The Space Race, The Cold War
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Issue Vol. 32.4 Oct-Dec 2017 | Date : 09 Dec , 2017

The zeal the US and the USSR had to outperform one another, proved quite beneficial to the progress of science. The work culture of the two superpowers was poles apart yet each one was trying to be better than the other in order to become the best in the world. While the USSR had a highly centralised setup that had an impact on the source of investments in their space programme, the US got private players to invest in their space programme. NASA, the premiere space research agency, was also started in 1958 during the Space Race to counter the USSR’s early successes in outer space.

Post World War II, the Space Race between the United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was a tipping point in history. This superpower race intensified Cold War rivalry because for the first time, mankind was looking to compete in the regime of space. Dominance over space and the race to outdo one another became a matter of pride for both, the US and the USSR.

The competition to conquer space was so intense that a new benchmark was set by one of the two superpowers almost every year throughout 1950s and 1960s. There were many “firsts” during the Space Race. The first intercontinental ballistic missile in 1957, the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1) in 1957, the first dog in orbit (aboard Sputnik 2) in 1957, the first solar-powered satellite and the first communication satellite.

The Space Race did not just impact space research; it left a wider impact in the field of technology. The technological superiority required for the dominance of space was deemed a necessity for national security, and it was symbolic of ideological superiority. The Space Race spawned pioneering efforts to launch artificial satellites. It prompted competitive countries to send unmanned space probes to the Moon, Venus and Mars. It also made human spaceflight possible in low Earth orbit and to the Moon.

The Outer Space Treaty represents the basic legal framework of international space law…

The zeal the US and the USSR had to outperform one another, proved quite beneficial to the progress of science. The work culture of the two superpowers was poles apart yet each one was trying to be better than the other in order to become the best in the world. While the USSR had a highly centralised setup that had an impact on the source of investments in their space programme, the US got private players to invest in their space programme. NASA, the premiere space research agency, was also started in 1958 during the Space Race to counter the USSR’s early successes in outer space.

The Space Race started with the USSR launching Sputnik 1 in 1957, which created a worldwide furor. Governments and masses were excited to see mankind taking another leap towards progress. When the human race ventured into space, it was a ‘paradigm shift’. Neil Armstrong landing on Moon is still regarded as one of the breakpoints in history and his words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for the mankind,” are now one of the most quoted phrases in literature. In a speech to the Congress in May 1961, President John F Kennedy presented his views on the Space Race when he said, “These are extraordinary times and we face an extraordinary challenge. Our strength as well as our convictions has imposed upon this nation the role of a leader in freedom’s cause.” “If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks, should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take… Now it is time to take longer strides – time for a great new American enterprise – time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth,” he had added.

The space programmes of both the superpowers were not just for civilian purposes; it was as much about the military-space programme. Through this, the idea was to fight the battle with the rival by displaying power without actually having to fight an actual war. At that point, the United Nations had to step in to ensure that outer space did not become a battleground for the superpowers. That is when the Outer Space Treaty came into being. The Outer Space Treaty represents the basic legal framework of international space law. Formally known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, the Treaty bars states party to the treaty from placing weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit, installing them on the Moon or any other celestial body or otherwise stationing them in outer space.

Being a visionary, Sarabhai wanted India to become one of the players in outer space in the years to come…

It exclusively limits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and expressly prohibits their use for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military maneuvers or establishing military bases, installations and fortifications. The Soviets were reluctant to sign this Treaty because, in their opinion, it would restrict their dominance over the US in the Space Race. They later signed the Treaty in 1967 when it was opened for signatures. To date, more than one hundred nations have become signatories to this Treaty.

The Space Race did not have an end date and in many ways, the race still continues. But the “space rivalry” between the US and the USSR ended in 1975, when the first multi-national human-crewed mission went into space under the Apollo-Soyuz joint-test mission. In that mission, three US astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts became part of the first joint US-Soviet space flight.

The Space Race left a legacy in the field of space research worldwide. As the pioneers of space missions, both the US and the USSR helped their allies build their space missions through the training of scientists and engineers, Transfer of Technology and by allowing other researchers to visit their space laboratories. That way, both superpowers could learn and improve their knowledge and skills related to space research.

The Indian space mission was in its very nascent stage when the Space Race was at its peak. The Indian space programme owes its development and expansion to the assistance of both the US and the USSR because Indian space scientists and engineers were sent to train in both these countries. As a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, India maintained a delicate balance between keeping good relations with both the superpowers, especially in the regime of space cooperation. As a result, the Indian Space Research Organisation went on to become one of the best space research institutions in the world. In conclusion, the Space Race is one of the most iconic events in the history of mankind. It is quite difficult to assess its full impact in the area of space research and technology. One thing is for sure though – if there had been no Space Race, then surely, the world of space research and space missions would be quite different from what it is today.

The seeds of the Indian Space Programme were sown at Thumba, which during the 1960s, became an international launch station…

The Space Race: 1957-1975

The Space Race with the USSR, which the US took up in 1957, was entirely the result of international politics, as the US endeavoured to contain the perceived damage to its self-perception as the world’s leading scientific and industrial power and it responded to what it saw as a military as well as a political challenge posed by Moscow (Sheehan 2007).

The Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union became an important part of the cultural, technological and ideological rivalry during the Cold War. Space technology became a particularly important arena in this conflict, because of both its potential military applications and the morale-boosting social benefits. After World War II, the US and the Soviet leadership began to identify each other as primary threat and competitor. Several crises in Europe and Asia intensified the superpower rivalry and hardened the perception that the superpowers’ goals were incompatible. One specific goal incompatibility involved the exploration, monitoring and control of space. The genesis of the space race between the US and the Soviet Union can be traced to this period of intense Cold War competition and rivalry (McDougall 1985).

Throughout the Space Race, the Cold War was extended into the heavens and even threatened to annihilate earthly life in a nuclear devastation. In 1957, the USSR successfully launched its first ever satellite, the Sputnik. The US soon responded, as the ability to place objects in orbit encouraged serious space research in the US. Competition over space officially began with the launch of Sputnik I, but competition for taking position in Space had begun even earlier than that. As reflected in RAND reports, as early as 1946, US strategists identified the use of satellites as a vital solution to one of the most pressing issues the US faced after World War II – the gathering of reliable intelligence of Soviet activity and capabilities (McDougall 1985).

The successful launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union sent a feeling of inferiority among US people as well as policymakers. Not since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour had Americans felt so vulnerable to a foreign power (McDougall 1985:22). The Sputnik launch triggered an outburst of American self-criticism and even self-doubt.

After the news of launch, President Eisenhower attempted to calm American anxieties by arguing that the US satellite programme had “never been conducted as a race with other nations”. He also said that American people were overreacting, but the hitherto prevailing perception that the Soviet Union was a clearly backward in comparison to the US made its space achievement seem all the more surprising and shocking (Sheehan 2007: 27).

Expressing the technological and political implications of Sputnik launch, Brooks had stated, “…Not since the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima had a technological event had such an immediate and far-reaching political fall-out” (Brooks 1983: 6). Gene Kranz in his book has also articulated the Sputnik experience as he has stated that the unexpected achievement of Soviet science gave Americans, “both an inferiority complex and a heightened sense of vulnerability in what was then the most intense phase of the Cold War” (Kranz 2001: 15).

By the end of the 1960s, both countries regularly deployed satellites. Spy satellites were used by militaries to take accurate pictures of rival military installations. Both the US and the Soviet Union began to develop anti-satellite weapons as well to acquire the capability to destroy each other’s satellites. Arms control talks between the superpowers began during the period of detente which resulted in the signing of the ABM treaty in 1972. At the height of the Cold War, which coincided with the high point of the Space Race, there were rumors that control of outer space was being sought after so that the nation which took control of other planets, would use them for the growth of nuclear weaponry, such as being able to develop and test the weapons in absolute secrecy, as well as using other planets as a convenient staging and launching area for nuclear weapons (Raver 2006). Thus, the Space Race became a means to win the Cold War.

The action-reaction of both the superpowers resulted in the deployment of ICBMs and spy satellites which had a larger strategic significance over world politics. In the subsequent period, the purpose of Space Race extended beyond the Cold War, although victory in the Cold War was always one of its largest purposes. During this period of an intense Space Race, Soviet challenges in outer space emerged as threats for the US.

Race For Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)

In 1953, the USSR initiated, under the direction of the Sergey Korolyov, a programme to develop an ICBM. Korolyov had constructed the R-1 7, a copy of the V-28 based on some captured materials, but later developed his own distinct design. Subsequently, the R-79 was successfully tested in August 1957 becoming the world’s first ICBM. On October 04, 1957, it helped place in space, the first artificial satellite Sputnik. The US, on the other hand, had initiated ICBM research way back in 1946 with the MX-77410. However, its funding was cancelled and only three partially successful launches in 1948, of an intermediate rocket, were ever conducted. In 1951, the US began a new ICBM programme called the MX-774 and Atlas11. The first successful ICBM developed by the US, the Atlas A was launched on December 17, 1957, four months after the Soviet R-7 flight.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a dangerous chapter in the consequences of the Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union which threatened to take the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. The Space Race was continuing along with the arms race. On October 14, 1962, an American U2 spy-plane took pictures of a nuclear missile base being built in Cuba. Kennedy’s advisers told him he had ten days before Cuba could fire the missiles at targets in America. The new Cold War rockets came perilously close to being used in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (Jones & Benson 2002). In October 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, lacking a capable long-range missile force, put medium-range missiles in Communist Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida.

The Indian Space Programme

The Indian Space Programme had not even begun when the launch of Sputnik 1 made headlines throughout the world. By the late 1950s, India was starting to grow and mature as a stable democracy. The country under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru was in a nascent stage of sowing seeds for a modern democracy as the country wanted to develop its scientific and industrial outlook. Around this time, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, founder of the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, started looking for volunteers who were basically engineers to set up a rocket launch pad in South Kerala. Being a visionary, Sarabhai wanted India to become one of the players in outer space in the years to come. For that to happen, India needed to have its own space programme, which was still a distant dream.

As one of the pioneers of Space Race, the US had already made strides in this area by establishing its premiere space agency NASA in 1958. Vikram Sarabhai wanted to form a core group of young engineers who could be sent to the US to be trained at NASA before they come back to India to work at the rocket launch pad station at Thumba in South Kerala. In his book “ISRO: A PERSONAL HISTORY”, Dr R Arvamudan, one of pioneers of the Indian Space Programme, wrote, “The first batch of engineers was sent to NASA in December 1962. Their project was to build a telemetry ground station mounted inside a trailer which after testing and validation was to be shipped to Thumba for installation. This was to be on long term loan to Thumba but would remain the property of NASA.”

The early task of these engineers who later became great scientists was to get trained in launching and tracking ‘Sounding Rockets’. The training offered to these engineers from India by NASA was what was normally given to an operator or technician as they were not given exposure to the technology that went into building large rockets and satellites. The early part of India’s space programme was backed by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and therefore, some of the engineers working for Indian space programme were still on the payrolls of the DAE, while other engineers were recruited directly from the Physical Research Laboratory.

The impact of the Space Race on the Indian Space Programme could be judged by the fact that the vision for a third-world country like India, which was facing problems of development on multiple fronts, became interested in investing in the area of space, was only because of the fact that superpowers like the US and the USSR were actively involved in space research and space race. This is why groups of engineers were sent to NASA to be trained and get some knowledge of radar and telemetry tracking.

The reason for sending the engineers to US instead of USSR, (which at that time was ahead of US in the Space Race) was two-fold. Firstly, the Soviet space programme was very ‘secretive’ in nature and they feared that any sharing of information with anyone could enable the US to get ahead in the race. They were already reports of espionage and counter-espionage involving both the CIA and KGB vis-à-vis space technology. The second reason was language – Indian engineers being very comfortable in using English had no problem in getting trained in the US whereas to be trained in the USSR, one had to know Russian.

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The seeds of the Indian Space Programme were sown at Thumba, which during the 1960s, became an international launch station. The Thumba space station is officially known as TERLS or the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. It was developed as a facility to scientists from all over the world who were interested in studying the equatorial electro jet. In this endeavour, India was encouraged and supported by many Western countries such as the US, the UK and West Germany. India was provided essential equipment such as telemetry receivers, tracking systems and computers. Some of them came on loan and some were gifted (Arvamudan, 2017).

One equipment that was provided to India was the Doppler Velocity and Positioning System (DOVAP), which was a 40-foot long trailer housing a ground station built by NASA. This was transferred to India under a collaborative agreement with NASA. With USSR, India had its first significant collaboration later in 1970 under which, India had agreed to launch M-100 rockets from Thumba every week in synchronisation with Russian sites so that a simultaneous set of data on meteorological forecasts could be obtained (Arvamudan, 2017). Between 1970 and 1993, India launched over a thousand M-100 rockets. The Soviet Union has been a major contributor to India’s space effort. Foremost in this effort was Soviet technical assistance in building and in actually launching India’s satellites, Aryabhata and Bhaskara. On April 19, 1975, the Soviet Union launched India’s first satellite, the Aryabhata. Designed purely for scientific experiments, the satellite was built by India, but the Soviets provided technical assistance and components such as solar cells, batteries, thermal paints and tape recorders.


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13. Sheehan, Michael (2007), The International Politics of Space, New York: Routledge

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Martand Jha

Junior Research Fellow at Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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