The Space Race: Definition, History & Timeline

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  • 0:02 The Space Race
  • 0:44 Cold War
  • 2:06 Space Race and Sputnik
  • 4:04 To the Moon
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the 20th century's space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, where both superpowers competed to be the first in space and the first to reach the moon.

The Space Race

Being first often is a huge deal for siblings. Whether it's being first to get dinner, first to use the bathroom in the morning, or first to get to the car, and therefore gaining access to the all-important front seat, being first is sometimes all that matters in the never-ending rivalry of siblings.

In the second half of the 20th century, being first in space exploration was a huge deal for the two competing superpowers of the Cold War: the United States and the Soviet Union. However, in contrast to the relatively piddling battle with your younger brother, supremacy over the skies above was seen as an all-important strategic advantage in the quiet conflict between the Americans and the Soviets.

Cold War

After World War II, tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States grew increasingly acrimonious as the two scrambled for allies and influence throughout the world. The typical narrative this rivalry took often pitted their competing economic models against one another. The Soviet Union had implemented a rigid, centrally-controlled command economy based on principles of communism. Everything, from the production of factories to the crops each farmer could plant, was regulated and controlled by the central Soviet government. The United States, on the other hand, embraced the free market economic system called capitalism that most countries in the world utilize in some form today.

Both countries encouraged the spread of these systems and the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in numerous proxy wars, whether it was secretly in the shadowy world of espionage and counterintelligence, or through active conflict like in the Korean peninsula or in Vietnam. Despite this hostile environment, the two countries never actually squared off in full-scale battle.

This Cold War, as it is known, caused the two countries to build up their militaries and weapons caches to enormously high levels in case war between the two ever did break out. The advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could deliver a nuclear payload and obliterate entire regions and make them unlivable for decades only heightened the stakes of the silent war between the two countries.

The Space Race and Sputnik

It was with these grave circumstances in mind that both the United States and the Soviet Union looked to outer space as yet another area to fight over. Outer space and the skies in general were of particular importance; if one country gained a significant advantage over the other, they could seemingly have the power to drop bombs on the other at will, eliminating their foe and millions of people in a matter of minutes.

While these potential military factors were important, the space race had an even larger symbolic importance. The space race was important to both governments as a symbol of technological superiority over the other, and both the Soviet and American public followed the various successes and failures of both governments intently.

The event which is considered the starting point of the space race was the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik in October of 1957. Sputnik was a small metallic satellite about the size of a beach ball, which orbited the Earth, sent radio signals back to Russia, and could be seen with the naked eye. This terrified the American public; there was now an enemy craft directly overhead! Only a month later the Soviets launched a second craft into orbit, this one carrying a dog, Laika.

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