Who Actually Won the Space Race?

The Space Race Pitted the USSR Against the USA

When examing the Soviet Union during the Nikita Khrushchev era, many people think about the start of the Space Race between the USSR and the USA. The competition dominated the 1960s as both nations wanted to be the first, and, perhaps most powerful, nation in space. Growing up in America, I was always taught and told that the Americans won the Space Race since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon first before the USSR. I would argue, however, that while the US did land on the Moon first, they continuously came in second place against the Soviet Union throughout the 1950s and 60s. This raises the question: Who actually won the Space Race?

The Space Race began in 1955 when the Soviet Union faced off against the United States in regard to which country would be the dominating nation in space. The first major event occurred on October 4, 1957, when the USSR launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to enter space (Freeze 423). This milestone was massive for both scientific and political reasons as the USSR was able to claim the first victory in the 12-year competition. Following this, the Soviet Union continued to build on their initial success as they were first in sending a dog into space in November 1957, putting a man in space with Yuri Gagarin in April 1961, and the first man who performed a spacewalk in March 1965 (Conger). In each of these achievements, the Soviet Union had continuously proven that they were better than the United States in dominating space.

The US Claimed Victory in the Space Race Following Their Moon Landing.

Responding to their losses, the United States continued to move the goalposts so that they could eventually claim victory in winning the Space Race. This ultimately would lead to the Moon being the final contest as every other contest was already won by the USSR. As everyone is already aware, the US would win this final battle and, accordingly, claim victory in the Space Race that had dominated the past decade. This claim is not based in reality, however, as the US only won the final part of the much larger competition with the USSR. Moreover, the US also spent over $25 billion on the Space Race while the USSR spent less than half of that (Conger). All of this contributes to raising the ultimate question: Who actually won the Space Race? In my opinion, I think that the US simply changed the rules to the competition until they were able to finally win. In turn, I believe that the Soviet Union is the true winners of the Space Race.

Conger, Cristen. “Did NASA Win the Space Race?” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 27 Jan. 2020, science.howstuffworks.com/nasa-space-race1.htm.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

“Space 101: The Space Race, The Galactic Gal.” The Galactic Gal, 13 Dec. 2019, www.thegalacticgal.com/2019/11/29/space-101-the-space-race/.

Wall, Mike. “Space Race: Could the U.S. Have Beaten the Soviets Into Space?” Space.com, Space, 8 Apr. 2011, www.space.com/11336-space-race-united-states-soviets-spaceflight-50years.html.

41 Replies to “Who Actually Won the Space Race?”

  1. This is a very interesting perspective on the Space Race. We have always been taught as Americans that the US won the final victory via the first moon landing. However, I did not know that the Soviets spent significantly less on their space program while remaining competitive with the United States. I agree with you that the Soviets won the long-game when it came to space in the quality of equipment for significantly less cost. The United States continues to use Russian RD-180 engines for the first stage of the Atlas V launch vehicles while American manufacturers attempt to catch up. Great post!

  2. Hey Michael! I think I’d have to agree with you here, I also think that considering everything that happened in the Space Race, that the Soviets actually won. I don’t think its totally fair that the United States changed the rules of the game to make it seem like they came in first. I also didn’t know that before the Americans landed on the moon, that the Soviets had accomplished way more space-related things before the Americans did. Although it seems that the US achieved the most ambitious mission of landing on the moon, I feel like since the Soviets achieved many ambitions of theirs, that they deserve the win.

    1. Hi Joy, thanks for your comment! I also think that it’s fascinating how well the Soviet Union did throughout the late 50s/60s when competing against the US. They truly pushed the boundary for what was possible and demanded that the US stepped up their game.

  3. Michael, the Soviets were in the race to the moon. The Soviet rocket needed for the trip to the moon was the N-1 , about the same size and power as our Saturn V, but it was a failure in 4 launch attempts so their hopes to get to the moon disappeared. They also designed and built all of the equipment for a landing on the moon, like our LM, which would have been ready to go if the N-1 had worked. Most of this information was not known outside of Russia in the late 1960s due to the Soviet inherent need for secrecy. Once the moon landing was accomplished by the US, the Soviets then focused on manned space stations like the Salyut and Mir which were the precursors to the ISS.
    It is true that the Russians did accomplish a lot on a smaller budget. There was a story that the US spent a million dollers developing a ball point pen that would work in weightless space, which it did. The Russian used a pencil.

    1. Hi Tom, Yeah, I’ve heard that story before and it’s always humorous to me that the US wanted to create something scientifically mesmerizing rather than just using common sense like the USSR had done. Thanks for your comment!

    2. Interesting perspective, but consider that if the Soviets had put a little more money into their N1, perhaps it may have been a success. The US was playing for keeps, and as Tom said, the goal was ALWAYS the moon; no one was moving goal posts. If the Soviets had the technology, the capability, and the know-how, they’d have gotten there first too, but the superiority of the US was realized in the end, though not without great cost. NASA outgrew the Soviet shadow, as it was meant to.

  4. Michael, I find your post to be interesting in how basically the ultimate victory is viewed as a total win for the United States. Moreover, I like how you present that it is not the case. The Soviets did indeed make the first and majority of strides when it came to their Space Program. They always say history is written by the victor, but we must remember both sides.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Max! I agree that since the US still exists that we kind of created the narrative that we won since there is nobody to truly dispute the claim anymore with the dissolution of the USSR.

  5. I agree on the point that, while the US claimed ultimate victory because we reached the final goalpost first, the USSR were beating us at every other point in the race. Additionally, I’ve heard the Moon landings described as more of a trophy piece rather than a scientifically/economically useful accomplishment. While going to the Moon is big and flashy, the vast majority of our modern activity in space is in low earth orbit. The Russians beat us there first, and until very recently almost all commercial launches were off of Russian rockets.

    1. Hi, Michael. I agree that we think the Moon landings were greater since the Moon is naturally a greater thing than simple satellites, but, as you stated, landing on the Moon was probably not as useful or mankind as having satellites in space.

  6. Really interesting post. I definitely had not thought about all of the initial Russian success but I guess that just goes to show how good the U.S. has done at controlling the narrative of the space race. Do you think the world claims the U.S. as the winner because landing on the moon was a more difficult feat. I know a picture of the American flag on the moon would be kind of hard to top if you were the Russians.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jacob! I think that landing on the Moon is naturally more interesting to people and the fact that the US is the dominant world power that it is played into the narrative.

  7. Really cool post here, and a unique perspective on it that I’ve never really thought about before. Even though your argument is solid, i would still have to argue that by landing on the moon, the United States still won the space race. But, given that we now work together in space, i think its fair to say that we no one “lost” the space race.

    1. Thanks, Tanner! Yeah, this is just my own perspective on it but I definitely can see both ways, and, like you said, we’re all working together on the ISS so society won in the end.

  8. Hey Michael! I love your post and how it addresses the competition between the US and the USSR in the race to who would reach space first. I would ultimately agree with you. Despite the US’s ability to fiercely compete, the USSR technically did make it to space first with the launch of Sputnik. Despite the fact that the US made it to the moon first, as Joy stated above, all of the early wins were taken by Russia.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kendall! Yeah, I think that people mainly focus on the Moon landing since it was the last major event in the Space Race and since the US landed first. Who knows if the US would have made Mars the new goal if the USSR had landed first.

  9. I couldn’t agree more with you here Michael. As Americans, we hate to lose and to lose to the Soviet Union during that time would’ve been a two for one blow to our pride. I think the perspective you look at it from, there is no doubt that the Soviets won this one and looking back on it now, I am thankful that they did because it pushed us to outspend the Soviets which ultimately led to the collapse of the USSR. At the end of the day, if we had been the ones to win, who knows when the Cold War would’ve ended.

    1. Hey Josh! I think this competition was rooted in both scientific and diplomatic reasons since neither country wanted to lose to the other. This caused both countries to just spend whatever they had to in order to ensure victory.

  10. I liked how you described the US as “moving the goalposts”. Definitely an accurate description based on the facts. I agree the moon landing was a way for America to reassert dominance.

  11. I don’t know which I like more, your post or the comment thread! Would I be wimping out if I said it was less about moving the goal posts (agree with Tom and Jake that the Soviets were going for the moon too), than about different stages of the race? There’s no disputing that the Soviets claimed all of the early rounds — they were successfully returning dogs from high altitude (vertical) launches in 1951, and have all of the firsts you mentioned (plus first woman in space, first space walk, etc). But paradoxically, given how focused we tend to be on the Soviet Union as a monolithic entity, the space problem was actually quite fragmented, organizationally, with different design teams often working at cross purposes to each other (and in competition with each other). The untimely death of Sergei Korolev, the architect of the Sputnik and Vostok, in 1966, leaves the whole system in disarray just as the US is getting it together, backed by massive investment from NASA (the pens!). So I’d say, first several laps go to the Soviets, but it’s hard not to give the US credit for the moon landing (See Jake’s comment above).

    1. Hi Professor Nelson! I definitely think its fair to claim that the US won since they reached the Moon first, but I think that the majority of the world often ignores the success that the USSR had early on in the Race. I wanted to point this out and, hopefully, make people reconsider what they might have accepted as fact. Thank you for your comment!

  12. I feel like even though despite the accomplishments the Soviet space program made in the 1950s thru 70s-80s, I believe that the United States rightfully won the Space Race, as our landing on the moon (and subsequent landings following that) was a matter of prestige in the global proxy conflict we were waging with them.

    1. Hey, Chris. I think that’s the beauty of the topic since there technically isn’t a right answer for who won the Space Race since both nations had their share of monumental moments during the competition. Thanks for your comment!

  13. This is very heated debate. In my opinion, both sides made significant contributions towards the space race and both deserve praise. In the present, the one major thing that people talk about with the space race is the moon landing. One side could argue that the Soviet Union won more of the race but the other side can say that the United States pulled off the most dangerous and risky mission of the race. I guess history is written by the victor because I was taught in school that the United States won the space race and did not know all the achievements that the Soviet Union made. All in all, I tip my hat off to both sides and I wonder if there will ever be a future space race.

    1. I could not have put it better myself! Both nations made advancements in science that still help us today and should be viewed in the same positive light. Thanks for the comment.

  14. Really like the post, bring me back to my freshman year when I took astronomy. Funny enough we talked about this in my class. The soviets in a way really did win the space race, they just played it safe. The US would put everything into one rocket while soviets did multiple test. In the race for the moon the Soviets expected to go through 10-12 rockets if I’m remembering my notes correctly. Your post really shows that the soviets were doing this whole space race thing a lot better. The US just had the loudest victory.

    1. Thanks, Kellan! Yeah, even I have to concede that landing on the Moon was obviously the largest achievement but I think that, when considering the entire Space Race, the USSR won.

  15. Yes I believe that the Soviet Union, if they had really wanted to, and invested more resources into their space program, coudl have easily reached the moon first. They were far ahead with their other achievements and could have achieved a moon-landing first, but a lot of the reason why they did not pursue it, was a lack of interest. They had achieved many of the goals they had, with regards to space, and spent an enormous amount of resources already, and weren’t interested into going farther.

  16. Great post, I always find it interesting that it was basically a war that cost lives, money, and a whole lot of seeing who was the better nation at the end though it was all in the name of research not actual warfare.

    1. I absolutely agree. No actual weapons were fired at each other but both nations injected billions of dollars in the name of beating the other to historic findings/advancements. Thanks for the comment!

  17. Interesting article, Michael. Since all of these accomplishments are well behind us I wonder what the next stage in the Space Race will be, because surely it isn’t over. Does Russia have any interest in going to Mars before the Americans? Or is their a new player in the game, such as China?

    1. Yeah, Landry I definitely think that the future of space travel will include China, but I’m not sure if it will be as hostile a competition since Russia has been taking our astronauts up to the ISS in recent years.

  18. Great post, Michael! I think before taking this class and doing research on this topic I definitely would have said the United States won the space race, as that is what I had always been taught to believe; however, after researching it from the Soviet side and reading your post I would agree with you that the US was not the winner. The most interesting part of your post for me was the part about the funding for space travel, and Soviets spending less than half of what the US spent. I remember reading that the increasing funding for NASA created significant economic equality in the US, and that there were many protests from poor citizens across the country before the launch of Apollo 11. I wouldn’t say either side necessarily “won,” and I think the focus on “who won” undermines the incredible victories made by both sides as well as the costs of the race for the citizens of both the US and Soviet Union that often go overlooked.

  19. The Soviet Union was kinda showing off to the United States that they are a better country than the United States because they were they first country to go to space and the United States show them wrong so technically the United states was trying to show the Soviet Union they were wrong so technically the united states did win.

  20. Interesting ideal. Although a lot of the Space Race was about spaceflight capability and a lot of contests they won. It’s not to say the Soviets didn’t screw up, as their ships crashed too. But making it to the moon was a very historic attempt. Both sides said they won, and their are good arguments for both sides. But the real point here was military dominance in space, which, as neither side attacked from space or truly achieved it, it is hard to tell the true victor. Eventually both got on more friendly terms, so the true winner is honestly: the whole human race. Most of our life neccessities came from the space race, so if you look at it that way, the entire human race won.

Leave a Reply