A grinning Neil Armstrong inside the Lunar Module the day he was the first person to step on the moon

NASA-Apollo/digital version by Science Faction/Getty Images

Who won the space race?

Most people agree that the space race ended on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon for the first time [source: National Air and Space Museum]. As the climax of space history so far, the lunar landing essentially squelched the heated competition between the United States and the USSR.

But the story isn't opened and closed so quickly. Although the Americans put a man on the moon first, that triumph was fueled by a series of back-to-back accomplishments by the Soviets. All in all, the space race played out as a dramatic comeback for the United States starting in 1968, rather than a decisive victory.

For example, between 1957 and 1965, the USSR put up the first:

  • Intercontinental ballistic missile (August 1957)
  • Artificial satellite (October 1957)
  • Dog in space (November 1957)
  • Satellite to orbit the moon (1959)
  • Man into space (April 1961)
  • Man to spend a day in orbit (August 1961)
  • Long-duration flight for five days (June 1963)
  • Woman in space (June 1963)
  • Man to perform a spacewalk (March 1965)

[source: CNN]

This space race also took place in the context of dramatically different resources. While the United States spent $25 billion on the Apollo program to the moon, the USSR spent half that at most [source: Keller]. In fact, the Soviet Union publicly denied its engagement in a lunar program, although declassified documents have shown otherwise.

The key difference in the country's lunar developments boiled down to creating a rocket capable of reaching the moon with a crew and equipment. For the United States, the Saturn V rocket developed by November 1967 hit that sweet spot. The USSR's moon rocket N-1 repeatedly failed testing.

Instead, the Soviets sent up Luna 3, a satellite with a robotic arm meant to bring back moon samples. Although it reached the moon successfully in 1969, it got stuck in orbit and was circling the moon as Neil Armstrong touched down. After a series of additional attempts at perfecting the moon rocket for a manned flight, Soviets pulled the plug on the program in 1974 [source: Keller]. The USSR would launch the first space station Salyut 1 in 1971, but the space race fervor had subsided by then.

The International Space Station

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The breakdown of the Soviet Union and its transformation into Russia brought it and the U.S. together for collaboration. Both countries led the world in space technology, and they signed an agreement in 1993 to develop a joint space station. While funding shortages on the Russian side and technical problems for the United States have caused friction, the two continue to work with 13 other nations toward the completion of the International Space Station.

With China's emerging dominance in the world, we could see another space race to the moon in the coming decades. President Bush announced in 2004 that the United States would return to the moon by 2020. China's space exploration Project 921 involves the same lunar goal on a similar timetable [source: Ritter], which begs the question: Will the U.S. come in first again?

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