Many historians believe that the Cold War officially began on March 12, 1947 when the United States passed a new foreign policy under the name of the Truman Doctrine, which was a vow to help nations threatened by the Soviet expansion. This was the beginning of a long and silent conflict where the two rivals would never confront directly, but would wage proxy wars on many fronts.
The Cold War was primarily fought through proxy wars, which resulted in many millions of deaths throughout the world where the United States would intervene in a country threatened by Communism, as we’ve seen in the Korean and Vietnamese wars among numerous others.
And it had disastrous consequences.
However, the two superpowers didn’t exclusively confront each other on foreign lands through foreign armies, they also competed for scientific and technological supremacy as a national security necessity and a showcase of ideological superiority.
This rivalry culminated in the space race where both nations attempted to push the boundaries of science and technology and they both chose space, the final frontier, as the battleground in a race to demonstrate scientific, technological and most importantly, ideological superiority.
The space race began with the missile-based nuclear arms race that occurred right after the end of WWII. Following the collapse of Nazi Germany, both nations scrambled to capture German scientists who were involved in Germany’s rocket development program and they both got their fair share of Nazi scientists which accelerated and fueled the race.
By 1961, 6 years after the start of the race, it looked like the Americans were losing to Russian engineering ingenuity. On April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man to go into space, make a full orbit around the earth and return safely. Not only did Gagarin make history that day, he also placed the Soviet Union on the map as a superpower with technological edge over its enemies.
The Soviet Union had been beating the United States at every major breakthrough in the Space Race since 1957.
- Oct 4, 1957: Sputnik 1, first artificial satellite in orbit.
- Nov 3, 1957: Laika, first dog in orbit.
- Jun 2, 1959: Luna 1, first man-made object to orbit the sun.
- Sept 13, 1959: Luna 2, first man-made object to impact the Moon
At that point, the Americans were desperate for a win. Losing to the Soviet Union in the Space Race was outrageous and humiliating in the eyes of the Americans, it was something the American administration could not stand for.
Something had to be done.
On May 25, a month after the successful mission of Yuri Gagarin, American president John F. Kennedy addressed congress and challenged Americans to go to the moon before the end of the decade.
Everyone was ecstatic, pride was re-surging, the president had spoken and with it the restoration of American pride had begun.
It is easy to get carried away at a moment of national euphoria, get distracted and ignore the technical challenges of such an endeavor, not to mention the economic value and feasibility of the project.
Unexpected Turn of Events
On September 20, 1963, in a moment of desperation and in an attempt to conceal the decline of American technological superiority against surging Soviet ingenuity, President Kennedy gave a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in which he proposed cooperation between the two superpowers in the goal of reaching the moon, and by cooperation he meant going together.
This is what President Kennedy said on that day. You can read the full speech here.
Finally, in a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity-in the field of space–there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts in the regulation and exploration of space. I include among these possibilities a joint expedition to the moon. Space offers no problems of sovereignty; by resolution of this Assembly, the members of the United Nations have foresworn any claim to territorial rights in outer space or on celestial bodies, and declared that international law and the United Nations Charter will apply. Why, therefore, should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure? Surely, we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries–indeed of all the world–cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending some day in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries.
The proposal was received with skepticism on both sides. On the American side, the entire space program was facing fierce opposition, the program’s adversaries cited the high cost of the planned trip to the moon, estimated at $20 billion. On the Soviet side, the proposal was initially rejected by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
However, on October 2, 1997, Sergei Khrushchev (Nikita’s son) revealed that his father was having second thoughts after the initial rejection and was leaning toward accepting Kennedy’s offer of a joint space mission.
The Soviet Premier agreed with his military leaders that such a joint mission would give the Americans access to Soviet rocket technology but he also realized that it goes both ways and that the Soviets can too learn from American technology. He concluded that technological gains and cost benefits are too much of an opportunity to pass on, for both nations.
Despite the legality of such a proposal, mainly whether Congress would approve such a project among other issues, Nikita Khrushchev was seriously considering accepting Kennedy’s offer. He soon changed his mind when Lyndon Johnson took office following Kennedy’s assassination, as the Soviet Premier didn’t trust the new American president.
In late 1963, the Soviets were still designing their lunar launch vehicle, the N-1, and their manned spacecraft system, the Soyuz. The N-1 was abandoned after multiple launch failures and the manned lunar program was discontinued following the U.S. landing on the moon with Apollo 11 therefore winning the space race.
No matter the reasons and motivations behind it, the space race was a healthy competition which benefited all of humanity. During these 18 years, humanity’s collective scientific reservoir increased hundreds of folds ushering us into the microchip and information age we live in today.
These are some of the breakthroughs that happened thanks to the space race: Satellite TV, Laptops, Dustbuster, Smoke Carbon-Monoxide Detectors, Tele-medicine, The Joystick, 3D Graphics, Virtual Reality, Non-Reflective Displays, Ear Thermometers, Satellite Navigation (GPS).