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.

Sending Man into Space

“Our mission is to ensure that the Soviet rockets fly higher and farther than has been accomplished anywhere else up until now. Our mission is to ensure that a Soviet man be the first to fly in a rocket. And our mission is to ensure that it is Soviet rockets and Soviet spaceships that are the first to master the limitless space of the cosmos” –Sergey Korolev, leader of USSR space program

After the successful launching of Sputnik, an ambitious idea began to form in the minds of the Soviets; launching a satellite that would carry a living individual. Sergey Korolev, a mechanical engineer who was a major leader of the Soviet space program, suggested that a dog be used. The plan was to have completed preparations for the launch in time for the fortieth anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution on November 7th. The official order for the launch was issued on October 12, 1957, just eight days after the launching of Sputnik. This operation required Soviet engineers to modify the structure that was used for the fist satellite, which was called the PS-1. The modified satellite that was to be used came to be known as Simple Satellite No. 2 (PS-2).

The building of PS-2 officially began on October 10, 1957, even before the official order for the operation took place. The Soviets found it extremely important to have the launch in time for the holiday as it would have great political significance. The PS-2 was a small stubby cylindrical container for one dog. The container was equipped with systems for monitoring the life of the dog, as well as instruments for feeding the animal and supplying it with oxygen and ridding the container of carbon dioxide.

A dog named Layka was chosen for the mission and on November 3, 1957, the Soviets became the first to send a life into space. Sadly, on November 7, Layka died of heat exhaustion due to malfunctions in the spacecraft’s temperature control. The dog was never planned to return to Earth, however, Layka was initially supposed to be put to sleep by a lethal injection. Layka paved the way for the future of the Soviet and U.S. space programs (Siddiqi 172-175).

By the end of 1957, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union began making preparations for human spaceflight. In 1958, NASA initiated Project Mercury, the first man-in-space program, which consisted of three main goals, “to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth; to investigate man's ability to function in space; to recover both man and spacecraft safely” ( In April 1959, NASA selected the American armed forces to choose its first astronauts. All of which had backgrounds in aviation. It is likely that this, in fact, influenced the Soviets to choose pilots as well as their cosmonauts.

Indeed, it became a frantic race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to see who could be the first to have human presence in space. John F. Kennedy emphasized the importance of the Mercury Project during an address at Rice University in 1962:

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new, terrifying theater of war.”
It was not just a competition of technological ability, but of political superiority between Soviet socialism and American capitalism. The space race would prove to have huge impacts on the public of the two governments.

Unfortunately for the U.S. the Soviet would again add to their long list of firsts in the Space Race. On April 12, 1961, The Soviet Union sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space. Less than a month later, the U.S. sent their own into space. On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to enter space. Between 1961 and 1963, the U.S. made six successful manned flights to space.

It is interesting to note that the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the only two countries to send man into space for nearly four decades. China finally became the third nation to send one of their citizens into space on October 15, 2003. Yang Liwei orbited the Earth and safely returned a few days later as a Chinese hero. The Chinese mission had extremely close ties with its military and as a result, the operation was surrounded with secrecy. However, the launch itself was solicited to the Chinese public to boost national wide pride and to increase popular sentiment behind the communist party ( According to Chinese leaders, the launch was also to raise the profile of Chinese technology, which today is recognized as one of the worlds most advanced.
A Sprint to the Moon

"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...will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important...and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish” -John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

In March 1965, NASA began making major preparations for space travel to the moon by creating Project Gemini. Project Gemini utilized extremely sophisticated space craft. During Gemini missions, U.S. astronauts were able to conduct space walks and were able to change their orbit; something that no Soviet crew had ever accomplished. Project Gemini also consisted of astronauts spending long periods of time in space. One mission lasted 14 days; the estimated time that a lunar trip would take. The Apollo Project officially began in 1963, with many Americans and NASA engineers wondering if Kennedy’s ambitious goal could ever be accomplished. However, on July 20, 1969 America finally became a ‘first’ in the long space race with the Soviets. On that glorious day for America, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin of Apollo 11 became the first humans to step foot on the moon. Americans understood this to be a huge victory over the Soviet Union and over socialism.

It is now understood that placing an American on the moon was a key maneuver in John F. Kennedy’s Cold War strategy. Kennedy gave NASA programs top priority and many times the Kennedy administration implied that Eisenhower had not done nearly enough during the rapid technological advancement of the Soviets before and during the launching of Sputnik. During his administration, Kennedy found it to be extremely important to prevent the Soviets from getting to the moon first and from governing it with “a hostile flag of conquest,” but rather wanted America to be the first so that it could place on the moon a “banner of freedom and peace.” Kennedy’s assignation gave the mission an aura of sacredness and President Johnson pushed for its completion in the name of the past president (Koman).

The Soviets never landed a man on the moon, although they were successful in landing a series of rovers for which they used to explore the lunar surface. During the moon race, the Soviet engineers built the Soyuz spacecraft, which was very similar to the Apollo. The Soyuz soon became a major interest to NASA. Interestingly, after America’s major victory in the space race, U.S. – Soviet tensions began to decrease, eventually to the point when the two countries joined together for the Apollo-Soyuz test project in 1975.

U.S – Soviet/Russian Cooperation

The Apollo-Soyuz test project, which consisted of the American Apollo spacecraft docking to the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in orbit, was the first international cooperation in regards to space exploration. It would become a huge milestone in technological development as it showed that political adversaries could work together to conduct a complex space project. The mission also epitomized what President Nixon labeled as “detente.” Each country did, however, have its own intentions.

The Apollo-Soyuz test project had its roots in 1970, just one year after Apollo landed on the moon, when representatives for NASA and the USSR Academy of Science met in Moscow to discuss a possible joint piloted space mission. Two years later, President Nixon and Soviet Council of Ministers Chairman Alexey N. Kosygin signed the document that ordered the Apollo-Soyuz project to take place.

The Apollo project was soon to come to an end to make way for NASA’s new Space Shuttle program and the U.S. saw that cooperation with the Soviet engineers would provide a valuable amount of previously unavailable information. For the Soviets, on the other hand, such a mission was thought to be a great means to boost their public relations. The Soviets were able to show that they were on the same technological level as the U.S. which would be extremely helpful after losing the race to the moon (Rumerman).

During the project, the U.S. remained extremely open about the space program, unlike the Soviets who kept the details of the mission secret from the USSR public. This was most likely because of the Soviet space program’s close links to the military. The Soviets often referred to the USSR Academy of Sciences when discussing the Apollo-Soyuz test project to give the impression that it was run by the Academy rather than the RKK Energia, the true company that built the Soyuz spacecraft and worked for the Soviet Military (Rumerman).

Because of the difference is the countries’ spacecraft structure, American and Soviet engineers had to work to modify each. They also constructed the Docking Module, the docking system which was carried into orbit by the Apollo. This module would later become the foundation for the standard international docking system used today.

On July 17, 1975, two days after Soyuz 19 was launched from Baikonur and the Apollo was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, the two spacecrafts came into contact and carried out a successful docking. Cosmonaut Leonov reported to Earth, “Soyuz and Apollo are shaking hands now,” a phrase that undoubtedly contained political significance (Rumerman).

The Apollo-Soyuz test project set the stage for future technological relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The U.S. began the Space Shuttle program with the hopes of building a reusable winged spacecraft that would be able to deliver resources to orbiting laboratories and space stations. Although this program began in 1972, instituted by President Nixon, the first space shuttle, Columbia, didn’t launch until 1981. Within this time frame, the Soviets worked to develop and upgrade the Soyuz and in 1986, they used the Soyuz to begin building space station Mir.

A year after the fall of the Soviet Union, President George H.W. Bush and Russian President Yeltsin announced new space exploration plans; flying an astronaut the Mir space station. Two years later, President Clinton expanded U.S. – Relations by inviting Russia into the building of the International Space Station (ISS), along with Europe, Canada, and Japan. The building of the ISS utilized Mir. Building the ISS also required Russia to adhere to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) which “sought to stop the proliferation of missile technology.” The MTCR objected to a contract that Russia had with India that consisted of Russia giving India advanced rocket engines, technology, and information. The U.S. required Russia to reformat the contract, and Russia claimed that do so would cost 400 million dollars. The U.S. agreed to pay Russia 400 million dollars for their cooperation in the ISS while Russia agreed to restructure the contract with India to abide by the MTCR ( U.S. Government).

Currently, the progress of the ISS is in great jeopardy. The 2003 Columbia disaster in which 7 crewmembers were killed when the space craft exploded caused the grounding of the U.S. Space Shuttle program. With the grounding of the Shuttle, the U.S. has become dependent on the Russian Soyuz and other Russian transport capabilities. Unfortunately, after April of 2006, the U.S. will no longer be able to pay for ISS programmed flights on the Soyuz because of the Iran Non-Proliferation Act (INA) (The Economist). Enacted in 2000, the INA was constructed to stop

“foreign transfers to Iran of weapons of mass destruction, missile technology, and advanced convention weapons, particularly from Russia. Section 6 of the INA bans U.S. payments to Russia in connection with the ISS unless the U.S. President determines that Russia is taking steps to prevent such proliferation” (CRS Report).

At this time it appears unlikely that President Bush will determine that Russia is complying with the INA; Iran’s nuclear program is a very urgent concern at the present. At this point in time, the only way to ensure future U.S. access to the ISS is for the U.S. to have a spacecraft to reach the ISS. Since the Columbia disaster, NASA has spent over a billion dollars upgrading the Space Shuttle. However, when the Shuttle will fly again is still to be determined, if, in fact, it will ever fly again (Preston).

Currently, the U.S. does indeed have ambitious goals for the future of its space program. In 2004, Bush announced that he wanted to see the U.S. return to the moon by 2015, which would act as a stepping stone to Mars;

"In the past 30 years, no human being has set foot on another world or ventured farther up into space than 386 miles…It is time for America to take the next steps…the desire to explore and understand is part of our character."

Such goals will require the U.S. to have access to a space station to conduct proper necessary research.

Last month, NASA was handed over to the leadership of Michael Griffin, the new Administrator of NASA. Griffin was nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the United States Senate. As the holder of over nine degrees, Griffin seems more than capable of leading NASA. Like Bush, Griffin holds the same plans for returning to the moon as an eventual means of reaching Mars. Whether or not this project will include Russia depends much on the current relations we have with Russia and with the INA. NASA has cooperated with Russia very much on possible Mars exploration missions and recent collaboration has centered on the Russian High Energy Neutron Detector instrument.

Space exploration technology has progressed rapidly within the last few decades. U.S. – Russian competition and cooperation has impacted the world in ways that were thought impossible a century ago. It will be extremely interesting to see how these countries continue to change the course of space technology in the next few decades.

1Siddiqi, Asif A. Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge. Miami: University Press of Florida, 2003.
Siddiqi, Asif A. The Soviet Space Race with Apollo. Miami: University Press of Florida, 2003.
Siddiqi, Asif A. “The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.” 20 May, 2005.
U.S. Government, Committee on Space and Aeronautics and the House of Representatives. Hearing: U.S. – Russian Cooperation in Space. Serial No. 108-25. First Hearing, June 11, 2003.
Squassoni, Sharon and Marcia S. Smith. “CRS Report for Congress: The Iran Nonproliferation Act and the International Space Station: Issues and Options. March 2, 2005.
Pifer, Steven, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs. “The U.S. and Russia: Space Cooperation and Export Controls.” Testimony Before the House Science Committee, Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. June 11, 2003.
Larry Wheeler. “NASA May Partially Abandon Space Station.” Florida Today. May 20, 2005.
Preston Lerner. “NASA’s Fixer-Upper Flies Again.” Popular Science. May 2005: 63-64.
“No Plan B for Outer Space.” The 20 May. 2005 http://www.economist .com/sciences/dispalystory.cfm?story_id=3738885.
Lane, Earl. “Bush: Moon Return by 2015.” 17 May. 2005. http://www.,0,4190003. story?coll =ny-nationalnews-headlines

Scott, David. Two Sides of The Moon. New York: Simon and Shuster, 2004.

Rumerman, Judy. “Space Shuttle.” 10 May, 2005. http://www.centennialofflight .gov/essay/ SPACEFLIGHT/Shuttle/ SP25.htm.

“China's first manned spacecraft has successfully returned to the Earth with astronaut Yang Liwei in good health, according to Chinese news agency reports” 12 May. 2005. /2003/TECH/space /10/15/china.launch/.

Koman, Rita G. “Man on the Moon: The U.S. Space Program as a Cold War Maneuver.” 15 May. 2005. /magazine/coldwar/koman.html


Image of Space Walk:

Image of Layka:

Image of A-4 missile: kapyar_a4_erect_2.jpg

Image of Sputnik: telehistory/sputnik.html

Image of Explorer: rocket/explorer.gif

Image of Yang Liwei: /2003/TECH/space /10/15/china.launch/.

Image of Apollo-Soyuz Test Project: space/images5/9.jpg

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