The Space Race and the Arms Race

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How did the Space Race impact US-Soviet relations?

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The world entered the space age when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. Though only a radio encased inside a metal sphere the size of a basketball, it made many people in the United States feel that the Soviet Union had technologically surpassed the United States. For the next twelve years, the two nations were locked in a Space Race to see who could put a man on the Moon first.

Between 1957 and 1969, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had very little communication about their goals in space. It wasn’t until many years later that the Soviet Union admitted that it had attempted a manned lunar program. Also, the lack of communication meant that both nations made the same fatal mistakes. For example, in 1961 the Soviet Union did not publicize the death of cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko. Bondarenko died in an altitude chamber when he caused an accidental fire. A post-accident investigation revealed that the chamber’s high oxygen environment made the fire burn out of control. If the Soviet Union had shared this information with the United States, it may have prevented a similar accident six years later that killed the Apollo 1 crew.  

One side effect of the Space Race was that it allowed both nations to boast technological advancements that did not include military hardware or nuclear weapons. Though each nation’s rocket technology had a foundation in Intercontinental Ballistic Missile systems, many people in both nations believed that the Space Race provided a greater opportunity for scientific advancement that would benefit all mankind, rather than just the militaries of both nations.

Though the Space Race ended in 1969 when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, its legacy helped soften the relationship between the superpowers. In 1975, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project had manned Soviet and American spacecraft dock for the first time. To prepare for this historic mission, the two crews spent time living in each other’s countries. Also, while the vehicles were docked, the American crew spoke Russian and the Soviet crew spoke English. This mission opened the door to greater cooperation in space such as Americans living on the Mir Space Station, and Russian involvement in constructing the International Space Station.

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