Space Race Time Line
the fall of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II, the United States and the
Soviet Union emerged as superpowers, each striving for primacy on a global
scale. As rocket technology improved and spaceflight seemed possible, the
dueling forces also set their sights on reaching and controlling space.
Headlines of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to indicate that the Soviet Union
was light-years ahead of the U.S. throughout much of the space race. But behind
the scenes, a very different story was unfolding. Recently released documents
reveal secret military plans, cover-ups, and covert spy missions that were part
of humankind's ambitious journey into orbit and beyond. In this time
line, explore the Cold War's secret space race.—Rima Chaddha
Left to right: Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin, U.S. President Dwight
Eisenhower, French Premier Edgar Faure, and British Prime Minister Sir Anthony
Eden on the eve of the 1955 Geneva conference during which Eisenhower
introduced "Open Skies"
World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union entered into the Cold War
game of spy-versus-spy that ultimately led to the space race. Americans were
still deeply unsettled by the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. government
wanted to arrange flyovers of U.S.S.R. territory to learn what they could about
Soviet arms. Equally, the Soviets wanted to spy on the United States but
strived to keep their depleted military resources secret. In July 1955,
President Dwight Eisenhower proposed an "Open Skies" policy whereby
either nation would be allowed to fly reconnaissance aircraft over the other.
When the Soviet Union rejected the proposal, Eisenhower sought other ways to
gather intelligence. On July 29, he announced that the United States would
begin work on a scientific satellite. The Soviet Union immediately announced
that it too would launch a satellite.
A technician puts the finishing touches on Sputnik 1 shortly before the
satellite's three-week orbit.
a top-secret report, Eisenhower's Science Advisory Committee urged him to
consider launching non-military satellites, which, unlike planes, could travel
over enemy terrain without risk of being shot down. These satellites would thus
establish a precedent for "freedom of space," conducting flyovers
above the planet's atmosphere without permission or negative
consequences. While to the public the satellite program was a purely scientific
effort, both Eisenhower and the Soviet leadership understood the potential for
reconnaissance: Safe from attack, an orbiting satellite could theoretically
observe anything on the ground. Both nations endeavored to perfect their satellites
and launch first, and on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union sent Sputnik 1 into
Three men responsible for the Explorer 1 raise a model of the satellite at a
1958 press conference. (Left to right: William Pickering, James Van Allen, and
Wernher von Braun)
a month after propelling the first satellite into space, the Soviet Union had made
headlines again with Sputnik 2, which sent the first animal, a dog, into orbit.
With two failed launch attempts in the United States, many Americans wrongly believed
Eisenhower had failed to recognize the importance of space efforts. But on
January 31, 1958, America began to catch up publicly to the Soviet Union. The
U.S. satellite aptly named Explorer 1 not only reached orbit but also managed
to gather useful scientific data. In July, Eisenhower announced the formation
of NASA, a federal agency that would be devoted to exploring space. Meanwhile,
students nationwide benefited from new programs adopted to improve science and
Luna 3 snapped 29 images in total, capturing the first shots ever of the far
side of the moon.
for the moon
1959, both countries had set their sights on a new symbolic goal—being
first to the moon. The Soviets launched Luna 1 in January, and although the
craft missed its target, it became the first to fly beyond Earth's orbit
and the first to orbit the sun. In March, the United States launched Pioneer 4
toward the moon, but it too missed and fell into solar orbit. Finally, Luna 2
reached the moon's surface, and on October 4, exactly two years after
Sputnik, Luna 3 performed a flyby and photographed most of the moon's far
side. The Soviets now appeared to be winning the lunar phase of the space race,
but if they intended to send a manned mission to the moon, they were keeping
the plans secret.
This 1967 Corona photograph, a test of the satellite's spying capability,
offers a detailed view of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
photos from space
scientists in both nations worked to improve rocket and satellite technology,
plans for spy missions were already well under way. Since 1959, the United
States had been developing a series of secret military reconnaissance
satellites together codenamed Corona. But because rocket launches were
difficult to hide, the U.S. government disguised early Corona missions as part
of a publicly known research program called Discoverer. The Soviet Union lagged
two years behind with their own Zenit spy satellites, which were ostensibly
part of the Kosmos research program. The Zenits carried standard film cameras
similar to those found in rival Coronas and, over time, they became powerful
enough to photograph objects as small as passenger cars on the ground.
Dressed in space gear, Yuri Gagarin rides a bus to the Vostok 1 launch site.
April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin flew into orbit with the Vostok 1 and
became the first man in space. The Soviets had once again beaten the Americans
by mere weeks. Yet Gagarin's flight, a driving impetus behind President
John F. Kennedy's May announcement that American astronauts would reach
the moon by the end of the decade, was not as flawless as the Soviets claimed.
Nearing the end of its orbit, Gagarin's craft began spinning out of
control. During the ensuing 10-minute panic, his commander, who was on the
ground, scribbled in his notes phrases like "sudden impact,"
"emergency situation," and "Malfunction!!!" Gagarin
himself would later confirm the near-accident, which remained hidden to the
world for decades.
This CIA map revealed the potential reach of medium-range and
intermediate-range ballistic missiles if launched from Cuba.
rose dramatically in October 1962, two months after the first Zenit photographs
reached Earth, when an American reconnaissance aircraft flying over Cuba
photographed Soviet nuclear missile sites under construction just 90 miles from
the U.S. coast. The Americans had built similar bases at the Turkish-Soviet
border, and if one nation chose to strike, the other could easily retaliate.
The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted only two weeks but had significant
consequences. Realizing the potential for a nuclear war, both nations removed
their weapons and secretly sought ways to further improve their
A 1960 conceptual drawing of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory
December 10, 1963, the United States announced plans to build the Manned
Orbiting Laboratory, a military space station designated for scientific
research. The MOL's covert mission, however, was to enable astronaut
spies to take better and more detailed photographs of the Soviet Union and its
allies than ever before. The Corona satellites in use in the early 1960s were not sophisticated enough to seek out and zoom in on specified targets. But
as computerized reconnaissance technology improved, the need for an expensive
manned mission receded. The United States finally abandoned the MOL program
in June 1969, one month before NASA's Apollo 11 landed the first men on
A reflection of the lunar module can be seen in Buzz
Aldrin's visor as he stands on the moon. (Inset: a Krechet spacesuit)
many, the space race ended when Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin set foot on the moon.
This time, the Soviets were far behind. While the world marveled at the United
States' Saturn 5 "moon rocket," which sent the
astronauts' Apollo 11 craft into space, the Soviets had secretly been
working on their own version, the N-1. Although the N-1 failed to launch, the
rocket engineer who led the program, Vasily Mishin, kept private diaries
listing items and operations needed for a manned lunar landing. These included
specialized tools, maps, and spacesuits. The Soviets had even built a prototype
moon suit, called the Krechet ("Golden Falcon").
Three crews boarded Skylab between 1973 and 1974, with the longest mission
lasting nearly three months.
1973, the MOL was little more than a memory to the few Americans who knew
about it. But as the potential to sustain human life in space increased, so did
the desire to develop a manned space station. A special advisory group to
President Richard Nixon offered suggestions for such a station, which was to be
occupied permanently, as part of a post-moon-landing plan for American space
travel. Using some remaining hardware from the soon-to-be-cancelled Apollo
program, NASA developed Skylab, which launched in May. Skylab remained in orbit
for six years, and experiments conducted aboard the craft obtained vast amounts
of scientific data and demonstrated that humans could live and work
productively in space for months at a time.
Cosmonauts test a pressure suit worn aboard a Salyut space station orbiting
the Cold War's true potential dangers, both the United States and the
Soviet Union made covert plans to bring weapons ranging from cannons to laser
guns into space. In 1974, the Soviet Union launched the Salyut 3 space station,
code-named Almaz, which secretly carried a 23-mm Nudelmann aircraft cannon.
According to Soviet cosmonauts, tests run on this very first space gun were a
success—the cannon even destroyed a target satellite. Although Almaz
tracked several American spacecraft, including Skylab, the Soviets never
attacked any of them. More benign Soviet stations such as the Salyut 4 were
utilized in research and tests similar to those conducted on Skylab.
The Apollo-Soyuz plaque, engraved in both English and Russian,
was created to commemorate this first joint effort.
a temporary thaw in the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union
embarked on their first joint space venture in July 1975. Astronauts and
cosmonauts docked the last Apollo spacecraft with the Soviet vessel Soyuz, and
the crews visited each other's craft and shared meals. At ground control
centers in Moscow and Houston, scientists cooperated in tracking data and
communications. Although tensions between the two nations remained—the
1980s saw President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" plans to
intercept Soviet missiles from space, for instance—Apollo-Soyuz set the
stage for later collaborative space efforts, including the International Space
Station. This research facility, currently being assembled in orbit, will be
open to cosmonauts and astronauts worldwide.
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