Follow TV Tropes


Useful Notes / The Space Race

Go To

"Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever."

The Cold War... IN SPACE!

Forget the Moon, Just Hit the Eastern Hemisphere

"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
"That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun.

The start of the Space Race actually dates back to the 1930s. The Treaty of Versailles having banned them from research on cannons, the German Army instead began experimenting with the use of rocket-propelled artillery. Many prominent scientists (most eminently Wernher von Braun) were accordingly recruited into large-scale rocket development in 1932. It was the work of these scientists during World War II which eventually led to the creation of the V1 "buzz bomb" (a precursor to the modern cruise missile), and later the infamous V2 rocket. The V2, first successfully launched in 1942, became the first man-made object to make it out of Earth's atmosphere. Soon after, it was fitted with a payload of high-explosives and fired at London and other Allied targets, becoming the world's first practical ballistic missile as well.

With the end of WWII, the vast majority of these German scientists ended up in the USA regardless of their War Crimes note . The Soviets also attempted to capture German scientists, but were largely unsuccessful and had to console themselves with some of the V2 test sites and factories. The Americans ended up with von Braun and most of his research staff and vital papers, having spirited them and all other useful scientific personnel away from Europe under the OSS's "Operation Paperclip" (it didn't hurt that the team was so terrified of the Soviets that in the last days of the war von Braun falsified orders to get them closer to the Western Allies). Paperclip also claimed Werner Heisenberg and most of the personnel from Nazi Germany's fractured nuclear programmes.

Operation Osoaviakhim (the NKGB analogue to Paperclip) wound up with mostly mid-level engineers and technicians, and a large amount of parts and manufacturing equipment from the manufacturing bases (which mostly ended up in the Soviet sector of Germany). Native rocket researcher and former gulag resident Sergey Korolyov (Sergei Korolev) was selected note  to turn the massive influx of workers and material into an independent Soviet military rocket program. The USSR was characteristically paranoid about Korolev's identity; he was referred to only as the "Chief Designer" to shield him from US espionage. Even some of his own cosmonauts were unaware of his name prior to his death in 1966.

The immediate goal of both sides was not space exploration, but rather the development of better Ballistic Missiles. The US wanted to do this as a means of bombarding Soviet cities, and the Soviets wanted their own for use as a form of ultra long-range artillery for use in support of military operations. In the long term the US was also considering using them for delivering nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union, and while the Soviets entertained similar thoughts they had yet to actually develop nuclear weapons. In any event, military demands were put ahead of any dreams anyone yet had about Moon-shots. For almost a decade, no serious attempt was made for any peaceful use of space vehicles as both sides focused on improving the range, accuracy, and warhead size of rockets.

But by the mid-1950s, the latest rockets were verging on 'intercontinental' range and were beginning to skirt through the upper atmosphere or even Outer Space as a way of increasing their range. This is because air-resistance is, respectively, lesser and non-existent in those areas. Rockets capable of putting a nuclear warhead into space for a brief period could also be repurposed to put up a man-made satellite, and this would be a PR bonanza to whichever side in the emerging Cold War could accomplish it first.

Actual motivation would be derived from the International Geophysical Year, a period for global cooperation in studying our home planet. The United Nations announced it in 1952, and the Soviet Union joined in on the fun after Stalin's death the next year. The Eisenhower Administration announced the U.S. desire to launch such a satellite on July 29th of 1955, with the Soviet Union following 4 days later. The Space Race was on.

The Race to... Low Earth Orbit


On October 4th, 1957, the Soviets won the first round. A modified R-7 Semyorka/SS-6 "Sapwood" ICBM launched a silver ball into orbit. All it really did was go "beep" on the radio,note  but it made the American government beep too. Not only had they lost the first leg of the Space Race, but it had come completely as a surprise and made the US realize it was actually somewhat behind with missile technologynote . With Sputnik 1 ("satellite", also translated as "sojourner", or "fellow traveler"—you've got to like the simplicity of Russian spacecraft names), the USSR had also shown the capacity to drop a nuke anywhere on the planet.

The propaganda coup for the Soviets only got better when the hastily-prepared US answer to Sputnik, a small satellite designated TV3 fitted to the Naval Research Laboratory's experimental new Vanguard rocket, blew up on the launch pad after only rising 4 feet into the air. TV3 itself was thrown clear during the explosion and began to mockingly transmit its signals while lying on the ground note . The press ridiculed the failure as "Flopnik", "Kaputnik" and "Stay-Putnik". Von Braun and the US Army had actually been further ahead in rocket research at the time, but the task for the first American satellite launch fell to the Navy due to political fears that using the Army's designs and hardware in a highly-publicized launch would be a security risk and be seen as "militarizing" the space race. Von Braun himself was furious at the decision, correctly predicting it would be a failure. Indeed, of the 11 total Vanguard launches attempted in the following months, only 3 didn't fail. note 

The Soviets quickly followed Sputnik up with Sputnik 2, carrying a dog named Laika (Russian for "barker", again, gotta love the simplicity). It was never intended to bring her back alive, and Laika died from overheating and stress five to seven hours after launch (a fact not revealed to the West for over forty years; before then, the official word from Moscow was that she had been euthanized when scientists realized she couldn't be brought back safely). Over the next three years, more Sputnik tests would be launched, growing in complexity in both the scientific apparatuses and living passengers they carried. With Sputnik 5, they sent up two dogs, 40 mice, two rats and some plants, bringing them all back safely. By the end of the series, the crude metal ball of Sputnik 1 would evolve into the more elaborate Vostok capsule, capable of carrying a live human into space.

Meanwhile, the US had finally gotten their first satellite into orbit in January of 1958. Explorer 1—the product of von Braun's collaboration with the Army—discovered the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding Earth note  and gathered other scientific data for a three month period until its batteries ran out. Even dead, it managed to stay in orbit around the Earth for another 12 years, finally reentering the atmosphere in 1970.

With this experience gained, it was on to the next step, putting a live human into space (and hopefully bringing them back alive).

The Race to Manned Spaceflight

Let's go!
Yuri Gagarin, on the launch of Vostok 1

Towards this end the US conducted the Mercury program, a cramped capsule barely big enough for a single person put into orbit by one of several proven rockets in the US missile arsenal. The program started in 1959 with a series of unmanned test launches that eventually graduated to launching a squirrel monkey, Baker, and a rhesus macaque, Able, as precursors to putting a man in orbit. On May 5th, 1961, Alan Shepard became America's first real astronaut, riding a Mercury capsule dubbed "Freedom 7" into space for a brief 17-minute suborbital flight. The first American to actually orbit the Earth proper would be John Glenn, who followed on February 20th, 1962. His "Friendship 7" capsule made three Earth orbits before landing successfully.

The Mercury program conducted several more manned flights and was a source of valuable experience, but one thing it did not accomplish, was doing it first.

On April 12, 1961, one month before Shepard's flight, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space aboard a Vostok capsule. He made one Earth orbit, re-entered, and then parachuted out of his capsule to the ground. Once again, the Soviets had come out ahead.

Like Project Mercury, the Vostok series of flights would also be a valuable learning tool for spaceflight. Six total launches would occur from 1961 to 1963 which would set other space "firsts", including the first simultaneous orbiting of two separate spacecraft (Vostok 3 and 4) and the first woman in space (also the first civilian in space), Valentina Tereshkova (Vostok 6).

Unlike Mercury, however, the Vostok missions required the cosmonaut to bail out prior to landing. The G-forces involved in riding the capsule all the way to the rough ground landing had been deemed too risky. In this regard, Mercury was the first spacecraft that allowed its pilot to remain inside for the duration of the flight, but again Soviet secrecy hid this fact for many years (as it would disallow their claiming international altitude records, which require the pilot to land in his craft).

Also hidden by the Soviets was the worst disaster of the Space Race era. On October 24th, 1960, a Soviet R-16 rocket being prepped for a test launch exploded on the launch pad when the second stage engines ignited prematurely, detonating the first stage like a bomb. The massive ensuing fire killed between 80 to 120 workers and ground personnel, most notably Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, head of the military branch of Soviet rocket programs. He was announced to have died in an airplane crash, and the disaster would not be revealed publicly until the 1980s. To this day, no activity at all is conducted on October 24th out of respect.

Bang! Zoom! To da Moon, Alice!

That's one small step for (a) man... One giant leap for mankind.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy had announced his vision of a US lunar landing by the end of the decade (1969). Since then, the Moon had been the ultimate goal in the Space Race. Now with the success of Mercury behind them, the US got serious in making this a reality. It was soon realized that there would be a lot of complex tasks involved when it came to landing men on the Moon; there were questions of orbital docking and navigation, flights with multiple crew, extravehicular activities (EVAs, otherwise known as "spacewalks") etc., and so NASA embarked on the Gemini program to explore these areas. Gemini involved a larger, two-man capsule (although it was very small and uncomfortable for the astronauts) put into orbit on top of a Titan booster. There were 10 manned Gemini missions in 1965 and 1966, gaining valuable experience. This ultimately would lead to the Apollo program, with the sole intent of putting men on the Moon. Apollo would also require a new three-man capsule, a lunar-landing craft and construction of the largest rocket ever built to launch them, the famous Saturn V.

In 1963, Kennedy proposed a joint American-Soviet moon mission. Khrushchev rejected it almost immediately, but quietly thought about it further. The rapport developed between the two men eventually lead to the Soviet Premier preparing to accept the offer. But Kennedy was soon assassinated before the announcement could be made. Succeeding President Lyndon Johnson's distrust of the Soviets made any prospect of a joint mission impossible.

Even without international cooperation, the Soviets pressed on. Once the Vostok series was done, they modified (barely, because Soviet leadership ordered that the project be rushed to make the record for first multi-manned space mission, leading to a haphazard spacecraft that was a dead end for the design of a moon landing mission) the capsule into a two-crew note  version, the Voskhod series. They also performed the first spacewalk, again, ahead of the Americans. But as Cracked mentions, this came at the cost of many important features, as the Voskhod was very similar to the Vostok in design to save time, and thus to fit 3 crew, the crewmembers were forced to go anorexic and not wear spacesuits; while the first EVA nearly killed the participant (Alexei Leonov) with the bends; and the subtle design changes to fit more than one crew member made the instruments hard to access, causing Voskhod 2 to land 386 km off course. Additionally, spaceflight endurance was something the Soviets stagnated on, with Vostok 5 reaching only half of its 8-day endurance assignment, while America reached the 8 day endurance required for a moon mission in 1965 with Gemini 5 and Gemini 7 stayed in space for almost 14 days, while the 8 day requirement was only reached by the Soviets with Soyuz 9 in 1970. Around this time the Soviets also managed to get the first unmanned probe to actually land on the moon (Luna 9 in 1966). note  Later, they landed a spacecraft with a remote-controlled moon rover (the Lunokhod series—the first robotic rovers ever used for exploring other worlds) and also launched three successful sample-and-return missions. note  Despite these successes, their actual manned Moon program was beset by various problems virtually from the start.

First, Sergei Korolev fell somewhat afoul of the new Soviet government—he had been Khrushchev's darling, and after the latter got himself ousted in 1964, it meant a lot more Executive Meddling and a lot less funding: the Soviet Moon program had barely one-fifth of the purchase-power of the American program's budget. Then, Korolev famously feuded with leading rocket engine designer at the time, Valentin Glushko, note  leading to the selection of Nikolai Kuznetsov as the engine designer. Kuznetsov had built only jet engines before, and couldn't supply anything like the Saturn V's Enormous Engines, so he went for an "a lot of mid-sized ones" approach. The Soviet Moon launcher, the N1, had a staggeringly thirty engines clustered on its first stage. This complex engine array had an enormous labyrinthine plumbing system, which couldn't be tested before the rocket's launch, so it was plagued by a number of unknown bugs and resonance modes. note  In all, four unmanned test launches of the N1 were attempted, all resulting in mid-flight explosions (including one that stalled during launch, fell back onto the pad, and flattened the launch complex in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever made by human beings). In 1966, in the middle of the N1 debacle, Korolev himself unexpectedly died of complications after pretty routine heart surgery (his time in the Gulag had left him with a variety of health weaknesses). While finances and political motivations in seriously reaching the moon were the prime factors to the Soviet's failure to land a man on the moon, Korolev's death left a vacuum in the technical leadership position of the Soviet program that proved impossible to fill.

In 1967, the US Apollo missions began. The very first, Apollo 1, ended in disaster when a fire broke out in the capsule during a ground test. The "Block 1" Command Modules were rife with design problems, including faulty wiring. Nominally everything was fireproof, but the capsule used a pure-oxygen atmosphere at greater than sea-level pressure to simulate the vacuum of space, soaking the internal materials and turning them super-combustible. The three astronauts (Mercury veteran Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White—who had made the first US spacewalk—and space rookie Roger B. Chaffee) all died in the capsule due to smoke inhalation. One of the reasons was that the hatch wouldn't open (it opened inward, which meant that the increased pressure held it shut) and couldn't be blown off by explosive bolts in an emergency (as the flames spread in the capsule, the astronauts attempted to unbolt it from its mountings). Ironically, Grissom himself was responsible for this feature. During his Mercury flight, there had been problems with the hatch. His capsule was lost in the Atlantic and he nearly drowned when the hatch prematurely blew open while it was still in the water. Thus, a "safer" version had been installed on Apollo 1. The problems were quickly rectified, however.

The Soviets also experienced disaster in their efforts the same year. On April 24th, 1967, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov launched on the maiden flight of the new Soyuz spacecraft. Like Apollo, it was large enough to hold a crew of three with the intention of making it to the Moon by the end of the decade. Also, like Apollo, it was untested and beset by bugs that would cause things to go horribly wrong. A series of serious malfunctions forced Komarov to abandon the flight and attempt an emergency re-entry, which turned into a fatal crash when his parachutes failed to deploy. The disaster put the Soviet program on hold while flaws with the craft were worked out. Though these problems were quickly solved, continuing problems with the N1 meant that the Soyuz still did not have a reliable launcher to get it Moon-bound, an appropriate symmetry to the US's early rocket failures that had put it initially so far behind in the Race.

Meanwhile, the Americans were back on track with their Apollo program. A series of unmanned test flights of various bits of lunar hardware culminated in December of 1968 with the Apollo 8 lunar flyby. With 1969 came the first manned test of the Lunar Module (Apollo 9) and a "dress rehearsal" of the lunar landing (Apollo 10), completing everything but actually putting a man on the surface. That final step came on the next mission, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got to walk on the lunar surface in the Mare Tranquillitatis on July 20th, 1969.

After Apollo 11, six more manned US moon landings would be attempted. Apollo 13 famously had to abort mid-flight when an oxygen tank ruptured, forcing an emergency return. Although it was considered a "successful failure," it still was celebrated as a shining moment of NASA's indomitable ingenuity in the face of crisis, which was dramatically depicted in the film of the same name. Apollo missions 12 and 14–17 were all successful. The last three Apollo missions, 18–20, were canceled under budgetary pressure and their resources diverted to other space projects. The Apollo 17 mission of 1972 was the last time to date that man has walked on the Moon.

The American success effectively ended the Soviet effort. Ironically, by that time the Soviets basically had everything needed to make a successful Moon landing (including a one-person lander that was tested in Earth orbit) except for the booster. The flight could have been possible if they decided to launch the various parts of the spacecraft separately and assemble them in orbit.note  But with Korolev's loss, and lacking funds, no one had enough clout to insist. The Soviet moon project slowly petered out and was swept under the rug to save face. The N1 rocket program itself was canceled in 1976.

Burying the Sickle (and Hatchet)

May our joint work in space serve for the benefit of all countries and peoples on the Earth.
Thomas P. Stafford to Alexei Leonov after the successful docking of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

In 1975, one of the Apollo Command Modules docked with a Russian Soyuz capsule, and the astronauts shook hands and shared food. This was seen as the official end of the Space Race, and the beginning of a new era of cooperation in space. But "era of cooperation" doesn't have a cool rhyme.

In reality, this had been coming for some time. After Kennedy's death, NASA had continued to encourage the Soviets to join the U.S. in a manned space venture, as noted in this book about the ASTP project. Among many gestures by the U.S. came an insightful idea to relate the story of the film Marooned to the Soviets, who were amazed that one of the heroes of the film was a Soviet cosmonaut that helped save an American crew stranded in space.

It would also be a last "hurrah" for Apollo. Within a few years, the United States became the first to employ a new kind of largely reusable spacecraft—the famous shuttles of the Space Transportation System—which became a workhorse for the American space program for the next 30-some years. This technology of unrivaled complexity was impressive, but it came with a price. Thanks to budget limitations in design and poor considerations to the reality that "space is hard", two shuttles were lost during the life of the program. The booster failure of shuttle Challenger, shortly after lift-off on January 28, 1986 (nineteen years and a day after the 1967 Apollo 1 fire), and shuttle Columbia's disintegration during re-entry on February 3, 2003, were the single worst in-flight space disasters of any nation.

It also proved Awesome, but Impractical in that almost all of its goals turned out to be much more easily (and cheaply) met by expendable unmanned boosters. The STS program initially aimed to achieve a significant economy of scale, utilizing a fully reusable vehicle that could be launched about once a week, but the budget cuts and technical problems led to a severe scaling down of the project and resulted in only a partially reusable vehicle whose after-flight "maintenance" basically amounted to disassembling it and building a new one from the resulting parts, which usually took about a half of the year (so long, weekly launches). The only tasks for which the shuttle was actually preferable to unmanned rockets were ones that took advantage of its unique abilities, such as servicing space stations and repairing satellites in orbit.

The Soviets developed their own reusable spacecraft, the Buran Shuttle. In appearance, it was a virtual copy of the American orbiter, but only managed a single unmanned test flight in 1988 before the program was crippled by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Even if it was a very promising platform, actually superior to the American space shuttle, note  it fell victim to a general feeling that such expensive toys were unwise investments given the new political and economic climate. With funding literally disappearing overnight, the new Russian space program was forced to fall back on the Soyuz capsules, which proved more than up to the challenge, serving all the way up to the present day. The Buran was destroyed in 2002 when its hangar collapsed due to lack of maintenance, though two additional shuttles note  are still in storage in case Russia ever sees fit to restart the program.

That's No Moon, It's a Space Station

While the Americans won the Moon race, the Soviets eventually proved more successful in the business of space station building. The first Soviet space station, Salyut ("Salute") 1, became the world's first in 1971, and suffered many teething problems: the first crew to go there couldn't get the docking mechanism to work and returned without entering, while the second crew did, and performed important work, but then tragically died on re-entry when their capsule accidentally depressurized.

The U.S. retaliated in 1973 with Skylab, a much larger space station which used surplus Project Apollo hardware, essentially replacing the huge S-IVB third stage on a modified Saturn V; instead of propelling an Apollo to the moon, it would be outfitted as a station and stay in Earth orbit. Three crews (using Apollo spacecraft launched on smaller Saturn IB rockets) visited the station before space policy changed and the use of Apollo hardware was ended. NASA hoped to use the space shuttle to boost the station and visit it again, but delays to the shuttle's development and unexpectedly high atmospheric drag meant Skylab re-entered over Australia in 1979 and broke up. It was the first and only space station ever built by the USA alone.

The Soviets, meanwhile, continued the Salyut program throughout the 1970s, also using it as a cover for the similar military Almaz space stations (the Soviet military eventually concluded, along with its U.S. counterpart, that manned reconnaissance stations were not significantly better than automated satellite reconnaissance). Salyut 7 significantly upped the ante in 1982, being the first modular space station testbed, and was followed by the famous Mir ("peace") in 1986. Mir was constructed from several components and sufficiently alarmed the Americans to persuade them to plan to use the shuttle to build "Space Station Freedom" in the Reagan years—which was repeatedly cut back by successive presidents, one of the cut-down designs being derisively referred to as "Space Station Fred".

Then, the sudden end of the Cold War and breakup of the Soviet Union note  caused some unexpected changes to everyone's plans. With the new Russian Federation space program being strapped for cash and Space Station Freedom/Fred/Alpha still on the drawing board, NASA signed an agreement with the Russians by which the Shuttle would visit Mir and the U.S. would help fund the Russians in exchange for use of their hardware. This Shuttle–Mir program lasted from 1994 to 1998, and was a great success; however, Mir was decaying and suffered a serious accident when a Progress automated freighter collided with it in 1997. There was a fire and a breach, with part of the station being exposed to vacuum, and Anglo-American commander Michael Foale had a Moment of Awesome when he and his colleagues helped save the station from this science-fiction-like incident, even salvaging many of the science experiments.

This incident shook American confidence in Mir and, lacking funds, the station was de-orbited in 1999. At the same time, however, a remarkable international endeavor was beginning. After noting the spiraling costs of Space Station Freedom/Alpha, the fact that the Russians had hardware for a "Mir-2" space station they could not afford to launch, and that the Japanese and European Space Agencies also wanted to launch space stations but were low on funds, the Clinton administration brought all the groups together and the International Space Station was born.

The ISS has been under construction since 1998. While costs have risen, partly thanks to the Shuttle Columbia accident and therefore the shuttle being unavailable for construction at times, all the station's main components are now in place, and in 2009 it had finally reached the stage where the crew could be raised from three to six. This is important, as the former crew of three really did not have much time in between maintaining the station to actually do the science experiments that are the station's purpose. The ISS contains components from the U.S., Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency, and has now been resupplied by ships from all four participants as well.

However, its high maintenance costs have resulted in the ISS being somewhat unpopular with some at NASA, who regard it as eating up the budget they need for more ambitious missions, such as returning to the Moon. This has led to some ridiculous ideas, like the station being de-orbited just after it's finished, which have fortunately been derailed. (De-orbiting is required under international space law; however, the Russians and possibly the Japanese have said that if the U.S. pulls out, they intend to keep their own ISS components in orbit and use them as the cores for new stations). NASA has turned to private contractors to supply their side of the ISS, with SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft proving very successful early on. Thanks to their Commercial Crew Program, which are developing two manned spacecraft for the ISS from SpaceX and Boeing, American independent manned capability to ISS has returned as of 2020.

Besides the ISS, privately-owned space station concepts now being built by Bigelow Aerospace. Two small-scale prototypes called Genesis are currently in orbit). They await a buyer, however.

The Chinese National Space Administration, which was were blocked by the U.S. from participating in the ISS program, is currently working on a series of small space stations, the Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") class. They are similar to the Soviet Salyut program from the 1970s, serving as a testbed for larger and more sophisticated future stations. Naturally, like the Shenzhou class spacecraft—a derivative of the Russian Soyuz—the Tiangong is a heavily modernized take on the idea, using current tech.

A Question in 2009 on a Chinese site: Why there are no Chinese in ISS? Malays, Thais, South Koreans and Japanese are all there.
One of the answers: We would like to enter our own (space station). It's not as thrilling otherwise.
June 2021 people discovering said question: WE DID IT!!!

The Final Frontier

The Space Race wasn't just for manned missions. Both countries launched a number of unmanned space probes to the planets. The most famous of these were the Mariner spacecraft, a series of probes that started launching in 1962. Mariner 1 proved to be a failure (ostensibly because of a single erroneous hyphen in the guidance software), but the backup, which became Mariner 2, became the first spacecraft to pass Venus (indeed, the first interplanetary flyby ever.) Mariner 3 also failed, but Mariner 4 became the first to fly by Mars. Mariner 5 was another flyby of the veiled planet, this time with more scientific equipment. Mariners 6 and 7 went back to Mars. Mariner 8 was another failure, but 9 settled into Mars orbit, where it actually remains to this day. Mariner 10 managed to visit both Venus and Mercury in 1974 (it was the only probe to photograph the latter until MESSENGER arrived in 2008).

The other famous line—the Pioneer probes. Pioneer 1, 2, 3, and 4 went to the Moon. Pioneer 6, 7, 8, and 9 make up a solar weather monitoring network, to warn about magnetic storms which can be dangerous to satellites in Earth orbit—Pioneer 6 (launched in 1965) was contacted as late in 2000 and is still considered active. Pioneer 10 and 11 are the most well known. Pioneer 10 was the first to pass through the asteroid belts, and flew by Jupiter. NASA was still in contact with it until 2003, as it headed out into interstellar space. Pioneer 11 visited Jupiter as well, and provided some of the first looks at Saturn. These two probes also carried a plaque with information about Earth, should they happen to be picked up by any marauding aliens.

In 1975, the Viking probes were launched. They were among the first planetary landers, note  and highly successful. These landers were equipped with experiments designed to test for life, but they were largely inconclusive; still, the view they showed of the Martian landscape was the nail in the coffin of the "little green men" vision that existed prior. The landers had matching orbiters as well, which provided valuable data of their own, right up to the end of the decade.

The last set of probes from this period were the Voyagers, arguably among the most famous unmanned probes of all time. Due to a very fortunate alignment of the planets, note  Voyager 1 and 2 were able to visit several planets. Voyager 1 provided the world with the famous "Pale Blue Dot" photo, giving people a sense of how small the Earth actually is. Voyager 2 visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The probes provided a huge amount of data, and revolutionized a lot of the thinking on how the outer gas giants behaved. Like the Pioneer probes, they were equipped with information about Earth, just in case they were ever found. The "Golden Records" contain photos and sounds of earth life, music, and messages in a variety of languages. Both Voyagers are still in contact, on their way out of the solar system. note 

On the Soviet side, aside from the very successful series of the Moon landers, which generally should be counted as a part of the Moon Race, there were a number of the unmanned probes as well. The most extensive and successful of them was the Venera (Venus) series of probes launched in The '70s and The '80s that finally conclusively proved what a Death World Venus really is. The first of these generally coincided with the American Mariner launches and were intended to study the Cytherean note  atmosphere, determining its composition was mostly carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid. No one, however, expected the tremendous pressure of this atmosphere, and the probes died when they exceeded their crush depth. Venera 3 and Venera 4 saw every piece of their equipment destroyed by the time they reached the surface, so Venera 5 and Venera 6 were designed as atmospheric probes. Submarine designers were then consulted, and Venera 7 was robust enough to survive a landing and become the first manmade object to transmit surface data from another planet. Due to the failure of the parachute causing it to tip over and an internal switchboard failure, this data was restricted to just the surface temperature—namely, extremely hot (475 °C (887 °F) ± 20 °C)—from which the pressure could be calculated based on gas laws and the known properties of the atmosphere. (Surprise, surprise, the calculation was extremely high—9 Megapascal ± 1.5 M Pa). Later probes landed better and were able to transmit images of the barren and stony desertlike surface.

The Venera series was continued with an equally successful Vega series (a portmanteau of VEnus+HAlley's Cometnote ), utilizing similar hardware, which was aimed at the further study of the Cytherean atmosphere by the means of weather balloons, and, on the second leg of their journey, a flyby of the Comet Halley. Both spacecraft were quite successful, transmitting the first images of a comet's core and spectroscopy measurements of its coma.

Latter studies, however, hit a roadblock. A curious peculiarity of the Soviet unmanned program is that while it was quite successful with the inner Solar System, for some reason, it invariably failed when Mars was concerned. The aforementioned Mars probe that lost contact with the Earth shortly after landing was only the tip of the iceberg; it was followed by several other failed probes.

For example, after the successful Venera series, Soviet scientists felt that they now had an experience advantage and embarked on an ambitious program of studying the Martian satellite Phobos, creating a complex and sophisticated series of Phobos spacecraft.

Unfortunately, all three of them note  failed for various reasons. Phobos-1 turned off its attitude engines and lost the ability to point its solar panels to the Sun, quickly depleting its batteries, because of an error in the command upload that accidentally triggered a test routine in its main computer that should've never been used in flight. Phobos-2 successfully completed its flight to Mars, but just as it deployed its scientific instruments and was preparing for the actual work, all contact with it was inexplicably lost. It was later attributed to on-board computer malfunction, but the last several images transmitted by the probe contained some strange objects that fueled conspiracy theories that it was shot down by aliens even up to this day. Mars-96 is probably the most tragic of the three, as it was lost in a launch mishap and fell into the Pacific Ocean without even achieving orbit. Even teaming up with China didn't help. Their next attempt, a joint Russian-Chinese sample return mission named Fobos-Grunt ("Phobos-Dirt") in 2011, didn't make it out of low Earth orbit, and fell back down two months after launch.

In 2016, however, Russia finally launched a fully successful Mars mission, with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (a joint project between Russia and the European Space Agency) entering Mars orbit in November of that year. It is the largest Mars probe yet launched, and the first since the Viking landers to have been designed specifically for the purpose of searching for life on Mars.

List of major space agencies

  • NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)—Founded in 1958, NASA is The United States of America's national space agency and needs no further introduction.
  • RFSA (Russian Federal Space Agency)—More commonly referred to as "Roscosmos" and RKA (Kosmicheskoye agentstvo Rossii, i.e. "Cosmic Agency of Russia"). Established in 1992 as the modern successor to the prior Soviet space program.note  Its main spaceport is still Baikonur, but new and more economic spaceports in Russia (it's annoying for the Russians that they have to negotiate with now-independent Kazakhstan to keep their main spaceport) are currently in development. Despite a lot of cancelled projects over the years, the RKA is currently working hard on modernizing its spacecraft inventory. It is developing successors for the time-tested Soyuz series of manned spacecraft and launchers, since the gradual upgrading of these was only ever seen as a temporary solution. One key new vehicle will be the manned PPTS, nicknamed "Rus". In contrast with the Soviet space probe missions, modern Russia's interplanetary probes— aside from the ExoMars joint project with the ESA— have mostly been unsuccessful. Along with the US, Russia is the most important contributor to the ISS, primarily via its Zvezda and Zarya modules, Soyuz and Progres flights (at present, the only way for astronauts to get to the ISS and back is aboard Soyuz), and general on-board maintenance. Russia operates a wide variety of launch vehicles, but most of them are only used for satellites.
  • ESA (European Space Agency)—Includes several national space organizations of the member countries. Formed in 1975 by the merger of two previous European spaceflight organizations, ELDO and ESRO. In the pre-ESA days, it used spaceports based in Europe, east Africa and Australia. Since the 1970s, its main spaceport has been Kourou in French Guiana. Despite a history of setbacks and lower budgets than those available to the Americans and Russians, ESA has enjoyed successes with its many ambitious space probe missions (Giotto, Mars Express, Venus Express, Rosetta, etc.), the Ariane and Vega series of launch vehicles, the orbital laboratories Spacelab (flown aboard the Space Shuttle) and Columbus (part of the ISS), as well as the man-rated ATV resupply spacecraft. In a recent Moment of Awesome for ESA, NASA has struck a deal with it about providing a licensed version of the ATV's propulsion module for the MPCV Orion manned spacecraft.
  • CSA (Canadian Space Agency)—Often seen as merely a Canadian colleague and pendant of NASA and ESA, the Canadian space programme has nevertheless had its fair share of successes thanks to its engineering of spacecraft accessories (mainly robotic manipulation arms), numerous experienced astronauts and participation in international projects. However, the agency itself doesn't possess its own launch capability.
  • JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency)—Created in 2003 by the merger of three previous national space research and spaceflight organizations. JAXA has made a name for itself thanks to its successful space probe missions (particularly Hayabusa), the Kibo research module of the ISS and the H-II Transfer Vehicle "White Stork" resupply spacecraft. JAXA has two domestic spaceports and uses its own domestically developed launch vehicles, including the H-IIA, H-IIB and Epsilon.
  • CNSA (Chinese National Space Administration)—While the PRC has had a space programme since the 1960s, countless delays and political and economic changes kept it on a slow burn until the late 1990s. Since the early 2000s, the CNSA has been more active and now has some basic manned spaceflight and space probe experience. The CNSA's main launch vehicle is the domestically developed "Long March" series. The manned vehicle is the Soyuz-inspired/-derived Shenzhou, and the start-up space station programme, Tiangong, currently has one station in orbit, Tiangong-2. China became the third country in history to put a man in low Earth orbit with its own tech, during Shenzhou 5's flight on the 15 October 2003. And yes, their logo is very similar to a certain fictional space exploration agency.
  • ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization)—Hasn't created manned spacecraft yet, but has a successful history of domestically created launch vehicles (the GSLV family), geostationary satellite launching and, as of late, some lunar probe and Mars probe missions. India has plans for early manned missions in the foreseeable future, but they may suffer some delays due to budgeting and changes in space policy. Their CARE test vehicle, an unmanned version of their Orbital Vehicle, successfully tested in December 2014, indicating that a manned flight might occur sooner than thought.
    • Also noteworthy is that India recently got signals back from their first ever Martian orbiter, making them the first ever nation to have success with their inaugural Mars mission.
  • AEB (Agência Espacial Brasileira, "Brazilian Space Agency")—Created in 1994. Not the only space and spaceflight organization of Brazil, but by far the most important of the four. Brazil's main spaceport is at Alcântara. Brazil has developed its own sounding rockets, and more recently, launch vehicles and satellites (particularly the VLS launcher). It has a rather slow-moving space programme, though still the most active one among South American countries. The Brazilian spaceflight programme suffered a major and catastrophic setback in 2003, when a solid fuel VLS exploded at its launch pad, destroying everything in sight and killing over 20 people, including some of the experts working on Brazilian launchers. AEB has since tried to rebuild and regain pace heavily. In a pinch, the AEB has also been directly participating in the ISS from the start. It has developed some of the smaller life-support and maintenance modules and research devices needed for the station. In 2006, it sent one of its few astronauts to date, Marcos Pontes, to the ISS for scientific purposes. Pontes became the first Brazilian in space. Currently, AEB is developing the new Southern Cross class of launch vehicles, with some help from RKA.
  • KARI (Korean Aerospace Research Institute) — Founded in 1989. Has had success in launching sounding rockets and building orbital satellites launched by other nations. It is currently working on development of the Nuri (aka KSLV-II), Korea's first orbital rocket, although progress has been slow. It's astronaut program produced the grand total of one astronaut who resigned after a single flight to the ISS and the program was more or less abandonednote . KARI is also working on its own lunar exploration mission and a number of experimental aircraft.

For a full list of public space agencies worldwide, go here.

Depictions in fiction

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • The Planetes manga and its anime adaptation offer a near-future, hard sci-fi look at space agencies and commercial spaceflight in the near Solar System.
  • Space Brothers manga and its adaptions describes an older brother's effort to go to space while been overshadowed by his younger brother.
  • Twin Spica is a slice-of-life about a group of friend making a promise to meet each other in space while competing against each other for the astronaut position. Please have tissue box nearby when reading or watching this work.

    Comic Books 
  • The Ministry Of Space (2001) miniseries by Warren Ellis is a (slightly satirical) depiction of an Alternate History where the British space programme is created earlier and under far more favourable conditions and becomes a leader in the Space Race early on.
  • Laika (2007) by Nick Abadzis tells the life story of the first space dog and the researchers that took care of her before her (ultimately doomed) flight into space.
  • Fantastic Four (1961) is a long runner series written during those years. The space race is referenced in FF #1 and FF #13, and FF #98 includes the actual Moon landing.
    • Fantastic Four: Life Story rewrites the events of the previous comic, but with a higher emphasis on the space race. In particular, they mention Gagarin and the haste of the US to avoid getting too far behind as the thing that kickstarts the whole thing.
  • Primordial (2021) is a miniseries by Jeff Lemire featuring an Alternate History where the Space Race is abandoned after something goes wrong with the test launches of Able, Baker and Laika.

  • The Right Stuff (1982): A historical comedy about the early days of NASA, the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft programmes and the astronauts and staff that participated in them.
  • Apollo 13 (1995): Big screen historical docudrama about the eponymous ill-fated mission of the Apollo Moon exploration programme.
  • The Red Stuff (1999): A punny-named feature-length Dutch-Russian documentary about the successes and pitfalls of the Soviet space programme from 1957 to the end of the 1960s.
  • Capricorn One (1978): A Conspiracy Thriller where the US government secretly meddles with NASA's eponymous first mission to Mars.
  • The Dish (1996): An Australian comedy about the personnel of the Australian satellite dish station at Parkes and the role they played in securing communication links between NASA and Apollo crews during the lunar landings.
  • One, Two, Three (1961): At the time of the filming, the Soviet Union was still ahead, prompting East Berlin boy Otto (who dreams of becoming a rocket scientist himself) to make a rather cruel joke to Coca-Cola exec C. R. MacNamara: "Soviet rocket: whoosh, up to the moon! American rocket: pffft, pffft, Miami Beach."
  • Hidden Figures (2016) tells the story of three African-American female computers (that is, people who performed computation) working at Langley on research for Project Mercury. The film's climax is John Glenn's orbital flight, for which one of the women performed the retrofire calculations.
  • First Man (2018) is a biopic film about Neil Armstrong, from his recruitment as an astronaut to the success of Apollo 11.

  • The non-fiction book Lost Moon (1993) by Jim Lovell. It is a first-hand account on the Apollo 13 incident and became the basis for the Apollo 13 film.
  • Stephen Baxter's Alternate History novel Voyage (1996), part of The NASA Trilogy.
  • Michael Cassutt's romance/mystery Missing Man Trilogy, in which the first and last books describe two NASA astronaut's relationship during the Shuttle Era, the middle installment is in the shoes of a Soviet engineer during 1966.
  • In Trigger Mortis, a freelancer millionaire hired by the Soviet Union attempts to frame USA for a rocket-based incident in order to set them back in the space race for several years.

    Live Action TV 
  • The 1998 HBO docudrama series From the Earth to the Moon chronicles the history of the Apollo programme.
  • Discovery Channel's When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions (2008)
  • Several BBC documentary series:
    • The Space Race (2005): Live-action docudrama about the early years of the American and Soviet space programmes and their natural rivalry. Starts with the events of Operation Paperclip and Korolyov's release from prison.
    • Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets (2004): A live-action mockumentary set a few decades in the future, focusing on a NASA/ESA/CSA/RKA crew of astronauts on a "grand tour" expedition around the Solar System aboard a cutting-edge interplanetary spacecraft.
  • The 1990s series The Cape focused on fictional NASA astronaut crews serving aboard the Space Shuttle missions.
  • Briefly touched on in Mad Men: Bert Cooper, although a libertarian, was in full support of the Moon Race (mostly as a "show-the-Commies-we're-better" endeavor). He lived to see the Apollo 11 landing, rising in jubilation when Armstrong set foot, and then died right on the spot.
  • Community does an Homage episode in which Greendale battles City College to be the first community college to pretend to go into space.
  • The Astronaut Wives Club, a miniseries based on the book by Lily Koppel, relates stories of the wives of the original seven Mercury astronauts. It aired on ABC in the summer of 2015.
  • For All Mankind: An Alternate History series that speculates what would have happened if the Soviets get to the Moon first in 1969, and thus the space race continues for decades.

    Tabletop Games 
  • This is the theme of the board game Leaving Earth 1956-1976 (and expansions) by Luminaris. Each player operates a space agency, stages rockets (very algebra heavy) and races against one another to be the first player to reach orbit, land a man on the moon, land on mars, etc. Testing is needed to make sure your parts don't fail in flight. Needless to say, it's a great game for spaceflight enthusiasts who like math.
  • The Space Race functions as an optional minigame within Twilight Struggle that both players can spend cards on to get extra advantages and a few bonus Victory Points for being in the lead.

    Video Games 
  • Buzz Aldrin Race Into Space (1992): Allows you to take control of one of the two competing space programs with the goal of beating the other to the Moon.
  • Orbiter (2003–present): Includes real and fictional spacecraft involved in the Space Race, both in its vanilla version and plentiful game mods.
  • Kerbal Space Program (2011–present): A more whimsical take on the concept and with No Antagonist, but still demonstrates the difficulty and complexity of staging space missions without sci-fi technology. Historical space missions can be recreated even without mods.
  • Battle Zone 1998: depicts an Alternate History space race, where the Apollo program was a masquerade in order to cover up a full-on interplanetary war between the USA and USSR over Un Obtainium scattered throughout the solar system.
  • Mars Horizon is a simulation game where you control a space agency, from the first days of space exploration to landing the first manned rocket on Mars. It can be any of the real-world space agencies (unless you overwrite one with a custom one of your liking), and you must race with the others to be the first one at each space exploration milestone.
  • Red Alert 3: The Soviets have a number of space race-themed abilities, including an indirect take on the Kill Sat. The second Soviet mission has you reactivate their cosmodrome to unlock their orbital support powers.
    • The Orbital Drop/Dump/Downpour ability drops an increasing amount of decommissioned satellites on the target area. The first of which are clearly Sputnik probes, the second standard communication satellites, and at the highest level, the Mir space station. The expansion features a map on the eastern cost of Russia that is constantly bombarded by space junk.
    • While they don't have a satellite that attacks from orbit (that would be the Allies' Athena Cannon), it instead sucks up light/medium/heavy vehicles in its trajectory, never to be seen again... unless the Soviet player also took the Orbital Drop power, letting them drop those vehicles from orbit.
    • The Sputnik vehicle (a defenseless unit that unfolds into a control area in which to place buildings) is said to derive from an abandoned space colonization project.