In October 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit, a move that sent shockwaves through the international community. Whilst it was known that they were working toward space exploration, no-one had anticipated that they had reached the point of launching a satellite into orbit. When this was followed up with Sputnik 2 a month later, which launched Laika the dog into space and weighed over six times as much as Sputnik 1, it became clear to the world that they had made progress beyond expectation. The expectation was that Laika would only survive a few days, but mystery surrounded her status immediately following the flight, amid reports that she had been poisoned with her last meal, before Moscow confirmed that she had died.

With tensions mounting between America and the Soviets, and rumours that the latter were close to launching a rocket to the moon, the perceived gap in capabilities between the two became a major issue in American politics. In a move to reduce the perception of distance between the two, America launched its first satellite, Explorer 1 in 1958, starting the decade-long rivalry known as the "Space Race". Up to this point their space program had been divided between military organizations, primarily the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, but in order to make quicker progress, it created a singular civilian organization to manage space exploration: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Project Mercury began in 1959, with NASA declaring its intent to put a man into Earth orbit and returning them safely. The focus was on single-manned flights, using a canonical capsule. Rumours had been building that the Soviets had already been experimenting with manned flights, but whether these were true or not, by early 1960 America believed it would be able to match the Soviet’s (literal) rocket power and would focus on the development of the Saturn rockets. A year after the foundation of NASA, there were still doubts about America’s space capabilities: The Economist summed up the feeling that despite the activity they “had failed to close the gap to any acceptable degree”, and even the head of NASA, Dr. T. Keith Glennan (1905-1995), had admitted they were “not nearly as advanced in space technology as we had thought or hoped”.[1]  

If the rumours around sending a man into space were not enough to make America worry, in September 1959 they became the first of the two to reach a major milestone in space science, showing how far ahead they were. Luna 2 successfully landed on the surface of the moon near Mare Imbrium: it was the sixth spacecraft launched as part of the Luna program (the first three in 1958, and fifth in June 1959, were not officially named or publicly acknowledged as they failed to reach orbit), following Luna 1 which had missed the moon in January. The Luna program found further success later in the year, when Luna 3 (launched in October) returned the first photographs of the dark side of the moon.

  • Could man go to the moon?

    The Luna 2 landing was the event that pushed theories of manned moon landings into overdrive. Many notable figures in the world of science contributed their thoughts to a range of magazines and newspapers, including:

    • Sir Harold Spencer Jones (1890-1960), astronomer who served as Astronomer Royal for 23 years, contributes the article ‘Landing on the Moon’ to The Listener in February 1959
    • Sir Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell (1913-2012), physicist and astronomer who was Director of Jodrell Bank Observatory for 35 years, contributed ‘The First Men on the Moon’ to Punch in September 1959 and ‘Learning from the Luniks’ to the Sunday Times in February 1960
    • Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore (1923-2012), an astronomer who served as President of the British Astronomical Association, wrote over seventy books on astronomy, and hosted The Sky at Night for the BBC for over 55 years, contributed ‘Astronomical Satellites and Rockets’ to The Listener in March 1960

In the eighteen months following Explorer 1, America launched seven more Explorer satellites, with Explorer 8 launching in November 1960 (Explorer 5 failed to launch in August 1958). Explorer 6 became the first satellite launched by NASA, and during this time they also launched Vanguard 1 in March 1958 (the first solar-powered satellite), and successfully tested flights using animals, including the monkey ‘Miss Sam’.

Throughout the early months of 1961, they continued to progress. Explorer 9 and Explorer 10 launched in February and March, and Mercury-Redstone 2 put a monkey in space: Ham survived his flight, and gratefully received an apple in return. 1961 also saw the beginning of their two most important space programs to date. Project Gemini aimed to develop techniques to aid and improve manned spaceflight, in order to support another (better known) one.

Then, in April 1961, the Soviets illustrated the gap in progress between the two superpowers once again. Despite America’s impressive list of satellite launches, they reached the first major milestone in space exploration. Less than four years after beating America to the first orbiting satellite, Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968) became the first man in space. Piloting Vostock 1, a spherical capsule, he lasted one hour and forty-eight minutes in space, becoming the first man to successfully orbit the Earth. The American program could only watch on with “disappointment and admiration” at the achievement, especially as they were so close to the milestone themselves, but did point out that Gagarin was more of a “passenger” in his spacecraft than the NASA astronauts that would require much more manual skill.

Yuri Gagarin on BBC TV, July 11 1961:

In May 1961, America responded: Alan Shephard (1923-1988) became the first American to enter space, piloting Freedom 7 (Mercury-Redstone 3) in a fifteen-minute suborbital flight. After the failed launch of Mercury-Redstone 1 and the test flight of Mercury-Redstone 2, they finally achieved manned space flight – though it was still behind the Soviets, with Shephard in space for considerably less time than Gagarin a month before.

The gap in progress, and the perceived reputational damage for America’s position as a national leading technological development that came from it, prompted action in political circles, and was seen as a point of national pride. Less than three weeks after Shephard’s flight, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) set new ambitions for the space race, and made a bold request for a programme that had yet to put a man in space for a single orbit.

In a speech to Congress on May 25 1961, Kennedy called for budget extensions to the space programme that would allow America to overtake the Soviet Union in space exploration. These requests were based on a singular goal that Kennedy set out, which would be ambitious: to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. NASA had already stated this aim a few years before, but Kennedy’s speech formalised it as the main goal of the space program. This would be delivered as part of the second major space program that began in 1961 which ran alongside Project Gemini: the Apollo project.



Less than five months after Gagarin, and less than three months after Kennedy’s speech, the Soviets reached another landmark, sending the second man into space: in August 1961, Gherman Titov (1935-2000) orbited the Earth seventeen times in a single flight, staying space for a whole day in Vostock 2: America had yet to complete a single manned orbit, and the Soviet Union had done it twice.

By the end of 1961, America had made significant progress. Two manned suborbital flights had been completed, and the ambitious Apollo program had reduced some of the concerns about their distance from Soviet accomplishments. The only trouble was that the Soviets were still getting to major milestones first: Titov’s Vostock 2 came in the same month that Vostock 3 (piloted by Andriyan Nikolayev, 1929-2004) and Vostock 4 (piloted by Pavel Popovich, 1930-2009) became the first simultaneous manned space flights. 1961 had been a good year for America, but they were still behind, and were still concerned about the “world opinion of [them] having fallen so far behind”, especially with increasing public and military concerns toward the space program.[2] 

The ever-decreasing reputation of America’s space studies was not entirely justified, as the Financial Times pointed out in the build up to their first mission to put man into orbit: “the U.S. public—and many people throughout the world—have tended to measure success and value for money in the space race by manned orbital flight, whereas the U.S. has achieved a great deal in other directions. The U.S. is well ahead of the Russians in a wide spectrum of space studies”.[3] 

In February 1962 John Glenn (1921-2016) piloted Friendship 7 (Mercury-Redstone 4) around Earth three times, becoming the first American to successfully orbit the planet. In the coming months, both sides focused on developing and testing techniques for critical elements of a moon landing. Among many objectives, both would have to create spacecraft that would support astronauts to survive in space for several weeks at a time, and spacecraft that would be able to rendezvous (pass very closely with each other) and dock (connect with each other).

Despite Glenn’s orbit, opinion had not been helped by the gap between Luna 2 successfully landing on the surface of the moon, and America’s first successful moon landing achieved eighteen months later. Ranger 4 landed on the surface in April 1962, after Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 had both failed to launch the previous year, and Ranger 3 had emulated Luna 1 by missing the moon (and suffered several technical failures). They found positives in the launch, notably that the craft was more advanced than Luna 2, but they were still behind. The failure of Venus-bound Mariner 1 due to the ‘missing hyphen’ (July) did not help matters, though the success of Mariner 2 (completing the planetary fly-by of Venus in December 1962) helped end the year on a positive.

  • Was the space race worth it?

    Despite this success, the negativity was still present. Commentators argued that the outcome of the space race was not just a perception of technological dominance, but a symbol of world politics: an American failure to win the space race would signal the victory of the Communist regime over Western freedom, and of dictatorship over democracy. Away from the grand political metaphors, more immediate concerns were also gathering momentum. A correspondent from The Times reported from Washington on the “revulsion” toward the idea of the space race, underpinned by “the belief that the prestige attached to putting a man on the moon is not worth is not worth the enormous cost or the celestial casualties which will be the second price to be paid for the dangerous haste”.[4] 

    The concern over the financial and potential human cost of attempting a manned moon landing through a rushed program became a central point for questioning the need for the space race at all. The debate prompted an important question: did space exploration need to be manned? Sir Bernard Lovell “had not convinced the President that the Russians, like some American scientists, think that just as much can be discovered more quickly and cheaply by unmanned probes”[5] after the Soviet Union ‘leaked’ to him that they were having doubts about the moon race, and there was a growing feeling that the race was not truly motivated by discovery but that “nationalism has triumphed so far”,[6]  and that scientists and politicians were increasingly against a program that had become more about political philosophies than science.

    A report in The Telegraph highlighted the dominance of the moon landing project, and the economical difficulties it caused for other scientific endeavours, in some stark numbers: by the end of 1964 the moon project would have cost the U.S. £3,000 million, whilst cancer research would have only had £10 million that year; by 1963, America was spending $5 million a day on the moon project.

[1] "Slowly into Space." Economist, 10 Oct. 1959, p. 137  |  RETURN 

[2] "Challenge in Congress." Economist, 12 Aug. 1961, p. 620  |  RETURN 

[3] "Project Mercury—From Monkey to Men." Financial Times, 26 Jan. 1962  |  RETURN 

[4] "Americans Favour End To Moon Race." Times, 9 Apr. 1963  |  RETURN 

[5] Still Moon-bent." Economist, 27 July 1963  |  RETURN 

[6] "Is the Moon Race Lunacy?" Daily Telegraph, 12 Aug. 1963  |  RETURN 




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