The Influence of the Cold War on Space Exploration

The American plans for space exploration on a limited scale began on in July 1955 when the White House announced its intention to launch a satellite in response to the International Council of Scientific Unions call for artificial satellites to be launched during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) which would take be celebrated between July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958. The Americans were relaxed about the whole issue and plans were made for a small 3.5 lb. satellite to be launched. That attitude changed abruptly on October 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I and its beeps were heard all over the world. It was almost immediately realized that the weight of the payload (about 50 times the weight of the payload the U.S. plans called for) was enough to launch a small ballistic missile into orbit.

These fears intensified a month later (November 4) when the Soviets launched Sputnik II which included a passenger, a small dog named Laika. The payload was even heavier and had two major effects, first it started the Space Race and secondly the American public, some in a near panic, began building bomb shelters, expecting a rain of atomic bombs at any moment.

Two things must be held clearly in focus about the Space Race. The first is that the Soviet Union saw their lead in space as a propaganda tool touting the superiority of their scientific and military programs. The Americans on the other hand, put control of their program in the hands of a civilian agency and, publicly at least, talked of the scientific knowledge to be gained. The second point is the involvement of the military on each side. The Soviet space program was administered and commanded by the military and their program was cloaked in secrecy (at least until a mission was successful.) In the United States the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (created in July 1958) was a civilian controlled agency with a large number of military men, almost all of which were test pilots, under the authority of the civilians. Virtually every aspect of the program was visible to the media and the public including the failures.

There was also a difference in attitude between the Soviets and American agencies. The Soviets were far more willing to risk the lives of spacecraft crews than the Americans. This difference in attitude also accounted for the Russian propaganda successes. The Russians wanted to beat the Americans for propaganda while the Americans wanted to gain knowledge and apply it to better the Space program and the lives of its citizens. As a direct result of this difference in attitude the Soviets had a long string of firsts to their credit, including:

1) The first space probe to hit the moon (Luna 1, 1959)
2) The first man to orbit the earth (Yuri Gagarin, 1961)
3) The first woman in space in 1963 (Valentina Tereshkova)
4) The first space-walk (Alexei Leonov, 1965)
5) The first space station (Salyut 1, 1971)

The ultimate goal, however, was to be the first to “successfully land a man on the moon and successfully return him to the Earth.” (President John F. Kennedy,1963.) Despite the assassination of President Kennedy in the fall of 1963 that work was continued. It succeeded as we all know on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong took “one small step for (a) man.”

That success pretty much ended the Space Race and the true objectives of the space program, to gain scientific knowledge came to the forefront. The American public as a whole lost interest (and NASA subsequently lost funding resulting in an earlier than planned end to the Apollo missions). The exception to the public apathy being the Apollo 13 mission when space exploration once again exploded into the headlines and onto our television screens. The danger to the crew almost brought the world to a stand-still during the periods when news or major events were expected. (If you don’t know what I am talking about and want to see true heroes, sung and unsung, in action, rent the movie ‘Apollo 13’ or read the book. And prepare to be inspired by the story.)

The only other major event in the space race that was influenced by the Cold War was the successful launch of the Salyut 1 space station which carried scientific equipment for the study of Earth and the stars. The success of the launch and the positive publicity it garnered for the Soviets was marred by the death of the returning crew members at the end of three weeks. A valve stuck open on separation and exhausted the atmosphere. The spacecraft had no spacesuits.

The Cold War had spawned the space race and the effects are with us today in gains in pure scientific knowledge and practical applications. Consider Satellite Weather’ as one of the many (and the most visible) benefits brought to us everyday courtesy of the Space Race.