On July 20, 1969, mankind made history by taking the first steps on a celestial body different from our own planet. This moment was a crowning achievement for the United States space program, known as NASA. However, this moment was not possible without the sacrifice from those who lost their lives in the name of space exploration. What many tend to forget was that before we first stepped on the moon, we were losing the space race to our adversary, the Soviet Union. Yet how did this space race begin? Who were the major proponents of the space program for both countries? This post will provide some insight on these questions and more.
The beginning of this story takes us back to World War II when the world was in turmoil between the Allies, and Axis, powers. Nazi rocket scientists, under the direction of SS Military Scientist Dr. Werner von Braun, were building rockets that were decades ahead of anyone in the field. This Nazi rocket became known as the V-2 rocket. The V-2 rocket was a terrible weapon of war, capable of striking targets across long distances for which there was no method to stop it. However, military applications were not the main goal for Von Braun when he built these rockets. Von Braun sought to build a space program capable of sending men to the moon, as well as other planets, and to advance mankind into the space age. However, Von Braun knew that Nazi Germany would lose the war and when an opportunity presented itself, he escaped from his fellow SS Officers. Soon thereafter, Von Braun, along with a few of his scientists, were taken prisoner by the United States. Von Braun, as well as many of his fellow scientists, and engineers, were shipped back to the United States to build a rocket program centered around America’s new weapon, the atomic bomb. The Soviet Union, realizing that America had both the Atomic Bomb, and the V-2 rocket team, scrambled to collect any other German rocket scientists to develop their own missile program.
The Soviet Union, feeling pressed to compete with the United States, pushed their German scientists to build a usable rocket. The German scientists were successful with the first test flight of the R-7 rocket. With the R-7 rocket, the Soviet’s could now arm nuclear warheads and send these missiles to hit targets in the West. The United States, seeing this as a dangerous development, pressed Von Braun to build a missile program capable of delivering an intercontinental missile. In Huntsville, Alabama, Von Braun, and his team, were successful in building the Redstone Rocket. Seeking to utilize the resources at his disposal, Von Braun sought to use the Redstone rocket to send the first satellite into space. However, the U.S. military did not wish to use Von Braun’s missile program to send satellites into space and instead awarded the satellite project to the U.S. Navy. Unfortunately for the United States, the Soviet Union was poised to make history with their R-7 rocket. The Soviet Chief Designer, Sergey Korolev, was the head space administrator for the Soviet Union, and also shared Von Braun’s aspirations to travel amongst the stars. After much convincing, Korolev was able to convince Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to authorize a satellite launch into Earth orbit. The satellite, dubbed Sputnik 1, was launched on October 4, 1957, into low Earth orbit and transmitted a message for the whole world to hear.
The launching of Sputnik frightened the American public and prompted Congress to create NASA with the National Aeronautical and Space Act. With the Redstone Rocket, the American’s were able to launch Explorer 1 into low Earth orbit, which unlike Sputnik, carried scientific equipment that could send readings back to Earth. While the Americans were making headway, the Soviet’s decided to test the next phase by sending an animal up into space. Laika, a dog, was launched up with Sputnik II, and became the first living animal to make it into space. Unfortunately for Laika, she died after 5 hours of exposure within the satellite. Seeking to be the first country to put a man in space, the Soviet Union put Yuri Gagarin into space with the Vostok 1, the soviet human module. Then again with the first woman in space, Valentina Tershkova. The Soviet Union also built the first, in orbit, space station called Mir. The Soviet Union even obtained a first hand view of the moon with their Luna Program. However, with the death of Sergey Korolev, the Soviet Union lost a key proponent in their space program, and soon fell behind the United States in the space race.
During the early successes of the Soviet Union, the United States was hard at work in fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s dream to go to the Moon. To accomplish this, NASA needed to design a more powerful rocket to blast astronauts to the moon. Thus, the Saturn V rocket was created to accomplish this feat. The Saturn V rocket was used for the Apollo missions to propel Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, to the Moon. The Apollo missions were deemed a major success and the program lasted for 9 years; during which time it sent 24 astronauts to the Moon. After the Apollo era, NASA built a space station, called Skylab, to experiments in the space environment. Unfortunately for NASA, the Skylab only stayed in orbit for 6 years before crashing back to Earth.
With the United States making it to the Moon, the nation was able to triumph over the Soviet Union in their race for the stars. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States lost its once mighty competitor in the quest for space travel. However, both Russia, and Ukraine, now have space programs that were descended from the old Soviet Program. To this day, Russia continues to use the Soviet style rockets for their space program. In addition, countries like China, India, Japan, and the European Union have all built space programs; albeit in more of a collaborative nature. An example of this collaboration was the creation of the International Space Station to test long term space exposure.
With the Apollo era at an end, what does the future hold for space travel? Currently, President Trump has authorized NASA to direct missions to go back to the Moon and establish a moon base. In addition, NASA has been developing a long-term plan to send astronauts to the red planet, Mars, for potential exploration and colonization. Not only would this build upon the success of NASA, and the Soviet Space Program, but would usher in a new age in space technology. Companies like SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic have been developing spacecraft to make space travel a real possibility. We may see a new era, where both public space agencies, and private space companies, working together in a Public-Private-Partnership to enhance space travel and make it affordable for the masses. The future looks bright for mankind and we may soon see a day where we watch live footage of man stepping foot on the Moon once more.
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