How the Space Race Worked

Let’s take you back to the afternoon of July 20, 1969. Two Apollo 11 astronauts in a small lunar landing vehicle have one chance to land on the Moon safely. Their landing radar has malfunctioned and the guidance computer is leading them into a field of boulders. The commander has taken manual control of the spacecraft and is trying to set the vehicle down in a safe spot with precious few seconds of fuel remaining. The consequences of running out of fuel before landing would be a disastrous crash, death of the astronauts, and failure of the mission:

HOUSTON: 30 seconds [fuel remaining].

EAGLE: Contact light! OK, engine stop . . . descent engine command override off . . .

HOUSTON: We copy you down, Eagle.

EAGLE: Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed!

HOUSTON: Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot. “

[source: Transcript of communications between Apollo 11 and NASA Mission Control]

Later that night, astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off the landing pad of the lunar module onto the surface of the Moon and said, "That's one small step for man . . . one giant leap for mankind." With these words from the Moon and the accomplishments of Apollo 11, the United States fulfilled the challenge presented by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to be the first nation to put a man on the Moon and return him safely. The mission was a major scientific and technical achievement, a pivotal moment in human history and an event that essentially ended the long space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

br />Photo courtesy NASA
Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong (left) and Edwin Aldrin (right) deploy the US flag during the first manned
lunar landing.

The space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union began in the early 1950s as part of the International Geophysical Year. It escalated through the 1960’s and ended in the 1970s. What has followed is an era of cooperation between the United States, and now Russian, space programs with the building and operation of the International Space Station.

Here, we’ll look at the origins, accomplishments and tragedies of the both the United States and Russian space programs during the space race, as well as this new era of cooperation and the new space races developing in the 21st century.