says Logsdon. “What would have happened if Gagarin had been second into space? If it hadn’t been for that three weeks’ difference, I think history would have worked out differently. Kennedy might never have felt the need to reach for the Moon.”

The Main Players

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev

Born in 1907 in the Ukraine, Korolev was imprisoned for most of the war. While still in jail, in 1940 he was put to work on the USSR’s rocket effort. He headed the ‘Raketa-7’ (R-7) design team. Some elements are still built today for Soyuz capsule missions.

Wernher von Braun

Born in 1912 in Germany, von Braun created the V-2 missile for the Nazis before gradually being assimilated into the US’s space programme in the late fifties. Much admired despite his highly awkward past, von Braun led the development of the Saturn V rocket for Apollo.

James Edwin Webb

NASA administrator Jim Webb, a brash, outspoken technocrat from North Carolina, ran the vast lunar landing programme project from day to day, keeping Apollo on track throughout the sixties development phase, and protecting his teams from political interference.

Lyndon Baines Johnson

The US Vice President persuaded Kennedy – who knew next to nothing about rockets – that a lunar-landing programme would outpace Soviet achievements while boosting the US’s industrial and educational sectors.

Nikita Khrushchev

Soviet leader Khrushchev saw a space programme as a way of enhancing the USSR’s international prestige. Early orbital exploits made the Soviet Union look stronger than it really was. “We are turning out missiles like sausages!” he once boasted. This was completely untrue.


2

Early days

During the sixties, as the Soviets and the Americans began to take seriously the idea of going to the Moon, it opened up a period of problem solving for both nations. Before anything else, space agencies had to be established, astronauts and cosmonauts recruited, and lunar-landing plans hatched.

The two countries could not have chosen more different paths. While the US spent time building a long-term space strategy, the Soviets jumped straight in with a propaganda campaign that presented their progress to the world in an incredibly flattering light. Early on in the contest, the Soviets stormed ahead, making key advancements, which left the Yanks looking like they had lots of catching up to do.

Meanwhile, the Americans – who to the outside world appeared to be dragging behind – felt the pressure, but largely kept their heads down with their own Moon-landing game plan. Much like the tortoise and the hare, America’s slow-and-steady approach would ultimately pay off.

The people selected to go into space carried their nation’s expectations on their shoulders. Behind the Iron Curtain, this burden was felt more intensely.

Yuri Gagarin, a pilot in the Soviet Air Force, was chosen for the Sochi Six in 1960. The elite group were put through a rigmarole of tests and drilled using the equipment until it was second nature. Gagarin had the edge: he was in excellent shape and, at 5’2’’, he could fit in the small cockpit of the Vostok crafts. Gagarin became the first human to leave Earth’s atmosphere on 12 April 1961.

Whereas Gagarin was a military hero, Valentina Tereshkova was a civilian triumph. She had no pilot training when she volunteered in 1961. The Soviets were keen to put a woman in space and, on 16 June 1963, they did.

Valentina Tereshkova orbited Earth 48 times over almost three days in June 1963 (Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Valentina Tereshkova orbited Earth 48 times over almost three days in June 1963 (Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Yet another first was achieved by pilot-turned-cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. On 18 March 1965, while in orbit with Voskhod 2, he performed the first extra-vehicular activity – a space walk. He had spent 18 months enduring regular weightlessness training for the exercise.

The first seven astronauts selected for NASA’s cramped and basic one-man Mercury capsule were more payloads than pilots. Their main job was simply to survive their flights, with few piloting skills required.

The astronauts recruited for NASA’s next mission, Apollo, however, were selected for academic as well as physical abilities. Their training included star navigation, basic computing and, of course, how to operate the hundreds of switches and controls for the complex Apollo vehicles.

There was no escape from the rigours of traditional astronaut training. These included long spells in isolation chambers, gruelling sessions in centrifuge machines, and extensive medical tests for fitness. All astronauts were required to keep up their flying skills in two-seat Northrop T-38 training jets, which they used as personal transport between different NASA centres. Additionally, those selected for Moon walks explored various terrains on Earth, learning the basics of geology and rock formation.

Galactic firsts: Records broken en route to the Moon

The first satellites

On 4 October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world’s first space satellite. Eight weeks later, the US Navy tried to launch a slender rocket called Vanguard, with a small satellite on board. It exploded on the launchpad on 6 December. Newspapers called it ‘Flopnik’ and ‘Kaputnik’.

At last, on 31 January 1958, after Wernher von Braun had solved the problem, America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, successfully launched using a rocket called Juno. Instruments on board made important discoveries about radiation belts surrounding the Earth.

The first spaceship

Vostok, the first manned spacecraft, consisted of a ball-shaped crew module for one cosmonaut – fighter pilot Yuri Gagarin. A conical section at the rear contained oxygen tanks and braking rockets. The carrier vehicle was a converted R-7 missile, designed by Sergei Korolev.

The secret launch site was near Baikonur in Kazakhstan, at that time under Soviet control. Unlike American capsules, Vostok did not splash down in the sea, in case ‘hostile’ ships reached the recovery area first. Gagarin ejected at high altitude while securely over Soviet territory, then parachuted to the ground.

The first space walks

The USSR’s Voskhod II craft took off on 18 March 1965 carrying cosmonauts Pavel Belyayev and Alexei Leonov. Once in orbit, Leonov squeezed into a tiny airlock and pushed himself outside. He enjoyed the sensation of drifting, but before he could fit back into the airlock, he had to release some of the air from his suit, which had ballooned in the vacuum.

In June that year, Ed White made the first US space walk from the Gemini 4 spacecraft, while commander Jim McDivitt stayed aboard. White floated outside the capsule for half an hour, connected only by a thin umbilical cord.

The first space rendezvous?

In August 1962, cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev was launched in a Vostok capsule. The next day, Pavel Popovich went up in another. For the first time, two people were in space simultaneously, in different ships.

The Soviets timed the launches so that the second Vostok would come within 4.5 miles of the first. Did the Soviets make the first space rendezvous? They would have us believe so. However, NASA insisted this was a trick, and that Gemini was the first spaceship genuinely capable of making a rendezvous, because it could adjust its orbit while in space.


3

Disaster strikes

With the decade wearing on, and Kennedy’s deadline approaching, the pressure was on to reach the Moon. But amid the haste, tragedies struck on both continents. As the agencies mourned, they were forced to rethink their strategies.

On 27 January 1967, the first Apollo crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, died during training. A spark ignited in the practice capsule, and grew rapidly because of the oxygen-rich air inside the craft. Apollo’s bid was delayed by a year while modifications were made.

The Apollo 1 crew run through exercises in a practice module – the tragic fire would take place during a similar training session (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
The Apollo 1 crew run through exercises in a practice module – the tragic fire would take place during a similar training session (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

The Soviets’ first Soyuz spacecraft was launched on 23 April that year, with Vladimir Komarov aboard. After one day, he aborted the mission because of technical faults. His parachute failed, and he was killed when he and his wayward ship hit the ground like a meteorite.

After all-but shutting down the Apollo programme for nearly a year, when NASA was ready to resume its missions, the Americans found themselves disadvantaged yet again. The Soviets had not only restarted their programme more quickly, they had also increased their propaganda campaign, convincing the world they were ready for their moonshot. In fact, they were far from it.

Not knowing this, and fearing an imminent Soviet launch, the Americans cautiously quickened their pace. On 21 December 1968, NASA finally took the lead, sending Apollo 8 into the Moon’s orbit. Just seven months later, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would land on the Moon.

4

Why America won

When Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the Moon on 21 July 1969 – arguably history’s most iconic moment – it was clear to the Soviet Union, and the world at large, that the US had won the Space Race. But it hadn’t always looked that way. The Soviets had seemed dominant, collecting plenty of ‘firsts’ of their own. So what were the crucial differences that won out?

A positive environment

Soviet space personnel worked in a strict hierarchy. Senior figures expected total obedience from lower ranks. If machines failed, people often got the blame. Fear of punishment created an atmosphere in which serious technical problems could not be discussed in an open manner. Korolev was a good boss, but even he was frustrated by the culture in which he operated. Propaganda and wishful thinking imposed unrealistic expectations on his team and his rocket programme. Whereas NASA encouraged lone voices to warn of technical flaws, and made sure that junior staffers reported often, and candidly, to their managers, without worrying about their jobs.

Focused management

Perhaps the Soviets’ greatest problem was a lack of focus. Two lunar schemes divided resources. Korolev insisted that his rocket, the N-1, could reach the Moon in a single launch, while rival engineer Vladimir Chelomei proposed that his smaller rocket, the Proton, should send separate modules into orbit, where they would dock before heading for the Moon. Then, in 1966, Korolev’s death weakened the USSR’s space effort even further. In contrast, NASA chief James Webb insisted on one method only, and ensured absolute focus on that design, known as Project Apollo.

Sergei Korolev was the backbone of the Soviet Union’s space efforts. When he died, the Soviet space programme faltered (Photo by Getty Images)
Sergei Korolev was the backbone of the Soviet Union’s space efforts. When he died, the Soviet space programme faltered (Photo by Getty Images)

Superior fuel

Supercold liquid hydrogen is the lightest and most efficient fuel, but it is exceptionally volatile and difficult to store. NASA’s welding techniques for the Saturn V’s fuel tanks and engines were extremely precise. The Soviets could not match this. Liquid hydrogen shattered their weak welds. Even the great Korolev did not know how to tame hydrogen. Soviet rocketeers never came close to matching the power of the Saturn, with its lightweight hydrogen-fuelled upper stages.

Sophisticated electronics

The Soviet Union did not possess the miniaturised computing power demanded by a deep space mission. NASA undoubtedly benefited from American electronics expertise. However, this does not mean that a manned lunar landing would have been totally impossible. An unmanned wheeled Soviet lunar rover called Lunokhod was successfully landed in November 1970. Its designers boasted that small robotic vehicles could explore the Moon at far lower cost than NASA’s Apollo. Meanwhile, the Kremlin hid from the world the vast expenses of its failed attempts to match Apollo.

Greater finances

In the fifties and early sixties, the US was at the peak of its power and wealth. Europe and Japan were recovering from World War II. At first, NASA benefited from this mood of optimism, but by the late sixties, social unrest was prevalent, and the escalating war in Vietnam absorbed national resources. An oil-and-energy crisis in the seventies strained finances further. NASA won the sixties Space Race, but afterwards struggled to maintain momentum.

5

Deep impact

More than 45 years have passed since the last Apollo Moon missions. Contrary to expectations of the time, we don’t all have spaceships in the garage, and only a few of us can even get into orbit, let alone to Mars.

For a few years, the world went space mad. Astro adventures dominated TV and silver screens, while galactic toys flooded the market. Barbie became an astronaut in 1965, as did action figure Major Matt Mason in 1966. Thunderbirds (1965) and Star Trek (1966) thrilled both young and old.

There were even cereals and sweets – Galaxy chocolate and sherbert flying saucers both appeared in the sixties. Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), confidently predicted a giant orbiting hotel and an underground city on the Moon, accommodating hundreds of people.

The Apollo 8 crew were the first people to witness the Earth rise over the Moon (Photo by NASA)
The Apollo 8 crew were the first people to witness the Earth rise over the Moon (Photo by NASA)

In fact, the Space Race had less of a dramatic impact on society than we might have expected. But there are day-to-day influences in our culture. They are just more subtle, often invisible, such as TV satellites and global navigation beacons.

Even so, the photos of the Earth rising above the lunar landscape, taken by the early Apollo astronauts, still have a profound effect. The simple, stark images illustrate the fragility of our planet as it drifts through the cold and lonely expanse of infinite space.

Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, of Apollo 8, were the first to escape our planet’s gravity and orbit another celestial body, on Christmas Eve 1968. Anders said afterwards, “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

Thanks, NASA: The Apollo programme’s greatest spin-offs

Microchips

This spin-off was probably the smallest in size, yet it changed the world. NASA injected cash into microchips at a time when few others did. Accelerated microchip development alone made Apollo financially worthwhile.

Computing advancements

Apollo’s computer was a genius by sixties’ standards. It worked with various systems, telescopes and radar devices and mediated between the astronauts and the thrusters and engines that drove the ship.

Autopilot

To land on the Moon, super-human flying skills were needed. Enter the Apollo Guidance Computer, which interpreted Armstrong’s commands, and adjusted the engine’s position every tenth of a second.

Advertisement

This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Revealed