Most people know about the Space Race – the to and fro battle between America and the Soviet Union over who could be the first waving their flag at every stage. Each wanted to be the first into orbit, to send up lifeform or to walk on the moon. But do you know why the race even began? And how was it that these post-World War Two superpowers were the ones who found themselves on the start line?
The importance of technology in 20th century warfare
Before 1945, although there was some development of small liquid-based rockets, the United States and the Soviet Union were certainly not immersed in creating political superiority through space exploration.
The first part of the twentieth century saw enormous political events such as the Great Depression, the First World War and of course the USSR didn’t even exist until 1922 after the Russian Revolution.
But, as the world watched the frightening rise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany through the 1930s, everyone knew that after the truly horrendous trench warfare of the First World War, technological advances – whether tanks, bombs or missiles – would mean a military advantage should war come again.
Sadly, in 1939, the world found itself at war once more. And, as expected, all sides felt the urgency in being technologically superior, and therefore deadlier, on the battlefield and in the skies. Once the war was over, the huge leap forward of one technology, the V-2 Rocket, acted as a catalyst for the possibility of a space race, even though it was not its intended
The rocket race against time
Like the creation of the atomic bomb, the Vergeltungswaffen-2 – or Vengeance Weapon – arrived late in the war. The first V-2 hit Paris, and on 8th September 1944 the first V-2 rocket was aimed at London.
The V-2, a German ballistic missile, could be launched from mobile units. It was 14 metres high and carried a ton of explosives. More than 1,300 V-2s were launched at the UK and hundreds more in Belgium and France.
Thousands were killed with this new rocket, which, unlike its predecessors, had a longer range, an automatic guidance system and a motor so powerful it could be sent 50 miles above the Earth.
This race, which began in 1936, was about top engineers and scientists in Germany competing against time. Their objective was to produce a weapon so devastating it would smash the allies and allow Hitler’s Germany to win. And a closer look at the programme makes it crystal clear to anyone that this objective had to be met at any cost.
the human cost of future space rocket technology
The invention of the V-2 German ballistic missile, which would propel missile technology into a new era, was sadly a combination of brilliant minds working for a destructive purpose, and the efforts of forced labour.
The V-2 was designed through the talents of a team of scientists led by engineer Wernher Von Braun (later hailed a hero of space exploration), but it’s believed between 10-20,000 people died constructing V-2s.
The German resort town of Peenemunde provided the backdrop for a secret site where, deep in an underground factory called Mittelwerk, the V-2 development programme was taking place.
The factory used prisoners from the Buchenwald concentration camp, seeking out those with practical manual skills. Based in central Germany, the camp held 280,000 prisoners throughout the war from varying communities and nationalities, including the Soviet Union.
Holding this high level of prisoners, the people forced to work on the V2 programme were expendable and therefore suffered horrific conditions: no daylight, no sanitation, little sleep and little food. Many died where they stood and were quickly replaced, while others were shot for sabotage and their bodies hung for all to see as a deterrent.
Under the most appalling conditions, the V-2 rocket finally emerged and was deployed into battle until the last struck the UK on 27th March 1945.
Was the V-2 devastating? Absolutely. But its legacy was not to be the invention that changed the outcome of the war. Its legacy would be putting the first people into space as two nuclear superpowers competed against one another for political dominance.
post-war political polarisation and mistrust
As the Second World War inched towards a conclusion, Allied leaders met to discuss the future. After the Tehran conference, the leaders of ‘the big three’ – the United Kingdom, Soviet Union and the United States – met in Yalta between 4th and 11th February 1945. Vying for power had already begun as Joseph Stalin insisted an ailing President Roosevelt travel to the Crimean resort (Roosevelt died on 12 April 1945).
Some say that Roosevelt sold out smaller countries like Estonia and Latvia to Stalin. They say his primary focus was to secure his vision of the future United Nations, even though he had to concede each member of the Security Council had a veto. Maybe this is true? But it is widely accepted that Stalin, a shrewd political tactician, got everything he wanted at the Yalta Conference to damaging long term effect.
By the time the big three met again at Potsdam, Germany between 17th July and 22nd August 1945, tensions – and a glimpse of what was to come between the United States and the Soviet Union – were beginning to show.
Firstly, those people sitting around the table had changed. President Truman had been at the White House for just three months and Sir Winston Churchill was replaced by Clement Atlee after being ceremonially booted out by the British people in the 1945 UK General Election. Stalin remained a constant, resolute and determined.
Secondly, the stakes had been significantly raised with the emergence of the atomic bomb. Apparently at Potsdam, to President Truman’s surprise, Stalin did not even flinch when he took him to one side and announced the successful test of a new destructive weapon more powerful than the world had ever seen.
Truman would later recall that the calm reaction to what became known as the Trinity Test was due to Stalin having at least two spies within the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb. In fact, Truman’s chat with Stalin at Potsdam caused him to redouble efforts on his own nuclear programme. The Soviets successfully tested their first nuclear device, called RDS-1 or “First Lightning” (codenamed “Joe-1” by the United States), at Semipalatinsk on 29th August 1949.
Thirdly, the balance of power had shifted, and the United States and Soviet Union were finding their place in the political gaps presented after 1945.
The United Kingdom and France were exhausted shadows of themselves, and Germany was defeated. A new post-world order was literally being carved out and lines being drawn across maps to create spheres of influence. So, likely caused by both insecurity and military ambition, the United States and the Soviet Union seized on the opportunities the V-2 presented for their countries.
Almost certainly in parallel to the conferences and with complete knowledge of each other’s actions, both the United States and the Soviet Union captured V-2 rockets for research, and recruited, despite their complicity, those people behind it. Each country not only began
developing missiles but the possibility of using the rockets for space exploration.
The Potsdam Conference would be the last time the three leaders would meet to discuss post-war plans and in subsequent years hostility and tensions would turn into what we know as the Cold War.
the space race begins
The Space Race began on 2nd August 1955 when the Soviet Union responded to the US by saying that they too intended to launch artificial satellites into space.
In August 1957 the Soviet Union carried out the first successful test of the R7 Semyorka, the world’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The R7 had taken much further the V-2 rocket’s technology. They had produced a missile with a range suitable for space launch.
As the propaganda war raged, to the immense frustration of the United States, the Soviet Union produced several ‘firsts’ in quick successions.
Just two months after the Semyorka test, they put the first human-made object into orbit around the Earth. It was a satellite called Sputnik. A month later Sputnik II carried the first space traveller, Laika the dog.
With their confidence building, the Soviets began planning for a crewed mission in 1958. The Vostok program, which ran from 1960 to 1963 was a great success. In April 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth aboard Vostok 1.
The United States responded. On 5th May 1961, they sent astronaut Alan Shepard and his Freedom 7 spacecraft, powered by a Redstone rocket, into space for 15 minutes and 28 seconds.
The Space Race captured a quest for political dominance in such a unique and intensely emotional way. You cannot help but get chills listening to President John F. Kennedy’s speech on 12 September 1962 to the Rice University, Texas. He told the world once more, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard”.
This speech encapsulated the feeling of the Cold War. Going to the Moon was the ultimate way of showing the United States’ skills and unwillingness to postpone or shy away from the challenges of the most dangerous and hazardous thing man had ever attempted.
Sadly, President Kennedy did not live to see the first American astronauts walk on the moon on 21st July 1969.
so, why did the space race begin?
The Space Race began because of an enormous technological breakthrough in rockets used during World War Two. Now, out of German hands, although not intended for space exploration, it unleashed the exciting potential of going into space amongst the once wartime allies.
After 1945, the shifting balance of power meant the United States and the Soviet Union had been transformed into ‘superpowers’ who soon could destroy each other with nuclear weapons.
Even without such destructive weapons at their fingertips, they were deeply polarised in their politics, economics, and values. This had always existed but became dangerously exposed once their adversary Nazi Germany had gone.
The Space Race became just one area, albeit a spectacularly glamourous one, in future years to show international superiority both to evoke national pride and do just enough to keep each other at armlength as the cold war raged.
Elizabeth Hill-Scott – Smart History Blogging
Elizabeth Hill-Scott is the founder of Smart History Blogging, which gives you smart ways to save time, grow your traffic, make money, and write about what you love.
A life-long history fan since she saw her first English Castle on a school trip, Elizabeth teaches entrepreneurs and bloggers who want to start or grow a successful niche blog in the fascinating field of history.
She is also a post-graduate and communications expert who spent over 15 years advising senior UK politicians and public figures.
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V2: The Nazi rocket that launched the space age – BBC Future
Potsdam Conference – History.com
Soviet atomic programme – AtomicHeritage.org
Soviet space programme – Royal Air Force Museum
US space programme – NASA