The space race is often played out in a blow by blow timeline of events, starting with the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. But the space race might actually have its beginnings before World War 2. The seeds of the space race began once the Allied nations swept into Germany, confiscating technology and absorbing scientific personnel in Operation Paperclip. Sputnik was a blow to American morale and made many believe the United States was lagging behind the Soviets in the critical areas of rocket technology, but it was no surprise to the American scientific community that the Russians had been making this effort, only that they were able to achieve it first.
As the superpowers of the United States and Soviet Union set about applying their newly-acquired scientific foundations, the Cold War sunk in; first with nuclear weapons and contests for bomber superiority. Nuclear weapons were large and cumbersome; their deployment required large aircraft with heavy lifting capabilities and tended to have a great deal of tertiary services – maintenance, personnel, fuel supply and all of it’s infrastructure – that required large bases, spread out across the country. The desire for smaller nukes, led to a development of missile technology capable of reliably carrying those bombs. The same missiles ended up being the basis for the manned orbital missions and satellite deployment. Missiles gave way to larger and larger rockets as payloads increased.
Before the Soviets launched Sputnik, the United States was already looking to take the Cold War into the realm of space, controversially under the guise of the International Geophysical Year program – a program the USSR and several other countries were engaging in. President Eisenhower’s administration announced American contribution in 1955; the United States would launch satellites between July 1, 1957 and December 31, 1958. So the Soviets were well aware of American aspirations to reach space. Naturally, the effort on part of the Russians must have been increased to ensure their image of technological superiority over the West. Many scientists in America were worried about the implications of the Soviets reaching space first; they often communicated with their counterparts in Russia about the state of their respective programs in an attempt to gauge their own progress. By the time of the IGY meeting on October 4, 1957, the Russians were still keeping their launch secret, but that evening the announcement at the meeting shattered American ideals of technological greatness.
“International Geophysical Year.” Wikipedia, September 20, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=International_Geophysical_Year&oldid=801596356.
Roger D. Launius. “Sputnik and the Origins of the Space Age.” Accessed October 16, 2017. https://history.nasa.gov/sputnik/sputorig.html.
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