The Race to the Moon

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On 12 September 1962, President Kennedy declared, in a now famous address, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.” Indeed, referring to landing on the Moon as a “hard” undertaking was a supreme act of understatement. To know what committed four successive Presidents, virtually all of Congress and a decade of overwhelming public opinion to a seemingly expensive, dangerous and unachievable goal, we must understand the long road to the Lunar Landings.

The Space Race was ultimately grounded in the realities of the Cold War, when competition between Washington and Moscow drove every aspect of the superpowers’ policies. Scientific advancement and space travel were by no means excluded from that. Under a brilliant physicist named Werner of Braun, Nazi Germany had started a rocket program, which had culminated with the V-2 rockets. These horrific weapons of war had been mankind’s first efforts to escape Earth’s atmosphere, and these had first sparked the interest of the scientific community. The V-2 rockets were, in effect, the domino which triggered the complex chain of events leading to the Space Race. The first major breakthrough in man’s long and expensive journey to the Moon came from the Soviet Union. On 1 October 1957, Sputnik 1 became the first man made object to be placed in the Earth’s orbit. The pride which this achievement is held in can be seen by the fact that, six decades later, Russia named its Covid-19 vaccination program Sputnik V. 

Yet we must ask why the Soviet Union initially chose to commit such resources to something which produced such intangible results. The answer lay in the inherent nature of the Soviet state. The USSR’s stated reason for existence was to spread the reach of Marxism-Leninism. In the worldwide struggle for ‘influence’, America and the Soviet Union competed to prove to the rest of the world the superiority of their respective ideological system. Thus, the symbolism of the communist superpower achieving a scientific breakthrough, a mere year after Khrushchev had declared “we will bury you,” was enormously significant. There were also, of course, strategic implications. The use of the atomic bomb had proven that scientific innovations were no longer merely influential in deciding a war’s outcome, but had become the decisive factor. The Soviets had been looking for ways to counter America’s atomic monopoly, and this meant not just constructing their own bomb, but developing their own area of advantage. The idea of a Russian machine hovering above the Western world’s collective head sat well with no-one in London, Paris or Washington, and the beeps the satellite broadcast for three weeks seemed to take on a mocking tone. In October 1957, Sputnik was mentioned, on average, eleven times per day in the New York Times. The Soviets appeared to be carrying all before them, as the next month they successfully sent the first animal (Laika the dog) into space – proving that living things could survive the blast out of orbit. In contrast, further American failures at attempting to launch a satellite into orbit (most famously the televised attempt of Vanguard TV3) only heightened Western fears and embarrassment. Many believed that the Soviet scientific advantage would rapidly translate into a Soviet military advantage.

A year after the launch of Sputnik 1, President Eisenhower was forced to admit that the Soviet Union had surpassed America technologically, and that urgent steps were needed to rectify this. The most significant of these was the creation of NASA in 1958. This, along with the creation of DARPA and the increased American spending on science and technology in the National Defense Education Act, would prove decisive. Now, U.S. Scientists had the resources and funding they needed to close the gap with the Soviets. Before they did so, however, the Soviets made a third breakthrough.

Four years after the Sputnik’s successful launch, American morale took yet another hit when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. With a cry of “Pokhali,” the cosmonaut had blasted out of the atmosphere, and had orbited the Earth in his craft – Vostok 1. After the launch, a despondent President Kennedy said that it would be some time before America “caught up” to the Soviets. Yet the Soviets were far from omnipotent, and had been so concerned about the operation that Vostok 1 had been kept top secret until it had proven successful. Gagarin’s own children were only told of the mission after he had left the atmosphere. At the same time, the Americans were beginning to close the gap. Less than a month after Gagarin, Alan Shepard became the first American in Space, and a year later John Glenn’s successful voyage saw him become the first American to orbit Earth. Therefore, the gap spoken of by President Kennedy is perhaps exaggerated, and the successes of America’s arch rival only emboldened U.S. efforts.

Yet America was not content to win a slew of second prizes. Before Gagarin, Kennedy had been reluctant about the merits of a lunar expedition. Afterwards, he enthusiastically backed the project, believing that the planting of the American flag on the Moon’s surface was the only acceptable outcome of the Space Race. Originally, Kennedy had supported joint Soviet-American cooperation, declaring in his inaugural address “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars.’’ Yet though half-hearted attempts were made throughout Kennedy’s administration, the matter was never truly pursued. Furthermore, Khrushchev’s and Kennedy’s successors, Brezhnev and Lyndon Johnson, were two leaders for whom co-operation was a distinctly alien word. These years would prove to be the most competitive of the Space Race.

NASA’s budget was increased by 500% between 1961 and 1964, only showing that after many previous failures the American commitment to this project was absolute. The U.S. also benefitted from Operation Paperclip, which had seen the government recruit prominent German scientists after the Second World War – chief among them Werner von Braun, whose determination and brilliance proved decisive in furthering the American space effort. The Apollo program experienced numerous setbacks: most tragically the deaths of three astronauts in 1967.

Finally, in July 1969, mankind escaped the cradle of the Earth, and Americans walked on the Moon. More than 600 million people around the world watched the landing from their televisions. However, most interesting was the Soviet reaction, which was a complete (and somewhat unbelievable) denial that a “race to the Moon” had ever existed. Despite the press coverage within the nation itself being limited, the public reaction was largely said to be one of “anger.” Though the project had cost £145 Billion (adjusted for inflation), the first moon landing was euphorically popular within America, and the team which had captained the Apollo 11 Mission – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – were hailed as heroes. After this, however, the competitive tension of the Space Race, and with it public enthusiasm for space exploration, abated. America was content to rest on its laurels, and the Soviets were already beginning to show signs of weariness. Reaching the obvious next goal, Mars, was simply too expensive, too technologically complex and offered too few tangible benefits to be attempted.

Instead, co-operation blossomed. After the lunar landings, old Soviet-American plans for joint expeditions to space resurfaced, and in 1975, the Soyuz-Apollo mission saw three American astronauts dock aboard a Soviet made Soyuz vehicle. As the commanders of the two vehicles greeted each other, the famed “handshake in space” – a symbol of technological détente –occurred. In 1984, even as relations between the two superpowers were growing ever more tense, Reagan stated that that there was an American readiness “to work with the Soviets on cooperation in space in programs which are mutually beneficial and productive.” Both Reagan and the last Soviet Premier, Mikbail Gorbachev, dreamt of what the future held for their two nations. The relationship between the two was considerably warmer than many of those shared by their predecessors and, during Reagan’s last Moscow Summit in 1988, the two leaders walked through the Kremlin Yard. At this moment, Gorbachev used this impressive background to try to persuade the American President to support a joint manned mission to Mars. While Reagan was enthusiastic about the idea, nothing would come of these efforts. 

In his famed speech, Kennedy spoke of sailing on a “new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained.” The 1969 Moon Landing was, perhaps, the human race’s greatest achievement, but mankind wasn’t compelled to embark on this voyage for scientific learning and discovery. Instead, the Space Race was the direct consequence of the burning competition between ideologically opposed superpowers, a competition which led to the promulgation of civil wars, the fall of legitimate governments and massive human suffering. This competition was so fierce that, at points, it could have caused nuclear armageddon. The circumstances surrounding the Space Race were, accordingly, extraordinary, and as they changed and the contest of the Cold War faded, so too did public interest in sailing on Kennedy’s sea. 

Cadbury, D., 2007. Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space. Harper