The race for space started with the National Aeronautics Space Administration, known better as NASA, and was headlined by Congress and the President of the United States with a simple introduction, “An act to provide for research in to the problems of flight within and outside the Earths atmosphere and other purposes.” After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union became involved in the cold war; it was a contest of over loyalties, beliefs and interests of the non-allied. Space exploration became the race for space.
In the late 1940’s the Department of Defense dove in to research pursuing rocketry and the upper atmospheric sciences, as a way to guarantee leadership and technology for America. A positive step in that direction was taken when President Eisenhower approved a plan to orbit a satellite from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958 in a supportive effort to gather scientific data about the Earth. It was called the International Geophysical Year, or IGY. Soon after, the Soviet Union came out with a plan to launch their own satellite, and the Race For Space continued.
The U.S. was now in a bigger race for space to stay ahead of the Soviets; in 1955, the Naval Research Laboratory conducted the first American satellite program, called Vanguard. The nation’s leading scientists decided to participate in IGY and put an artificial satellite in orbit. Following this, there needed to be a decision made on which government agency would build and launch the satellite. The job of the NRL was to design, build, launch, place in orbit, and track the man-made satellite carrying the experiment. In 1957, Washington D.C. did not have adequate launch facilities, so the first satellite launching facility was built at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Control was kept at Washington .DC., and that meant that many critical functions of achieving orbit had to be done far away from the NRL launch site. In 1956 the NRL developed the mini track, the first satellite tracking system. The United States achieved orbit of the Vanguard satellite March 17, 1958. It is powered by solar energy, and although its transistor fell silent in 1964 it is still in orbit today. This was a very substantial development in the race for space.
Vanguard 2 launched on February 17, 1959. It was the first satellite devised to record cloud cover on earth. The Vanguard was the prototype that modeled the US space program; from the knowledge of the experiments flown on board, it paved the way for more sophisticated experiments.
The Vanguard was not the United States first satellite, however. Voyager one was launched January 31, 1958, and it documented radiation zones surrounding Earth. Voyager 1 was in response to the Russian satellite, Sputnik, launched October 4, 1957. Sputnik caused quite a stir with Americans, creating public doubt on the ability of the U.S. to compete with the Soviet Union regarding technology. The race for space was just getting warmed up.
As a response to the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin being the first person to travel in to space in the Vostok one, President Kennedy announced, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out of landing a man on the Moon and returning the him safely to Earth.” Apollo was used to prove that U.S. technology was dominant over the Soviet Union in the race for space. On July 20, 1969 at 8:18pm Neil Armstrong stepped on to the moon’s surface, followed by Buzz Aldrin, six hours after they landed in Apollo 11. They astronauts were able to complete their mission and return safely to earth in just under a day.
Throughout the years, NASA has worked diligently to achieve the dream of a more permanent stay in space. There have been numerous missions to the moon, and also throughout the surrounding space. The U.S. has even sent a robot to Mars. The cold war was over around 1991, with the fall of the Berlin wall, and Mikhail Gorbachev coming to power in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev brought about a revolution with his policies of an openness, which meant a greater willingness on the part of the Soviet officials to let Western goods and services into the USSR. The race for space did not die, but became a need for information about what surrounds the planet; it was no longer about nations rushing to beat each other, but rather about both the Soviets and Americans racing to space for the reason of being able to explore more information about the planet people live and breathe on.
By Katherine Miller-Chichester
Photo By Sweetie187-Creativecommons Flickr License