The Cold War & Space Race Era
By Tom Irvine
This page was last updated on: February 3, 2006
Early Rocket History
Rockets have been around for hundreds of years. The Chinese
used rockets as a battlefield weapon in 1232 CE. These rockets
were described as "arrows of flying fire." The British
fired rockets against Ft. McHenry in the War of 1812, inspiring
Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner"
with its lyrics about "The rockets' red glare."
A Russian school teacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, developed
the basic theory of rocket propulsion. In 1903, he wrote an article
called "The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Reactive Propulsion
Apparatuses." He developed a design for a manned, tear-drop-shaped
spacecraft in later writings. His design included garden plants
to replenish oxygen. Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propelled
On March 16, 1926, Robert Goddard launched the world's first
successful liquid-propelled rocket in Massachusetts. The fuel
was liquid oxygen and gasoline. The rocket reached an altitude
of 41 feet. Goddard continue rocket experiments in Roswell, New
Wernher von Braun
German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun designed V-2 rockets during World War II. Liquid oxygen and an ethyl alcohol-water mixture fueled the V-2. The first operational V-2 was fired against Paris on September 6, 1944.
Hiroshima & Nagasaki
The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan
on August 6, 1945.
Another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.
Japan surrendered on September 6, 1945.
The deployment of the atomic bomb created an "arms race" between the United States and the Soviet Union, which became known as the "Cold War."
World War II Aftermath
After the war, both the Soviet Union and the United States continued rocket development. Both had captured German engineers and rocket assets at the end of World War II. Wernher von Braun came to the United States to continue his work. Some of his V-2 rockets were tested at White Sands, New Mexico.
On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested its first atomic bomb.
The next challenge for each nation was to develop an Intercontinental
Ballistic Missile (ICBM) which could deliver a nuclear weapon
from that nation's soil to its respective enemy's cities and
Fearing a nuclear attack Americans build bombshelters and fallout shelters.
Suspenseful films such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still" warn of impending doom if the nations of the Earth continue developing nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government produced a number of absurd propaganda films seeking to calm public fear about nuclear warfare.
A cartoon character, "Bert the Turtle," stressed the need to take cover from flying glass and other debris in case of a raid. He starred in an animated film that contained a lively jingle:
During 1957 to 1958, the Soviet Union and the United States
held an International Geophysics Year to promote the study and
understanding of the Earth. The Soviets responded by launching
the Sputnik 1 satellite on October
4, 1957. This was the first artificial satellite ever launched.
The satellite, a steel sphere, weighed 184 pounds, was 23 inches
in diameter. It sent out a "beep-beep" radio signal
through its four antennas scientists and ham radio operators
throughout the world could hear. The signal continued until the
transmitter batteries ran out on October 26, 1957.
The Soviet Union went on to launch a series of Sputnik satellites. Sputnik 2 carried a dog named Laika into space.
Dwight Eisenhower, President of the United States, dismissed the Sputnik as being insignificant. Many Americans, however, considered it as a symbolic nuclear weapon.
President Eisenhower had to face the reality that the Soviet
Union was winning the "space race."
Yuri A. Gagarin
The first manned space rocket was the Soviet Vostok 1, which
launched cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin.
President John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president of the United
States in January 1961. He faced an early embarrassment over
the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba. Afterwards, he needed some tangible
victory to deflect attention away from this fiasco and to also
show America's superiority over the Soviet Union.
Congress funded Kennedy's goal.
The arms race and the space race continued in parallel. President Kennedy faced the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The Soviet Union finally agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba with the understanding that the United States would remove its missiles from Turkey.
Tragically, President Kennedy was assassinated November 22, 1963.
Alan B. Shepard & John Glenn
Thereafter, the Soviets and the United States competed to
be the first nation to launch two and then three astronauts at
a time, and to be the first to perform a space walk and achieve
other feats. This competition has been called the "space
race." The Soviet Union won most of the early milestones.
The Soviets launched the first woman into orbit; Cosmonaut Valentina
Tereshkova flew on Vostok 6 on June 16-19, 1963. Cosmonaut Valeri
Bykovsky had been launched on Vostok 5 two days before Tereshkova's
launch. The two spacecraft came within three miles of each other.
Both the Soviet Union and the United States suffered a number
of setbacks along the way. The first Apollo mission, Apollo 1,
was to be manned by Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee,
but all three died in a fire inside their command module during
a pre-flight test at the launch pad on January 27, 1967. In addition,
in 1967, Cosmonaut Komarov died as his Soyuz 1 spacecraft made
a crash landing because of control problems and parachute lines
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin Land on the Moon
The space programs of both nations recovered after these tragedies and resumed the race to the moon. America won this part; Neil Armstrong, then Buzz Aldrin, became the first two men to reach the moon on July 20, 1969. Meanwhile, Michael Collins orbited the moon in the Command Module. This mission was the Apollo 11 mission.
The U.S. thus won the Space Race. The Cold War, however, continued until the break-up of the Soviet Union, about twenty years later.
The purpose of sending astronauts to the Moon was to achieve a "political goal," namely proving to the world that the U.S. was superior to the Soviet Union. Science and engineering objectives were less important.
The Soviets never put a man on the Moon, but they did send
a number of unmanned, robot vehicles to the Moon. These robots
were called Lunokhod as part of the Luna spacecraft series. The
Lunokhod were actually roving vehicles, which could move around
on the surface of the Moon. They also had television cameras
and antennas to transmit pictures back to Earth. Three of these
robotic probes collected lunar soil samples and returned them
to Earth in 1970, 1972, and 1976.
After winning the race, however, American lost interest in
the Moon, and Apollo 17 became the last lunar mission in December
1972. America's next space project was the Skylab space station.
Three crews were sent to this space station, from 1973 to 1974.
The Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous mission in July 1975 was a brief
break in the Cold War; President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier
Leonid Brezhnev wanted to prove the United States and the Soviet
Union could cooperate in space. The Soviet cosmonauts, Alexsei
Leonov (who had been the first man to walk in space) and Valeri
Kubasov docked their spacecraft with that of American astronauts,
Tom Stafford, Vance Brand, and Deke Slayton.
Continuation of Cold War
President Nixon and Soviet Communist Party Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sign two basic SALT I documents in Moscow, on May 26, 1972:
1. An Interim Agreement limiting strategic offensive weapons.
President Nixon's Resignation
President Richard Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974. He said
that he no longer had the support of congress after the "Watergate