The Cold War was an era of rapid change the world over. The Soviet Union emerged from World War II victorious but weakened by war, needing to find a new path of industrialization and to maintain control of the myriad of satellite states it had collected as spoils; the United States emerged as the leading Western power, largely unaffected by the war, which was not fought on their own territory, and largely complacent with its position at first. Europe aligned itself between the capitalist and communist powers, and became divided by what Winston Churchill famously termed the “Iron Curtain”. The rest of the world was caught largely in the middle, and was progressively industrializing.
The Space Race would become the technological challenge that would bring about rapid innovation in both countries that would affect everyday life in a multitude of ways. It served many purposes, including unifying the people of the respective nations around a goal, boosting morale when achievements were announced, encouraging competition, changing the focuses of education and the educational system, and, most importantly, advancing technology and science, as well as our place in the universe. In this paper, we will examine some of these effects, and look at their impact on us even today.
First, let us look at the background. While there had been cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the War, and even after, for example, when negotiating the Potsdam Agreement and in administrating Berlin (until 1946, when the Russians stopped attending the joint meetings), relations worsened dramatically after the war. The Blockade of Berlin in 1948, the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, and the Soviet detonation of a nuclear bomb in 1949, much earlier than expected, were all major factors that increased tensions early on (Beisner 2003). While in the United States fear of communism was nothing new, it reached new levels during the 1950’s during the Red Scare and the McCarthy era. This period tended to focus on fear of the enemy from within, sleeper agents or even Americans who sympathized with communism.
A dramatic change of focus came about on October 4th, 1947, however, when the Soviets launched the first satellite, Sputnik I, into space in a low-earth orbit. While this was a major advance for science and human history, it was also a demonstration that the Soviets had technology capable of sending a warhead anywhere on Earth, and it caused great concern in the United States (Kernan 1997). The event led directly to the founding of NASA in 1958, concentrating American space research into one body with its own funding, and also led to the National Defense Education Act, which spent billions refocusing the education system in the United States, placing more emphasis on what are today known as the STEM fields (Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) (Flattau, et. al 2006).
Despite this refocusing, the Soviets still had a head-start. On November 3rd, 1947, they launched another satellite into space, this one carrying a dog, Laika, which would become the first animal in space. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth. The Americans were not far behind, though; Alan Shepherd was launched into space about three weeks after Gagarin, and John Glen orbited the Earth on February 20, 1962. In 1961 and 1962, President Kennedy publically put his support behind NASA, and famously gave a speech about landing an American on the moon before the end of that decade. This was the kick-start the Apollo Program needed to get off the ground. While there were certainly challenges along the way, such as the Apollo 1 fire that killed the Apollo 1 crew and destroyed the spacecraft while it was still on the ground at Cape Canaveral, the achievements of the Apollo Program were many, and included the first orbit of the moon on Apollo 8 (on which the iconic first photo of the earth rising over the moon was taken), the actual moon landing on July 20th, 1969, numerous important space walks, and the successful recovery of Apollo 13 after the first major American disaster in space. The research done on these missions was also invaluable, as are the many moon rocks returned, which have told us much about the formation of the solar system and the Earth-Moon system.
Now that we have covered the background, we will examine the effects the Space Race had on people at the time, and the effects it continues to have today. One major effect it had was to refocus the attitude of the American people. The Cold War of the 1950’s was one of paranoia, punctuated by McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee. The focus had been to promote fear of the enemy within. The Space Race refocused these energies into something constructive. Instead of being purely fearful of the enemy, the focus became finding constructive ways to achieve things the enemy had not, and to focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The results of this are both obvious and hidden, but present in everyday life. Obviously, we landed humans on the moon, and that is a fantastic achievement. But technology we use every day was also developed, either directly by NASA or by repurposing technology developed by NASA. A few examples include the ballpoint pen, satellite television, the dust buster (and other cordless power tools), modern smoke detectors, the joystick, memory foam, freeze-dried food, LEDs, scratch-resistant lenses, invisible braces, the design of many highways and runways with grooves in them to drain water and reduce risk of hydroplaning, enriched baby food, solar technology, ear thermometers, and more (Conger). It would be nearly impossible to imagine life in the 21st Century without these things, and we have the space race to thank for them. It’s also worth noting that NASA has consistently worked with private industry over the years in developing these products, with the added bonus of making their beneficial and pioneering technology available to the public while promoting the private sector.
The Space Race also served to boost morale by unifying the nation around a tangible goal. During World War II, for example, morale had been extremely high as all efforts were focused around ending the war. But after the war ended and it became clear that the Soviets had also emerged as a super power, and a hostile one, morale gradually began to drop. After the embarrassment of not being able to win the Korean War set in and paranoia spread among the public during the McCarthy era, there was no clear goal. Military defeat of the Soviets appeared less and less an option as both countries built up their nuclear arsenals with an eye toward mutually assured destruction. There was no clear goal to rally around. The early failures of the United States to achieve any of the “firsts” in space only worsened morale. Therefore, when President Kennedy announced that they would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, it provided a clear goal for people to focus on, and a clear path to that achievement that they could follow in the news. And even more clearly, it provided a singular event of massive historical significance, the moon landing, which was watched by an estimated 500 million people worldwide and not only restored American faith in themselves and their achievements, but also sent a message of American achievement to people the world over. To this day, Americans regularly point to the fact that the United States landed a man on the moon as one of the primary reasons for their nation’s greatness. It is referred to often in popular culture, and still provides Americans with a sense of pride to this day. It is also viewed as a demonstration of what we can accomplish as a nation if we put all of our efforts into doing something. Astronauts, and the Apollo astronauts in particular, are revered as national heroes, and American children commonly dream of becoming astronauts. It is still something we rally behind as a nation today, even if NASA’s current budget sadly does not reflect that.
The Space Race also reinforced one of the traditional values of American society: competition. The American system, and capitalism in general, by nature encourages competition; the many “rags-to-riches” stories of the early 20th Century are great examples of this. Re-casting space exploration as a “race” encouraged the American competitive spirit and reinforced this common American value. It also indirectly encouraged more competition in education and the workplace, as more and more people were encouraged to engage in competition in order to achieve direct, tangible goals.
As already mentioned, another major consequence of the Space Race was the redirection of the American educational system to focus more on STEM fields. In addition, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which would later become the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, was created to execute research and development projects in the defense department. The National Science Foundation’s budget grew exponentially from 1958 through the 1960s. Funding for education, including higher education, also increased exponentially due to the National Defense Education Act. While the act is no longer active today, the focus on STEM fields it began clearly still is (Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum 1957). The Space Race highlighted the need for higher education, and a better-educated and technology-oriented workforce in general. These trends are still active today (Flattau et. al. 2006).
Technology and Science also saw great leaps forward. Some of the tangible inventions were already highlighted above. But even the technology that spun off from NASA spinoffs themselves ultimately has roots in the Space Race. Cellular telephone networks, the microchips in our cellular phones themselves, laptops, satellite navigation, etc. would all be nearly unthinkable without the investment made in the space race, and if they did exist in some form, would probably be entirely different than the technology so familiar to us today.
The achievements of the Space Race also would lead to an increased understanding of our true place in the universe as humans. The famous “earthrise” picture taken by astronaut James Lovell on Apollo 8, showing the Earth rising over the moon, the first time such an event was ever seen by humans (Apollo 8 was the first mission to orbit the moon), circulated the media. The image certainly shows the beauty that is Earth, and to many highlights its uniqueness. This image was instrumental in the early environmentalist movement, as it can also be seen to demonstrate the fragility of the Earth and why we must protect it. Another infamous image resulting from the Space Race and helping to place ourselves in the context of the universe is known as the “Pale Blue Dot”. This image was taken in 1990 from the Voyager 1 spacecraft, from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers from Earth. It shows Earth as just a small, pale blue dot against the background of space. This image would also dramatically affect the way we see ourselves as humans in the context of the universe; it is incredibly powerful to see our planet as just a pale blue dot; for some, this highlights our insignificance in the universe, yet for others, it highlights our amazing technological abilities, that we can send man-made spacecraft to such a distance that the Earth is made to appear insignificant (Sagen 1994). These, of course, are only some of the iconic images produced by the Space Race which have made ourselves re-evaluate our place in the universe; but they are incredibly powerful ones, and have changed the course of human history.
In the meantime, the Space Race also contributed to Soviet and American cooperation and a “warming” of the Cold War. Some consider the end of the space race to be the 1975 docking of an Apollo spacecraft with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The mission was symbolic of joint American-Soviet cooperation, and a warming of relations between the nations. It is worth noting the impact that this cooperation has on NASA today; this cooperation set a precedent of cooperation in space, one which would continue between the United States and Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union with cooperation on the International Space Station and now, after the retirement of the Space Shuttles, has resulted in NASA being entirely dependent on the Russian space program to continue a presence of American astronauts in space. While perhaps not the ideal situation, for the moment, the system seems to be working. Such cooperation would have been almost unthinkable in the 1960s, although President Kennedy did briefly attempt to convince Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev that a cooperative moon mission would be beneficial to both countries and send a strong message before a meeting of the United Nations on September 20, 1963. His assassination on November 22, 1963 put an abrupt end to any consideration Khrushchev was considering on the matter, as he did not consider Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, to be trustworthy (Sietzen 1997). While it is interesting to speculate on what such an early joint venture between the two nations might have resulted in, what needs to be emphasized here is that the current NASA program of cooperation with the Russian space agency and its complete reliance on them for transportation currently grew indirectly out of the Apollo-Soyuz docking in 1975, and thus it shaped the world, and the structure of NASA, today.
As has been demonstrated here, were it not for the Space Race that the Cold War triggered, the world would look quite different today. The trend of indiscriminate paranoia during the 1950s might well have continued later into the cold war in an intensified form similar to McCarthyism had the Space Race not provided a unifying goal and something for the United States to take pride in. It helped the nation to move on from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by rallying around his specified dream and goal as well. If not given specific achievements to point to, morale might have declined even further than it did during the riots and assassinations in 1968 and the Vietnam War and its disastrous results for the nation. The Space Race created a public adulation for astronauts, treating them as heroes, and making the profession an incredibly revered one. The Space Race also boosted the standing of the United States the world over, with millions watching live around the world as the American flag was symbolically placed on the moon by Neil Armstrong, and listening to his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” which placed emphasis that this was a moment for ALL of mankind, not just America. The Space Race also encouraged everyone to work harder, much in the way World War II had encouraged massive recycling drives, production improvements in factories, and a general mobilization to involve the effort in everyday life. Education was changed forever, with more funding being provided for science, math, and engineering, and more funds made available for people to pursue higher education (Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum 1957). Curriculum was restructured, and it was recognized that in order to be successful as a nation, we needed to produce scientists, engineers, and mathematicians ourselves (up until that point, the United States was still relying heavily on German scientists, such as Werner von Braun or Robert Oppenheimer; after Sputnik, there was a clear recognition that they needed to start home-growing talent in these fields, as well). Technology and science made great leaps forward, with a cooperation with private industry which led to many of the technologies developed by and with NASA for specific purposes in space exploration to also be given applications in everyday life, improving quality of life in society not just in America, but the world over as well. Thanks to the Space Race, we also came to reevaluate our position on the planet, in the solar system, and the universe; and a new emphasis would come to be placed on our duty to the planet itself, once we were able to view ourselves from afar and truly realize how amazing yet fragile the Earth is. The impact of the Space Race on everyday life, not just for Americans, but for people all over the world, would be almost impossible to overestimate. It is so broad-reaching that it can hardly be measured, and is not in any way limited to just the topics discussed in this paper. It is a prime, awe-inspiring example of what can be accomplished if the effort to achieve results is there- and what amazing results it did achieve. The Space Race ended up being, in the end, a peaceful and benefit-rich outlet for pent-up Cold War energies which became one of the most amazing things humanity itself has ever achieved, and from which all of us, every human on this planet, benefit from, directly or indirectly, on a daily basis.
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