How the Space Race Worked

President Kennedy Ups the Ante

The Soviets worked on Project Vostok, their program to put a man in space and ultimately in Earth’s orbit.  Meanwhile in the United States, NASA began Project Mercury and recruited seven astronauts to train and fly the Mercury spacecraft.  The two programs were very different in many respects:

  • The Soviet rockets that put Vostok into space were more powerful than the Redstone and Atlas launch vehicles used by the Americans.
  • The Soviet program operated in secret, while the American achievements and failures were broadcast on television for the media, the nation and the world to see.
  • From a fire in one of their Vostok spacecraft, the Soviets learned that a pure oxygen atmosphere was very dangerous (the fire was not known to the outside world for many years).  In contrast, the Americans continued to use pure oxygen atmospheres in their spacecraft.
  • The Soviets used a spherical spacecraft in which the cosmonaut was a passenger.  The sphere could re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at any attitude without the need for maneuvering thrusters.  In contrast, the conical Mercury capsule had to be properly aligned for re-entry with attitude control thrusters that were operated by the astronaut, thereby rendering the astronaut as a true pilot.
  • The Vostok capsule was designed for landing on dry land.  The cosmonaut would eject at 7000 meters altitude and parachute to safety, while the unmanned capsule parachuted to the ground unoccupied.  In contrast, the Mercury capsule parachuted to a water landing with the astronaut still inside.

    Yuri Gagarin
    Photo courtesy NASA
    On April 12, 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space aboard Vostok-1.

Both programs continued at feverish paces, but the Soviets became the first to place a man in space. On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin not only became the first man in space, but also the first man to orbit the Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.  Again, the Soviets hailed this triumphant accomplishment, much to the embarrassment of NASA and the Americans.

Kennedy and Shepperd
Photo courtesy NASA
President Kennedy (right center) presents a medal to the first American in space, Alan Shepard.

The United States responded by putting Alan Shepard into space aboard Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961.  This brief, 15 minute sub-orbital flight did not match the accomplishment of the Soviets, but put America on track in the space race.  Weeks after Shepard’s flight, President Kennedy challenged America and committed NASA to sending a man to the Moon and back before the end of the decade; this move clearly escalated the space race with the Soviets. With the direction of then Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress appropriated funds and NASA expanded its programs to achieve President Kennedy’s vision.

Photo courtesy NASA
On Jun3 16, 1963, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. She orbited the Earth 48 times in Vostok 6.
Much of America’s Project Mercury was spent proving that men and spacecraft could survive and perform in the environment of outer space. By the end of the program astronaut Gordon Cooper had orbited the Earth 22 times aboard Faith 7.  During this time, the Soviets racked up more hours in space than all of the American flights put together; Vostok 5 alone completed 81 orbits.  The Vostok program ended in 1963 with Vostok 6, where cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.  She orbited the Earth 48 times in tandem with the flight of Vostok 5. But the Soviets didn’t stay ahead in the following years. In the next section, we’ll look at how the United States moved forward -- and past -- the Soviet space program.