The space race is called the competition for the conquest of outer space that took place between the United States and the Soviet Union , which lasted from 1957 to 1975 .
This involved an effort by both countries to put artificial satellites into orbit, send human beings into space, explore other planets and reach the lunar surface.
The launch of the Soviet artificial satellite Sputnik 1 in October 1957 is believed to have started the space race.
At first it was the Soviets who took the lead by putting the first artificial satellite into orbit and sending the first human being into space; However, this situation was reversed and it was the Americans who first reached the moon, in 1969 .
The space race weakened at the beginning of the 70s, since in 1972 both powers began a joint project, the Apollo-Soyuz, which in 1975 achieved the coupling in space of an American and a Soviet spacecraft.
The space race was one of the main axes of the scientific and technological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War era . In this context, the successes and failures of space missions were perceived as triumphs or defeats of one political and socioeconomic model over the other.
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Historical context of the space race
After the end of World War II , international politics became polarized. The most powerful states in the world were grouped into 2 large blocks: the capitalist or western , led by the United States, and the communist or eastern, led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Both blocks embarked on a competition to obtain world hegemony and demonstrate the advantages of the political and socioeconomic system they defended.
This period is known as the Cold War because, although the accumulation of weapons and troops was massive and the threats of constant aggression, there were no direct confrontations between the military of both powers.
The competition between the capitalist and communist blocs developed in the political, cultural, sports, scientific and technological fields. In this context, one of the purposes of the race to conquer space that was unleashed between the two powers was espionage activities , since the satellites orbiting the earth could obtain photographs of the enemy’s military and industrial facilities.
Milestones of the space race
The main milestones of the space race were the following:
- On October 1, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 , the first artificial satellite, into space . This was a small sphere, 58 centimeters in diameter and 83 kg in weight, and it had 4 thin antennae. It was in operation for 3 months and during that period it traveled 1,400 times the Earth’s orbit.
- On November 3, 1957 the dog Laika was the first living being to orbit the Earth, aboard Sputnik 2 .
- On October 1, 1958, the president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, founded the Aeronautics and Space Administration (in English National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA) to develop a space program oriented towards scientific research.
- On December 18, 1958, the United States put the Score , the first communications satellite, into orbit .
- On April 12, 1961, Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin flew for one hour and 48 minutes around the Earth. Gagarin was the first human to see the planet from outer space.
- On December 14, 1962, the American spacecraft Mariner 2 was the first to successfully fly over Venus. It relayed data on the surface temperature and air density of this planet.
- On June 16, 1963, the Soviets succeeded in sending Valentina Tereshkova , the first female cosmonaut, into space , who completed 48 orbits around the Earth during the 3 days she remained in space.
- In 1969 the Apollo 11 mission , manned by 3 Americans, reached the Moon. The first human being to set foot on the lunar surface was astronaut Neil Armstrong . According to NASA records, when he descended from the spacecraft and walked on the moon, he said: “This is a small step for a man, but a great leap for humanity.”
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The main consequences of the space race include the following:
- The putting into orbit of artificial satellites that, in addition to spying on the enemy’s activities, allowed to improve communications , carry out scientific checks and make meteorological predictions .
- The death of several astronauts in failed missions while trying to take off or re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
- The pollution of space with waste and discarded parts of space missions.
- The application of technologies developed for space explorations in everyday life. For example, the use of solar energy; the use of thermal fabrics and sun filters; the preparation of dehydrated foods; the manufacture of robots, etc.
- The economic exhaustion of the Soviet Union due to the millions of rubles that were destined for the space race. In this sense, the space race helped define the outcome of the Cold War in favor of the United States.