During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union endeavored to demonstrate their power. The space race served as an opportunity for the two nations to showcase their scientific and technological capabilities. Amidst propoganda, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. competed for superiority in space as they constantly tried to top each other.
During World War II, Germany attacked Great Britain from across the English Channel using V-2 rockets developed by their brilliant rocket scientists and engineers. Among these was the notable Wernher von Braun who, along with many other scientists, surrendered to the United States at the end of the war. Wernher von Braun had a major role during the space race, leading the teams that developed some of the United States' rockets, including the Jupiter, Redstone, and Saturn rockets. Meanwhile, many of the other German rocket engineers had decided to work for the Soviet Union at the end of the war. Both the United States and the Soviet Union benefited from the expertise of these German rocket scientists in their quest for space superiority.
Due to the fear of burn-up in reentry and contamination by space germs, the first space flights planned were in the form of unmanned satellite launches. The Soviet Union threw down the gauntlet when on October 4, 1957, Sputnik I was launched into space as the first orbiting satellite. A month later, on November 3, the Soviet Union set another record when it launched Sputnik II with the first living creature in space: a dog named Laika. On January 31 of the following year, the United States countered with Explorer I, its first satellite. In 1960, the U.S. began its Corona program, a recently declassified satellite reconnaissance program developed by the CIA and the Air Force, which returned photographs of the U.S.S.R. and China.
The next level in the space race was the sending of a human into orbit around the earth. While the U.S. space program was kept fairly public, the Soviet Union continued in secrecy. The U.S. began its Mercury program with an unmanned 18 minute flight on January 31, 1961 that carried Ham the chimpanzee. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union went forward with its Vostok (East) program. The first human fatality of the space race occured on March 23, 1961 when Valentin V. Bondarenko, a cosmonaut trainee, died in a pressure chamber fire that was covered up by Soviet officials. Despite this tragedy, the U.S.S.R. once again gained the upper hand in the space race. On April 12, Yuri Alekseyvich Gagarin became the first human in space when he completed one orbit in a 108 minute space flight aboard Vostok I. Later, in June 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.
The United States began to catch up when Alan B. Shepard, Jr. flew in a fifteen-minute suborbital flight on May 5. In another suborbital flight on July 21, 1961 by Virgil "Gus" Ivan Grissom, the hatch on the capsule was blown off too soon after landing in the water. Although the capsule sank, Virgil Grissom was rescued. Finally, on February 20, 1962, John H. Glenn, Jr. orbited the earth three times in under five hours. Upon reentry, a problem developed when it was discovered that the capsule's heat shield was not locked into position. Luckily, the heat shield stayed in position and John H. Glenn, Jr. returned home safely as a national hero. The last Mercury mission carried L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. for 34 hours, 19 minutes, and 49 seconds in twenty-two orbits.
The next round of competition involved multiperson flights. The United States announced its Gemini program of two-person capsules in 1961. On the other side of the world, Soviet engineers worked hastily to modify their Vostok capsules for their Voskhod (Sunrise) program, eliminating some safety features, such as ejection seats, in order to accomodate three people. The race continued.
Voskhod I became the first multiperson capsule, launching on October 12, 1964 with Vladimir M. Komarov, Konstantin P. Feoktistov, and Boris B. Yegorov aboard. They were also the first to land their capsule on the ground. And in March 1965, Alexei A. Leonov made the first "walk" in space.
Gemini 3, launched on March 23, 1965, was the first manned, multiperson spaceflight of the United States. With Gemini 4, which took off on June 3, Edward H. White II earned his status as the first American to walk in space, traveling 6000 miles. In December, the Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 spacecraft were manuevered to within one foot of each other. On March 16, 1966, the world's first space docking was performed by the pilots of Gemini 8, Neil A. Armstrong and David R. Scott, who connected with an Agena rocket.
The United States and Soviet Union now went ahead with their plans to achieve the final goal in the space race: landing a person on the moon. The U.S. dubbed their program Apollo while the U.S.S.R. entitled theirs Soyuz (Union).
Test flights of both programs encountered tragedy. On January 27, 1967, during preparations for a low earth orbit flight, a fire inside the highly oxygenated, sealed cabin of the first manned Apollo mission resulted in the deaths of astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee. On April 23, 1967, the parachute failed on Soyuz I as it was returning to earth. The crash killed the sole pilot of the mission, Vladimar M. Komarov.
Aware of Soviet preparations for a manned lunar fly-by, NASA launched Apollo 8, the first manned expedition to the moon, on December 21, 1968. Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr., and William A. Anders orbited the moon and made observations.
The legendary Apollo 11 mission, carrying Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins, began with its launch on July 16, 1969 aboard a Saturn V rocket. After entering lunar orbit, the Lunar Module (Eagle), with Armstrong and Aldrin, separated from the Command/Service Module (Columbia) and began its landing. At 4:17 PM on July 20, 1969, the Lunar Module landed on a lunar plain known as the Sea of Tranquility with an announcement by Armstrong: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." At 10:39 PM, the hatch of the Lunar Module opened. At 10:56, Neil Armstrong became the first person to step on the moon with these infamous words: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."