Home            The Space Race

The Space Race

The Space race I am referring to took place from the late 1940’s until the 16th of July 1969.

The V2

In the Second World War, Germany had a huge lead in producing rockets. The V2 was a terror weapon, but looked at as a rocket; it was far in advance of anything the allies had.  At the end of the war, both the Americans and the Russians grabbed as many of the scientists and technicians working on rockets as they could.  They also took as much equipment as possible.

These people and equipment were used for two purposes.  The Americans and the Russians both tried to develop rockets to use as weapons, but they also tried to get into space.  The earliest space launches were done usingV2 rockets with varying levels of modification.

Of course, both the Americans and the Russians had early successes as well as many failures. The first animals deliberately sent into space were some American fruit flies.  This was surprisingly early, in 1947.  Since the war only ended in 1946, America was moving quickly.

The Race Accelerates

The Space race hotted up in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  At this stage it looked as if Russia was leading, and they had some successes at this time.  There were several American rockets that failed spectacularly, often while still on the launch pad.  I remember a joke current at that time to the effect that President Eisenhower could hit a golf ball higher than the American rockets were getting.

There were a lot of space launches at around that time, and we were expecting that either America or Russia would launch the first man into space very soon. We were right.  On April the 12th1961, a few days after my tenth birthday, it was announced that Russia had achieved this major milestone with the successful orbit of the Earth by Yuri Gagarin.

The Challenge

Of course there are many other possible milestones. On May the 25th1961, in a speech to a joint sitting of congress, President John F Kennedy set the impossible sounding goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.  This also implied a challenge to the Russians to try to do it first.

This ushered in several years of feverish activity and preparation.  Although this was a race, there is evidence that President Kennedy was interested in some joint ventures, and had approached The Russian leader, Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, and again in 1963.  The second approach might have resulted with some major co-operation of the sort that only came much later.  The seeds of the destruction of the Soviet Union had already been planted in 1960 although it would endure for another 30 years.  The President was murdered before the agreement could be finalised, and history was changed.

Round the Moon

The Russians’ achieved the first unmanned flight round the Moon.  This was not a true Lunar Orbit, but a figure of eight flight path with the space craft returning to the Earth.

They also sent the first animals into deep space, with a tortoise, some meal worms and wine flies.


However, the space race in that form ended with the successful landing on the Moon of Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on the Moon, and their safe return.  

Their return was greeted with relief by many people. I suspect that one group that heaved an enormous sigh of relief was the group of Russian Cosmonauts in training for the Russian attempt.  If the Americans had failed, the Russians would have tried.  What Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins did was very dangerous with the American technology of the time.  If the Russians had tried with their technology, it would have been suicidal.

V2 Replica at Peenemünde
By This photo (C) Lars Aronsson (Own work) [see page for license],
via Wikimedia Commons
This file is licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike 1.0 License.
Launch of a Saturn SA Rocket on January the 24th 1964
Picture from NASA


Apollo 11 Astronauts
Picture by NASA