The primary influence of the Cold War on space exploration was to spur it forward.
Without a contest between the United States and Russia, there would not have been a rivalry that effectively resulted in the Apollo program. President John F. Kennedy famously said it would be a major goal of the USA, to safely send a man to the moon, and return him safely to earth “before the decade is out.” Despite several setbacks and even tragedy in the Apollo missions, and despite the assassination of Kennedy himself, the goal was met with great pride and global attention in July 1969.
What drove the space program, on both sides, was the realization that weapon systems could be launched and delivered with great accuracy at major Earth cities, such as Moscow and Washington D.C, based on missile and rocket driven propulsion.
First developed by German scientists in the 1920’s and 1930’s rocket propulsion systems would be the basis of both space race rockets and weapons systems. Scientist Wernher von Braun was lead engineer. He would later immigrate to the United States and be employed in further development of rocket propulsion systems.
In 1944, the Nazi’s succeeded in launching liquid fuel rockets. This was known as the V-2 project. Although largely secret, enough people knew about the weaponry to both fear and emulate it. Fortunately, the war was ended by 1945, before tactical systems in the more advanced V-4 program would have allowed the Germans to launch ballistic missiles armed with bombs which could have reversed the tides of war, had they been developed any sooner.
von Braun and his team surrendered to the Americans in the final days of the war. NASA, was born from an earlier assimilated secret project dubbed project Paperclip.
With Russia seizing the technology, and having made their victories in WWII, the United States realized the potential threat of ballistic rocketry potentially delivering both conventional and nuclear bombs. The cold war was on, and the space race began.
By October 1957, the USSR had launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite.
By 1957, just a month after Sputnik the soviets launched a dog, named Laika, to be the first mammal to live and die in space. Plans had never been made for her retrieval, and by early 1961, the Americans countered by sending the first “astrochimp,” Ham, to be launched and retrieved, on a Project Mercury mission.
Then, by 1961, the Russians sent the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin into space. Realizing the threat of falling behind, the USA responded by becoming the first to send first astronauts Alan Shepard to be the first to have some manual control of the Mercury Redstone craft he commanded. Within another year, the USA had successfully launched astronaut John Glenn to be the first man to orbit the earth in his Mercury Atlas six craft.
The space race, as it came to be known was now in full swing. It was a time of competing science, technology, ideology and politics.
Science and education, for a brief time, concerning space, exploration, our best ideals, and even the environment, were to benefit from the cold war spurring on space exploration and many resulting “spin offs” of the space program such as computers, solar energy, and medical devices, would change life on earth forever.
Education, in math and science, was heavily invested in on both continents. This was not to last, as once the moon had been visited, both nations solemnly, turned their attention to nuclear weapons. Deterrent programs, which came to be known as mutually assured destruction, (MAD) and the hard reality of détente, and negotiation betwixt growing arsenals and secret missile programs that could destroy the cities of earth many times over were born, flourished, and then quietly faded away.
The space program was a wonderful and welcome result of the Cold War, which was infamous for bringing national insecurity about duck and cover programs, the witch hunts of communism in the 1950’s, and near bankruptcy due to the high costs of funding ever more missile programs.
The most wonderful outcome of the space program was the Iconic view of Earth from space which resulted in complete awe and for a brief moment, the recognition, that all of us, and all living things we know of, float on a fragile blue marble in deep space.