The Space Race

The Space Race was a competition between Cold War rivals, the United States and the Soviet Union, to achieve superior spaceflight capability. It started during the nuclear arms race after World War II, as both superpowers worked to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for delivering nuclear warheads.

The GOAL of the Space Race was to become the most innovative and dominant space exploration nation.

Stages of the Space Race

The development of missiles

The development of satellites

Human space flight

The creation of deep space exploration probes

The moon landing

The causes of the Space Race

There were two primary causes of the Space Race.

First, political leaders viewed developing missile and space technologies as necessary for national security. The Americans and the Soviets first developed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to deliver warheads anywhere in the world. These missile technologies later became the vehicles that launched satellites and humans into space.

Second, by the late 1950s, out-competing one another in reaching significant milestones (see chart below) in space exploration became a matter of national pride and a demonstration of superiority. Both powers invested substantial money in math and science education and developing new space technologies.

Significant events during the Space Race

Achieved by
The first successful test flight of an ICBM
R-7 launched by the Soviet Union on August 21
The first artificial satellite in orbit
Sputnik 1 launched by the Soviet Union on October 4
The first human in space
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin from the Soviet Union launched into space on April 12
The human walks on the moon
American Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20,

The outcome of the Space Race

Despite the Soviet Union’s incredible accomplishments, most historians believe the United States won the Space Race because they landed men on the moon—which the Soviets never achieved.

The effects of the Space Race

The Space Race’s main impact was its benefit to scientific progress and the invention of new technologies now used in our daily lives.

Personal electronics

  • Laptop computers were first used on space shuttle missions in the 1980s
  • NASA created computer mice in the 1960s to make computers more interactive

Communication technologies

  • The American military developed global positioning systems (GPS) for navigation and weapons targeting
  • NASA developed wireless headsets in the 1960s to aid communication between astronauts and ground control

Medical and safety technologies and practices

  • Scientists working for various American government agencies designed modern anti-icing systems to prevent ice accumulation on aircraft and spacecraft
  • NASA first used modern food safety standards to ensure the safety of astronauts’ food from the farm to processing to packaging 
  • Space blankets for first aid kits evolved from insulation created by NASA in 1964 to insulate spacecraft in space
  • NASA created advanced water purification systems in the 1960s to purify astronauts’ drinking water