The Space Race was a 20th-century (1955–1972) competition between two Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (US), for supremacy in spaceflight capability. It had its origins in the missile-based nuclear arms race between the two nations that occurred following World War II, enabled by captured German rocket technology and personnel. The technological superiority required for such supremacy was seen as necessary for national security, and symbolic of ideological superiority. The Space Race spawned pioneering efforts to launch artificial satellites, unmanned space probes of the Moon, Venus, and Mars, and human spaceflight in low Earth orbit and to the Moon.
The competition began on August 2, 1955, when the Soviet Union responded to the US announcement four days earlier of intent to launch artificial satellites for the International Geophysical Year, by declaring they would also launch a satellite “in the near future”. The Soviet Union beat the US to this, with the October 4, 1957 orbiting of Sputnik 1, and later beat the US to the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. The Space Race peaked with the July 20, 1969 US landing of the first humans on the Moon with Apollo 11.
The Space Race has left a legacy of Earth communications and weather satellites, and continuing human space presence on the International Space Station. It has also sparked increases in spending on education and research and development, which led to beneficial spin-off technologies.
On April 2, 1958, President Eisenhower reacted to the Soviet space lead in launching the first satellite, by recommending to the US Congress that a civilian agency be established to direct nonmilitary space activities. Congress, led by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, responded by passing the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which Eisenhower signed into law on July 29, 1958. This law turned the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It also created a Civilian-Military Liaison Committee, chaired by the President, responsible for coordinating the nation’s civilian and military space programs.
First Human in space
Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, 1961. By 1959, American observers believed that the Soviet Union would be the first to get a human into space, because of the time needed to prepare for Mercury’s first launch. On April 12, 1961, the USSR surprised the world again by launching Yuri Gagarin into a single orbit around the Earth in a craft they called Vostok 1. They dubbed Gagarin the first cosmonaut, roughly translated from Russian and Greek as “sailor of the universe”.
Although he had the ability to take over manual control of his spacecraft in an emergency by opening an envelope he had in the cabin that contained a code that could be typed into the computer, it was flown in an automatic mode as a precaution; medical science at that time did not know what would happen to a human in the weightlessness of space. Vostok 1 orbited the Earth for 108 minutes and made its reentry over the Soviet Union, with Gagarin ejecting from the spacecraft at 7,000 meters (23,000 ft), and landing by parachute. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (International Federation of Aeronautics) credited Gagarin with the world’s first human space flight, although their qualifying rules for aeronautical records at the time required pilots to take off and land with their craft.