How the Space Race Worked

America Begins to Pull Ahead in the Space Race

Photo courtesy NASA
In 1965, the Soviets were the first to have a man walk in space, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in Voskod 2.
After completing the Mercury and Vostok programs, both countries developed spacecraft that could carry two or more people.  The United States developed the Gemini spacecraft, while the Soviets developed the Voskhod spacecraft.  The Soviets established an early first with Voskhod 1 in which three cosmonauts went into Earth’s orbit, and this was followed quickly by the first human spacewalk by Alexei Leonov in Voskhod 2 on March 18, 1965.

With Project Gemini, the United States quickly began to catch up and pass the Soviets in the space race.  The Gemini spacecraft carried two astronauts and could maneuver in space (e.g. change orbits).  Over the course of 10 missions, astronauts changed orbits, rendezvoused with other spacecraft, docked with an unmanned Agena rocket and walked in space.

Upon completion of the Gemini program, NASA learned how to fly, live, and work in space for the duration (2 weeks) necessary to send men to the Moon and back. 

In contrast, the Soviets flew many unmanned Cosmos missions during this time.  Most were aimed at gathering data on prolonged time in space by using animals or gathering orbital data with newly developed spacecraft, Soyuz and Zond.

With the completion of Project Gemini, America clearly had momentum to reach the Moon.  Despite the setback of the Apollo 1 fire that killed astronauts Virgil Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967, NASA continued to develop and build the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn V rockets to go to the Moon. 

In the meantime, the Soviets had developed a powerful N1 rocket with 10 solid rocket boosters attached to it.  This rocket never flew because the Soviets had trouble getting all of the boosters to work together.  It was also apparent that the United States was closing in on the Moon.  So the Soviets instead focused on sending unmanned spacecraft around the Moon, developing automated docking systems, and completing long-duration spaceflight in Earth’s orbit.

By the end of 1969, America completed two lunar landing missions, Apollo 11 and 12.  The Soviets had sent an unmanned Zond spacecraft around the Moon.  America had clearly met President Kennedy’s challenge and America had declared itself the winner of the space race because they had beaten the Russians to the Moon.  While the United States continued to explore the Moon with the remaining Apollo missions, the Soviets continued developing and testing their Soyuz spacecraft and Salyut space station.

Photo courtesy NASA
Gemini spacecraft

Upon completion of the Apollo moon missions in 1972, America now focused on exploring long-duration spaceflight in its Skylab space station program.  Despite initial damage to Skylab upon launch, American astronauts repaired and lived in the Skylab in three missions with the final Skylab 4 flight lasting 84 days.

The space race was now over and the United States and the Soviet Union needed to decide what to do next. Their solution: join forces and conquer more of space. Read all about it in the next section.