• Varun Rao

The Space Race: Rockets, Dogs and Cold War Superpowers

by Varun Rao, Rahul Rao and Yasir Aheer


Summary:

  • The Space Race was a key element of Cold War machinations

  • Early successes by the USSR sent shockwaves through the American public

  • The USA claimed victory when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969

  • No human has been back to the lunar surface since 1972, nearly 50 years ago

  • NASA’s Artemis program aims to achieve the first manned moon landing in nearly 50 years in 2024. Other countries, such as Russia, China and India also have ambitious space programmes.

Man’s wanderlust is a defining characteristic of our species - from the North & South Poles, to the Mariana Trench, to Mt. Everest, we explore simply because we can. Pioneers like Cook, Columbus, Amundsen and Mallory pushed the limits of human endurance further than ever before to conquer remote, inhospitable places. And nowhere is as remote or inhospitable as Space. 


Man’s fascination with Space likely began well before recorded history. How wondrous the tiny pinpricks of light in a velvet black sky must have seemed to our cavemen ancestors, and how strange the theories these early hominids must have concocted to explain the stark majesty of the night sky. The truth is bizarre enough - giant balls of hydrogen & helium undergoing nuclear fusion on a cosmic scale at unfathomable distances in a Universe that is expanding at an ever-increasing rate. As far as man’s tentative steps into the great unknown go, the most intriguing story of our Space adventure is how it started, with the Space Race.  


The rate of scientific advancement in the first half of the 20th century, particularly with respect to powered flight, is staggering, and possibly unparalleled in human history. When Neil Armstrong planted his first few steps on the Moon, there were still many people alive who had been born before the Wright brothers invented powered flight. Less than 70 years had elapsed between Man’s first flight, and landing a spaceship on a celestial body 384,0000km distant. But understanding the monumental steps that were necessary to get to this momentous occasion needs one to go back several years, to 1957 and an engineering marvel called Sputnik.


The epic of the Space Race is largely confined to two main characters - the United States of America, and the erstwhile Soviet Union - at the height of the Cold War. On Oct 4, 1957, under the leadership of Sergei Korolev, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite launched into space, a move that sent shockwaves through the American public. Less than a month later, Sputnik 2 was put into orbit, carrying a dog named Laika. She became the first living being to orbit the Earth, and sadly, a few hours or days later, to die in space. The following year saw the USA launch its first satellite and start NASA. The game was on.

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gargarin became the second Soviet cosmonaut. Gargarin was the first human in space and to orbit the earth, a considerable public relations coup for the USSR. As a measure of how closely the superpowers were matched, it is often forgotten that the Americans launched Alan Shepard into sub-orbital space a mere 23 days later (although he did not complete an orbit of Earth).

Much of what followed is attributed to two inspiring speeches by President John F. Kennedy. In 1961, he laid down the gauntlet to a session of Congress, proclaiming “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 Earth”. The following year, his address at Rice University exhorted his fellow Americans to rise to the challenge of winning the Space Race. And rise they did.

The American effort is credited in no small measure to an American-German rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun. Taken to the USA after the war ended, von Braun (at one stage, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center) headed the team of rocket scientists that played a pivotal part in the USA’s space programme; some of his former colleagues also played a similar role in the USSR, albeit with considerably less publicity. Transferred German rocket technology had a significant, possibly essential, role to play in the eventual success of the space programmes of both countries. von Braun is credited with designing and developing the Saturn V rocket that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon.

The Americans and Soviets traded many firsts in the initial few years, such as the:


  • first man-made object to leave Earth’s orbit (USSR, 1959), 

  • first weather satellite (USA, 1959), 

  • first spacecraft to reach the Moon’s surface (USSR, 1959),

  • first hominid in space (USA, 1961)

  • first woman in space(USSR, 1963), 

  • first controlled landing on the moon (USSR, 1966)

The most iconic space campaign of all was Apollo. The Apollo program began in 1961 and consisted of eleven spaceflights (six of which landed astronauts on the moon). In 1968, the Apollo 8 mission first sent astronauts to orbit the Moon, although they did not land. It was on this flight that the astronaut Bill Anders took the iconic Earthrise photograph.

Apollo 10 also orbited the Moon, but Apollo 11 was the defining moment of the Space Race, the decade, and possibly the 20th century. The spacecraft launched from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969, spent a few hours in Earth orbit, escaped Earth’s gravity and entered the Moon’s orbit. Astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin undocked the lunar module approximately 100 hours after they left the Earth’s surface, and landed on the Moon’s surface about 2 hours 45 min later. The Space Race was over. 


Subsequent Apollo missions landed another ten men on the Moon, but by the early 1970s public support for funding the space program was waning; the Apollo program cost an estimated $283 billion when adjusted for inflation.  Funding was redirected, and mankind lost the wherewithal for another Moon landing. In 1972, Gene Cernan, one of only a dozen men to have ever walked the Moon’s surface, left the last footprint. The figure below is a poignant reminder that the number of humans who have walked on another world is decreasing, and in the absence of any further programs, is projected to be zero around 2030.

(Source: xkcd.com)

However, all hope is not lost. In 2019, China achieved the first landing on the far side of the moon, a move believed to herald the beginning of a comprehensive space program. A series of moon landing missions are being planned by the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. India aims to become only the fourth country to achieve a soft lunar landing with their 2021 Chandrayaan-3 mission. NASA’s Artemis program aims to achieve the first manned moon landing in nearly 50 years in 2024.


An interesting curiosity of this era was the fading away of the Soviet space programme. No Soviet cosmonaut has ever walked on the Moon’s surface. A large part of that is attributed to the failure to successfully launch the N1 rocket, their equivalent of the Saturn V. Nevertheless, their important contribution was the first controlled landing on the Moon’s surface with the Luna 9, in 1966. Prior to this feat, scientists from both superpowers feared that the lunar surface was covered in a dusty ‘quicksand’. Luna 9 proved that the surface was solid and capable of bearing the weight of a small spacecraft. It is also sometimes forgotten that the USSR landed the first robotic lunar rover, Lunokhod 1, on the Moon’s surface. In 1974 the Soviet space programme was officially cancelled. 


Finally, although the Space Race ended many decades ago, the figure below is a reminder that we are still making remarkable technological strides. The blob of pixels on the left was the best photograph we had of Pluto in 1994. To the right, Pluto as photographed a mere 21 years later, in July 2015, on a flyby mission.

Left: Highest resolution photograph of Pluto in 1994 taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Right: Photograph of Pluto by New Horizons in 2015. (Source: NASA)

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