The Space Race and the Arms Race

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Which was more important, the arms race or the space race?

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It could logically be concluded that the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was of far greater importance than the space race. The space race was certainly of great importance, but that importance was more symbolic than anything else. The race to the moon was a contest between two nations, the stakes of which were psychological: the winner got bragging rights. There were very significant technological advances that occurred as a result of the scientific efforts both nations made as part of their respective space programs, and one should not underestimate the effects of the effort to reach the moon on the morale of both populations. Furthermore, the military benefits that accrued from these major investments in rocketry—guidance systems, separation of stages, and so on—were enormous, but these advances were an integral part of the arms race. Additionally, the August 1957 launch and orbit of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union had tremendous psychological effects on both populations (for the Russians, it was a moment of triumph; for the Americans, it was a symbol of weakness and the birth of a perception of vulnerability to Soviet weaponry and eavesdropping).

If the space race was notable primarily for its psychological ramifications, the arms race was more notable for the existential threat it posed to both countries, and to millions of others who would have been caught up in a nuclear war by virtue of their relationships to the two superpowers. The massive buildup of nuclear-armed long-range ballistic missiles (including those deployed aboard submarines that were positioned off the coasts of each country) and nuclear-armed bombers flying practice runs along the other side’s airspace kept the entire world on edge for decades. The risks of miscalculations (by either or both sides) that would result in the launching of missiles hung over the world, carrying with them the certainty that millions of people would die within minutes, and possibly millions more would die down the road due to the destruction of medical facilities and the long-term effects of radiation exposure. It would be very difficult, therefore, to suggest that the space race was more important than the arms race.

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Between the space race and the arms race, I do think the arms race is probably more significant, given its long term implications. As weapons technology advances and continues to advance, the stakes involved in a military conflict (and the potential fallout of said conflict) become more and more dangerous.

That being said, I do wonder whether separating the two represents a somewhat flawed bifurcation. After all, the Soviets launched Sputnik (the first satellite to reach orbit) with an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missiles, one of the most significant military advancements in the Cold War and one of the key components in any modern nuclear arms program), so from the very beginning, the two were very closely connected. Furthermore, consider that space technology can easily have powerful military applications, something both sides would have been aware of (if you have any doubt, consider the presence of spy satellites in the world today). So while you can and perhaps you should distinguish between the two, I think you should be careful how you draw that line, because it's perhaps not quite as easy or straightforward a distinction as it appears.

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Both the arms race and the space race were important events in the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, the arms race probably was more important than the space race for most Americans.

Many people were very concerned about the acceleration of the development of nuclear weapons. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were stockpiling their arsenal of nuclear weapons. Under President Eisenhower’s massive retaliation and brinkmanship policies, we were using nuclear weapons as a deterrent to Soviet expansion. For example, we increased our supply of atomic bombs from 1000 to 18,000 during Eisenhower’s presidency. Americans lived in fear of a nuclear war on a regular basis.

While the space race was important, the threat posed by the Soviet Union being the first into space was far less dangerous than the threat posed by the arms race. When the Soviet Union launched the first satellite in space, we were worried that we had fallen behind the Soviet Union in the space competition. We immediately put more money into math, science, and foreign language education. We also created NASA, our space agency. However, most Americans were far more concerned about the fear of nuclear war than any threat posed by the Soviet Union being the first country to launch a satellite into space.

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