Sputnik Declassified

Space Race Time Line

After 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 '60s 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

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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"


July 1955
Open Skies proposed

Following 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.

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A technician puts the finishing touches on Sputnik 1 shortly before the satellite's three-week orbit.


October 1957
Sputnik 1

In 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 orbit.

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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)


January 1958
Explorer 1

Just 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 math education.

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Luna 3 snapped 29 images in total, capturing the first shots ever of the far side of the moon.


Reaching for the moon

By 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.

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This 1967 Corona photograph, a test of the satellite's spying capability, offers a detailed view of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.


Spy photos from space

As 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.

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Dressed in space gear, Yuri Gagarin rides a bus to the Vostok 1 launch site.


April 1961
Gagarin reaches space

On 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.

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This CIA map revealed the potential reach of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles if launched from Cuba.


October 1962
Cuban Missile Crisis

Tensions 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 intelligence-gathering capabilities.

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A 1960 conceptual drawing of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory


Manned Orbiting Laboratory

On 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 the moon.

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A reflection of the lunar module can be seen in Buzz Aldrin's visor as he stands on the moon. (Inset: a Krechet spacesuit)


Moon rockets

To 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").

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Three crews boarded Skylab between 1973 and 1974, with the longest mission lasting nearly three months.



By 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.

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Cosmonauts test a pressure suit worn aboard a Salyut space station orbiting Earth.


Space weapons

Illustrating 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.

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The Apollo-Soyuz plaque, engraved in both English and Russian, was created to commemorate this first joint effort.


July 1975

Marking 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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