At the turn of the 20th century, mankind found itself at an innovative crossroad, with the emergence of discoveries and inventions that would go on to have a profound effect on human life for years and years to come.
Genius authors created stories that allowed the imagination to run wild and conceive ideas and concepts that would’ve been unfathomable.
One such idea that played on the imagination of the masses was that of outer space travel, first procured by millions thanks to Jules Verne’s classic novel “From the Earth to the Moon”
As more and more technological feats began to ensue, the far away science fiction concept of space travel became more and more palpable and with the emergence of global super powers looking to make their mark, the Space Race began. On your mark, get set.
The Theoretical foundations for space travel first began to emerge in the late 1890s following Konstantin Tsiolkovsky influential report on the “formula of aviation” which began to suggest the possibility of rockets being used for outer space travel. His theories began to open many doors and possibilities for scientists and engineers to contribute to previously unthinkable idea of space flight.
German astro-physicist Hermann Oberth successfully static fired a uncooled liquid-fueled rocket engine for a brief time and released an influential book “Ways to Spaceflight” based on his studies.
Meanwhile, American professor Robert H. Goddard had been working on this same rocket technology since the early 1900s, flying a similar rocket himself and creating over 200 patents based on inventions related to spaceflight.
Based on the 3 personalities above, 3 major players in the world of space travel began to emerge: Germany, the USA and the USSR or Soviet Union.
The German government had been investing in space travel and rocket development since the 1930s. This continued under the Nazi regime, even during World War II, but ceased following wars end.
The Competitors Emerge
Following the conclusion of World War II, the German nation and political system had been heavily damaged and would take decades to recover and thus German space programmes naturally ceased.
American and Soviet agencies would later compete to capture and hire German astro-physicists to work on their programmes and so prior German innovation and influence would go on to be felt during this period.
Outside of space travel, the USSR and USA began to clash on a number of different issues particularly following World War II.
Despite both being allies during wartime, the extreme differences in political ideologies between capitalism and communism, lack of trust and a desire to be the one true superpower a tension began to rise way and led to what we now call the “Cold War”
With Space Race seen as a strong symbol of power, a political aspect had now began to emerge and the heat began to set upon the United States and Russia to consolidate their global status.
First Mammals in Space
Little was known by then about the potential impact of space travel on humans and as a supposedly necessary pre-cursor to human spaceflight, both the USSR and USA deemed animal test flights as important.
For the purposes of these test flights, the USSR used dogs whereas the USA used chimps and apes.
In November 1957, a 3 year old Russian mongrel by the name of Laika became to first animal to travel into Earth’s orbit. Controversially, technology to allow de-orbiting had not been invented yet and thus Laika passed away shortly after reaching orbit. There was later an investigation into the event, and today many tributes exist in Russia for Laika. — The Soviets later sent and successfully received 2 further canines, Belka and Strelka, who were immortalised and national heroes.
Across the Pacific in the United States, the first animal sent into orbit from NASA was Ham, who reached space and was successfully retrieved in January 1961.
Despite being 4 years following the journey of Laika in Russia, Ham too became a cultural icon and symbol of American spaceflight who lived a peaceful life in a Washington DC Zoo.
Whilst debates on the ethics of this type of animal testing was largely overshadowed by the political implications of the space race at the time, these events had a significant impact on not only the conversation around animal rights but they also laid the foundations for what was to come.
In the grand scheme of things, Russia had started the strongest.
Yuri Gagarin, First Human in Space
Having already predated successful animal flight by 4 years in comparison to the NASA programme, the Soviets had set their sights on pastures new and had now been planning to send the first human into space.
Yuri Gagarin was chosen as the perfect candidate and political figurehead for the job.
A seasoned pilot in his own right, Yuri had served for many years in the Soviet Air Force and had been granted the title of lieutenant.
Following government announcement of the Vostok programme, which aimed to send the first man to space, Gagarin was initially selected to take part in a performance programme along with more than 100 other pilots before being narrowed down to 12.
A well liked and personable character, out of a candidate vote, only 3 out of 12 didn’t vote for Gagarin when asked (other than themselves) who they would like to see selected as the primary candidate.
After further assessment, he was chosen as one of the Vanguard or Soviet “six” and was officially given the title of cosmonaut in January 1961 (around the time Ham was preparing to take flight)- He was later chosen to be the sole occupier of a craft destined to orbit the Earth.
On 12 April, 1961, history was made as Gagarin, in his capsule Vostok 1, became the first human being to enter outer space as he completed a single orbit of the earth. His motherland cherished him as an icon and he became a world renowned celebrity. USSR had again beaten the USA to it.
Whilst Gagarin did not live to see the Space Race conclude, his legacy will live on forever.
Kennedy sets his sights
When John F. Kennedy gave his State of the Union address upon election in 1961, he had initially suggested that there be international cooperation in the Space Race, which was quickly declined by the USSR.
Following this incident, political opposition from a number of different areas and also the large expense attached to the space programme, Kennedy had considered dismantled the entire Apollo programme altogether.
Following the success of Yuri Gagarin however, this all changed. American fears of being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviets had now been reinforced and public support for the NASA initiative began to restrengthen. Kennedy now believed that the USA needed to take the lead in the race, not only as a matter of prestige but an issue of national security also.
“ But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Kennedy didn’t live long enough to see the roots of his thinking blossom but his name will forever be enshrined in the history of the Space Race.
One Small Step for Man
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”
Following the untimely passing of Kennedy in 1963, any plans for a supposed combined US-Soviet space programme were scrapped, and the individual race continued.
Americans, now with a powerful patriotism fuelled by grief following the loss of a president who was going to take them back to the promised land, had a commitment to strive in this race and the Apollo programme began to set its sights on a moon landing.
Following a gruelling period of trial and error, hope and setback, which included the devastating Apollo 1 tragedy which resulted in the death of 3 astronauts, the date was set: on the 16th July 1969, 3 men by the names of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins set out to make history as the first men to land on the moon
Spectators gathered to the Florida space centre, life had paused as beaches and highways lie stargazing as the Apollo 11 successfully launched at 13:32 UTC.
Eagle successfully landed on the moon on the 20th July 1969 and as its occupiers stared toward the earth, the planet’s entire population lay still watching them from below on their television screens.
As Armstrong began his small descent down the steps, he uttered those now iconic words and had just achieved the impossible. There are no more words needed.
The trio splashed down safely in the Pacific on the 24th July 1969 and immediately were tossed into the limelight as American heroes and global icons.
The Space Race was a historic moment in human history. It peaked our interest in outer space travel and left generations inspired. Decades followed after with minimal fuss, and after the tragic Challenger disaster in the 1980s, a large portion of NASA travel operations ceased.
Following the turn of the century though, with private space travel companies attempting to make their mark, and with conversations surrounding Mars making their way to the forefront, we just might find ourselves stargazing sometime soon.
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