Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

The Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union was a geopolitical struggle around the globe characterized by an ideological contest between capitalism and communism, and a nuclear arms race. An important part of the Cold War was the space race which became a competition between the two superpowers.

Each side sought to be the first to achieve milestones in the space race and used the achievements for propaganda value in the Cold War. The Soviet launch of the satellite, Sputnik, while a relatively modest accomplishment, became a symbolically important event that triggered and defined the dawn of the space race. The space race was one of the peaceful competitions of the Cold War and pushed the boundaries of the human imagination.

The Cold War nuclear arms race helped lead to the development of rocket technology that made putting humans into space a practical reality in a short time. Only 12 years after the Russians launched a satellite into orbit around the Earth, Americans sent astronauts to walk on the moon.

The origins of Sputnik and spaceflight occurred a few decades before World War II, with the pioneering flights of liquid-fueled rockets in the United States and Europe. American Robert Goddard launched one from a Massachusetts farm in 1926 and continued to develop the technology on a testing range in New Mexico in the 1930s. Meanwhile, Goddard’s research influenced the work of German rocketeer Hermann Oberth who fired the first liquid-fueled rocket in Europe in 1930 and dreamed of spaceflight. In Russia, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky developed the idea of rocket technology, and his ideas influenced Sergei Korolev in the 1930s.

The greatest advance in rocket technology took place in Nazi Germany, where Werner von Braun led efforts to build V-2 and other rockets that could hit England and terrorize civilian populations when launched from continental Europe. Hitler’s superweapons never had the decisive outcome for victory as he hoped, but the rockets had continuing military and civilian applications.

At the end of the war, Russian and Allied forces raced to Berlin as the Nazi regime collapsed in the spring of 1945. Preferring to surrender to the Americans because of the Red Army’s well-deserved reputation for brutality, von Braun and his team famously surrendered to Private Fred Schneikert and his platoon. They turned over 100 unfinished V-2 rockets and 14 tons of spare parts and blueprints to the Americans who whisked the scientists, rocketry, and plans away just days before the Soviet occupation of the area.

In Operation Paperclip, the Americans secretly brought thousands of German scientists and engineers to the United States including more than 100 German rocket scientists from Von Braun’s team to the United States. The operation was controversial because of Nazi Party affiliations, but few were rabid devotees to Nazi ideology, and their records were cleared. The Americans did not want them contributing to Soviet military production and brought them instead to Texas and then to Huntsville, Alabama, to develop American rocket technology as part of the nuclear arms race to build immense rockets to carry nuclear warheads. Within a decade, both sides had intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in their arsenals.

During the next decade, the United States developed various missile systems producing rockets of incredible size, thrust, and speed that could travel large distances. Interservice rivalry meant that the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force developed and built their own competing rocket systems including the Redstone, Vanguard, Jupiter-C, Polaris, and Atlas rockets. Meanwhile, the Soviets were secretly building their own R-7 missiles erected as a cluster rather than staged rocket.

On October 4, 1957, the Russians shocked Americans by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. Sputnik was a metal sphere weighing 184 pounds that emitted a beeping sound to Earth that was embarrassingly picked up by U.S. global tracking stations. The effort was not only part of the Cold War, but also the International Geophysical Year in which scientists from around the world formed a consortium to share information on highly active solar flares and a host of other scientific knowledge. However, both the Soviets and Americans were highly reluctant to share any knowledge that might have relationship to military technology.

While American intelligence had predicted the launch, Sputnik created a wave of panic and near hysteria. Although President Dwight Eisenhower was publicly unconcerned because the United States was preparing its own satellite, the American press, the public, and Congress were outraged, fearing the Russians were spying on them or could rain down nuclear weapons from space. Moreover, it seemed as if the Americans were falling behind the Soviets. Henry Jackson, a Democratic senator from the state of Washington, called Sputnik “a devastating blow to the United States’ scientific, industrial, and technical prestige in the world.” Sputnik initiated the space race between the United States and Soviet Union as part of the Cold War superpower rivalry.

A month later, the Soviets sent a dog named Laika into space aboard Sputnik II. Although the dog died because it only had life support systems for a handful of days, the second successful orbiting satellite—this one carrying a living creature—further humiliated Americans even if they humorously dubbed it “Muttnik.”

The public relations nightmare was further exacerbated by the explosion of a Vanguard rocket carrying a Navy satellite at the Florida Missile Test Range on Patrick Air Force Base on Cape Canaveral. on December 6. The event was aired on television and watched by millions. The launch was supposed to restore pride in American technology, but it was an embarrassing failure. The press had a field-day and labeled it “Kaputnik” and “Flopnik.”

On January 31, 1958, Americans finally had reason to cheer when a Jupiter-C rocket lifted off and went into orbit carrying a thirty-one-pound satellite named Explorer. The space race was now on and each side competed to be the first to accomplish a goal. The space race also had significant impacts upon American society.

In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act to spend more money to promote science, math, and engineering education at all levels. To signal its peaceful intentions, Congress also created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a civilian organization to lead the American efforts in space exploration, whereas the Russian program operated as part of the military.

In December 1958, NASA announced Project Mercury with the purpose of putting an astronaut in space which would be followed by Projects Gemini and Apollo which culminated in Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. The space race was an important part of the Cold War and also about the spirit of human discovery and pushing the frontiers of knowledge and space.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence. 

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