The Space Race - First Part

The Space Race - First Part
By Klaus Schmidt

In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) announced the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a time span between July 1957 to December 1958. This period was to be filled with numerous scientific experiments and studies about Earth. It was in 1955 that the Soviet Union surprised the world by announcing the plan to orbit a satellite in the International Geophysical Year. As this was the time of great rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, US President Eisenhower promised that the United States would orbit a satellite in this period themselves. This was the start of the Space Race.

Both countries had missiles in development, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Their mission was the same on both sides: To deliver a single nuclear warhead over an intercontinental distance. But as the Soviet warhead was much heavier than the US one, the Soviets developed, from the beginning on, a stronger rocket, which showed very useful later in history for use as a space launcher. In the United States, the satellite should have been orbited by an all-civil rocket, the Vanguard.

Sputnik 1 was launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. It was a shock for the western hemisphere, all forth the United States. Not only that the Soviets had orbited a satellite, it was the mass that shocked the governmental authorities. Though the Sputnik itself weighed only 84 kilograms, the third stage of the rocket orbited the Earth as well. And this stage alone weighed about 7.5 tonnes. In contrast, the US satellite, named like its launcher Vanguard, had a mass of only 1.36 kilograms and the rocket was more like a patchwork. Tauntingly said, the Americans put every kind of rocket together they could find. Not that surprising that the maiden launched failed only a few seconds after lift-off.

But in the progress of developing the first satellites, the United States slowly recognized their shortfall in rocket technology and allowed Wernher von Braun and his Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) to reinforce a military Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), the Redstone, with two additional stages, so that this launcher, now called Jupiter-C, was able to deliver a small payload into orbit. The first US satellite, Explorer 1, was successfully put into orbit on January 31, 1958. In the meantime, the Soviets had launched a dog onboard Sputnik 2, a satellite with a mass of 508 kilograms. But already in this very early phase, one difference showed up.

While the Soviets were able to put large payloads into orbit, their scientific payloads often suffered under the backlog in electronics and the kind of the academic landscape. Explorer 1, for example, although weighing only a bit more than a kilogram, gave valuable information about a radiation belt around the Earth, later called the Van-Allen Belt after the professor who developed the instrument onboard the satellite. In contrast the Soviets had problems to exchange data and information as the whole space program was highly classified.

It soon became clear for both sides, that space flight was a perfect environment to show their assumed technological supremacy over each other. Both thought that they could document the superiority of their respective administrations. That’s why both of them early envisaged a manned space flight. The Soviets approached their goal with a relatively simple solution. A sphere-shaped capsule with no possibility for the spaceman to control or steer the craft.

On the other side of the Earth, the Americans had two concepts under investigation. They had a very successful experimental flight program, the X-15. One option was to develop a next evolutionary step of this craft, the reusable like a plane X-20. First to be carried under a Mach-3 bomber, the B-70, up the atmosphere to fly ballistic flight profiles. Later the craft should have been fitted onto a Titan rocket in order to fly orbital missions. As the realisation of this program would have taken a long time, it was decided to initiate the “Man in Space Soonest” program, that later became the Mercury project. The X-20 was kept alive for a few years as an Air Force program but was then cancelled. One can only speculate how space flight would have developed if the United States had chosen a fully reusable craft from the beginning on.

After these initial competitions between the two Superpowers about the firsts, like first satellite, first man in space, first “space walk”, both states soon targeted a new major goal: the moon. Although the Soviets denied until its decline in 1991 all the time that they had a moon program, the whole program is clear today. Both countries depended with their ambitious programs on large boosters: the Saturn V on the US side and the N-1 on the Soviet side. Today one can say, that the N-1 was the only major failure of the Soviet or today Russian space program (beside the point, that not a single Mars probe ever functioned as intended, if ever reaching Mars).

But it was a very serious duel. Both rivals took great risks in achieving their goals. And as no one has luck for all times, both had to mourn about first victims. Vladimir Komarov died on the first manned flight of a new capsule, the Soyuz 1. The United States lamented about the crew of Apollo 1, Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Virgil “Gus” Grissom.

But nonetheless the United States landed on the moon in 1969 and after a third failure in trying to launch their super-rocket N-1 the Soviets cancelled their moon program. But this was not the end of the Space Race. It seemed that the United States had won, but the Soviets had an ace in the hole. They switched from the exploration of the moon to a completely different goal: manned space stations. Salyut 1 was launched on April 19, 1971. The first crew that docked with the station, Soyuz 11, directly achieved a new endurance record of 23 days, the obviously new goal of the Space Race. Sadly, the crew of Soyuz 11 died at re-entry due to an open valve.

As the United States launched their first space station, Skylab, in 1973, the Soviet Union already had Salyut 2 in orbit and gained a lot of experience in long time stays in microgravity and about operating space stations. But Salyut 2 was still a small station compared to Skylab and had much in common with the first one of its name. So it was not very surprising that the first crew of Skylab set a new endurance record in 1973. After the United States stopped their Apollo-based flights with the Apollo-Soyuz-Test-Project (ASTP) in 1975 to wait for their new Space Transportation System or Space Shuttle, the Soviet Union continued their space station program with a steady pace. In regular intervals, new stations were orbited and each of them incorporated improvements and new features. With Salyut 6, launched in 1977, the Soviets entered a new phase. This was the first station that had two docking ports, so it could be replenished by unmanned cargo transports as well as receiving guests on an additional Soyuz ferry.

The Space Race practically ended with the mothballing of Skylab but still both states walked somewhat side by side: both opened their spacecrafts to international guests. The Soviet Union started their Intercosmos program in 1978 with the first flight of a Czech cosmonaut, Vladimir Remek, the Space Shuttle saw the first non-American to fly in 1983, German Ulf Merbold. Although during the first half of the 1980s the rivalry between both countries grew over again, the signs of a new Space Race were only a short flame up: Neither the United States with their space station Freedom, nor the Soviet Union with their Shuttle-craft Buran had the will or money to push these programs through.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, a new era was to become reality. US-built rockets like the Atlas flew with Russian-built engines. The Space Shuttle docked with the Mir space station and Americans stayed for 6 months onboard the station while Russian cosmonauts flew on the Shuttle. And today we have the International Space Station ISS.

But this was only the end of the first part: A new Space Race already waited on the horizon. To be more precise, not only one, but instead three Space Races would soon become reality.

Watch out for the next parts of the Space Race.

Klaus Schmidt writes about the developments in spaceflight at and The Space Fellowship.

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