On October 4th, 1957 the Soviet Union showed the world why they, too were a superpower. On that day, they launched the first man-made satellite into Earth’s orbit. Sputnik 1, which simply means “satellite” in Russian, was launched for all the world to see. Also, for those who wanted to listen to Sputnik, they could do that as well. From an American standpoint, there was much concern surrounding the fact that the Soviets could put anything man-made into space. The regular beeps that were transmitted from the satellite were even thought to be some kind of code, perhaps a way for the USSR to gather intelligence on the USA (Although now we know the Sputnik did nothing but send out beeps which had no significance). The Cold War brought tensions on both sides, and with every scientific breakthrough there was also a military application to go along with it. The United States’ (and perhaps the world) was more concerned with the delivery system of the satellite, because if the Soviet Union can put Sputnik on the nose of a rocket, they also put a nuclear warhead on it.
Earlier, on August 12th, 1953, the Soviets detonated their first hydrogen bomb. Now, with the Soviets being the first ones to cross into space, a legitimate fear existed in the United States that they could be struck by a nuclear weapon in a matter of minutes, rendering the natural defenses of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meaningless. NASA was formed and on January 31st, 1958 the Americans successfully launched their own satellite, Explorer 1.
Now the two superpowers had the know-how to build ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) and both had the capability to wipe the other off of the face of the planet faster than it takes an a pizza delivery to get to your house, at the turn of a key or the push of a button. This aspect was very dangerous and chilling. While both the United States and the Soviet Union suspected the other could launch they were kept in check by the other. Both had early warning systems. These warning systems could not protect the populations of the two nation-states, but they could provide enough time to launch a counter-attack. This meant that if either one of the two superpowers were to launch a nuclear attack on the other, they would be annihilated in the ensuing counter-strike. The theory of mutually assured destruction had existed since the late 19th century, but it was now a reality. Despite both sides knowing that the other would always have the ability to attack after getting hit themselves, that didn’t stop them from always trying to amass more nuclear weapons than their adversary.
With space being the new front of war, the United States and the Soviet Union might as well have been neighbors instead of on opposite sides of the globe. Both sides would continue to develop newer and more sophisticated ICBMs, capable of attacking multiple locations with one missile, on the account that there was more than one warhead (some missiles had as many as 10!).
While there are many contributing factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, one key factor was the American SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative, also referred to as the “Star Wars” program). The SDI never came to fruition, but the possibility of the United States launching an attack, while being able to survive the counter-strike put the USSR at a disadvantage they couldn’t hope to overcome.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Russia and the United States have cooperated in space, with both countries’ astronauts manning the ISS (International Space Station) and conducting research that furthered scientific advancement for the good of all mankind. Both countries have worked closer together when it comes to space. In fact, since the U.S. has terminated its shuttle program, it now pays Russia to fly American astronauts up into orbit.
Space is a medium that can be used for good or evil. With the Cold War over, it would seem that present day space faring nations would use it for good. However, there are certain rouge states that want go the route of nuclear armament. The human race can only hope that cooler heads will prevail.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a dark comedy about nuclear annihilation between the USA and USSR.
Videos/Citations used (in order of appearance):
SPUTNIK 1 CBS NEWS SPECIAL REPORT ON TV, October 6 1957. Dir. CBS News. YouTube. YouTube, 6 Oct. 1957. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
U.S.S.R. “First Soviet Hydrogen Bomb Test (1953).” YouTube. YouTube, 12 Aug. 1953. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
NASA. “The Launch of Explorer 1.” YouTube. YouTube, 31 Jan. 1958. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
“Wilkie Collins and Mutually Assured Destruction.” The Wilkie Collins Society (Spring 2009) Web.
United States. Federation of American Scientists. LGM-118A Peacekeeper. Washington, D.C. Web.
“THE STRATEGIC DEFENSE INITIATIVE (SDI): STAR WARS.” Cold War Museum. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
Malik, Tariq. “NASA to Fly Astronauts on Russian Spaceships at Nearly $63 Million per Seat.” Space.com. Purch, 14 Mar. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.