The Space Race began in the 1950s. It was the time of the Cold War, in which the United States and the Soviet Union fought for technological superiority. Each country wanted to prove that its political and economic system – capitalism on one side and communism on the other - was better. Both superpowers wanted to launch the first satellite and put a human being into space. The Space Race was also a part of the arms race after World War II.
In 1957, the Soviet Union surprised the western world by launching the first man-made object into space. Sputnik was a small ball with four antennae sticking out of it. Four months later the United States launched Explorer I. To the shock of the US, the Soviets had beaten them in the first phase of the Space Race. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human sent into Earth orbit, only a month before American astronaut Alan Shepard was launched into space.
The American defeat was a blow to the western world. In the early 1960s John F Kennedy, America’s newly elected president, announced that the US were willing to show that they could put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. After the Mercury and Gemini projects had sent astronauts to earth orbit, Project Apollo faced the task of putting a team of three astronauts into lunar orbit and sending two of them to the moon’s surface. During the 1960s, NASA received more money than ever before.
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11’s lunar landing module Eagle touched down on the moon’s surface. Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. The Americans had finally achieved a major victory in the Space Race.
After 5 more lunar landings rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union ended. In the 1970s, the Americans and the Soviets started working together on space missions. The race to the moon was over and funding for NASA was reduced radically.
The Space Race produced many failures on both sides. While Russian rockets blew up on the launchpad ,three Americans got killed during a ground test in 1967. The most dramatic event came when oxygen tanks exploded during Apollo 13’s mission to the moon; however, NASA managed to get the astronauts safely back to earth.