5 Ways The Cold War Shaped The Space Race

When WWII ended, the Cold War began. It’s also the unofficial start of the space race, only nobody knew it yet.

The Cold War sure gets a bad rap. All everybody wants to talk about is walls, the culture of fear, and Cuban missile crises. That’s all water under the bridge now.

Call me Mr. Brightside, but there are two sides to every story…

From ashes of the unidentified battleground of the Cold War, we discovered the many uses for abandoned backyard bomb shelters, music and art influenced by constant fear of a nuclear winter, unique uses for a gas mask (like smoking weed, huh?), and how to make rockets go really, really far.

Without the cold war, there would have been no space race in the 20th century. In that imaginary universe, Humans are still earthbound.



During the 2nd World War, the USSR suffered massive casualties, over 11,000 soldiers, and as many as 20-million civilians. We lost closer to 400,000 total.

Once the dust settled, everyone figured out that our relationship was a matter of convenience, the enemy of my enemy. The end of war reduced to plain-old enemies, but the USSR had more to lose.

That didn’t mean we weren’t threatened. The U.S. couldn’t live in a world where Communism spread willy-nilly. They were atheists after all.

The Soviets couldn’t accept a world where the working class lived in such oppression as they did in a capitalist state.

Not only that, we had the atomic bomb and everyone knew how that could bring a nation to its knees. The war unintentionally set the stage for the space race.

Atomic Bomb


If it were just another bomb, that wouldn’t have been enough. Until September 1949, the United States was the only one who had it. That was when we learned the USSR had developed their own.

Even though we had more planes and better pilots, they could still hit us with a nuke. The goal was no longer who had them, but who could deliver one faster.

Dropping the bomb from a plane meant strategic placement of the bomb-enabled planes and talented pilots.

We needed something better, a rocket that could travel far and fast, eliminating pilots. We needed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).


The R-7 | aeroweb.cz

Fortunately, we already had some rocket plans in place, but nothing so accurate or long range as what we would come to develop.

Stalin cast the first die, ordering the development of ICBMs in 1947. What they came up with, an adaptation of the R-7 Semyorka rocket, itself an adapted German G-4 rocket, would become the world’s first ICBM in 1957.

Reading between the lines, this begs a difficult question: Would there have been a space race without the Nazi’s G-4? The Russians had rockets, but they were inferior. So did we, but we eventually enlisted a Nazi engineer to perfect what we had. That’s a whole ‘nother blog.

The R-7 was a two-staged rocket, which used liquid oxygen mixed with kerosine for fuel. It was capable of moving a payload 5,500 miles, with a 3-mile accuracy.

That same rocket, the Soviets would adapt to launch the first satellite in space, the Sputnik 1. Further rockets in the R-7 family would fuel Luna, Molniya, Vostok and Voskhod space launchers.

To date, the R-7 is the most launched rocket ever, but never in the name of warfare.

The U.S. calls them SS-6 Sapwoods, but we could have called them what they were: The Soviets beat us. They beat us to the ICBM. They beat us into space. They also steeled our resolve to catch up fast.

It would be 1958 before we could match this technology with the Atlas rockets. This gave birth to the phrase Mutual Assured Destruction, where both countries could eventually end each other and the world with the push of a button.

We didn’t though, not yet at least. We did, however, use our key learnings to get to space. Unfortunately, we did it independently.

Satellite Race

Sputnik 1 Launch | legallegacy.wordpress.com

There were three major goals to the space race. The first was putting an object in orbit, like as satellite that could take pictures and take measurements of space. This was code for spy equipment.

The second level was putting a human in orbit, and the third was landing a human on the moon.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was president when we announced our intentions to launch orbiting satellites. The Soviets made a similar announcement days later.

Eisenhower, afraid the public would accuse him of warmongering, refused to use existing war missiles to launch satellites. Our engineers had to develop research boosters for the task.

The Soviets used what worked, the R-7. As mentioned, they won this leg of the race with Sputnik 1 on Friday, October 4, 1957.

Three months later, January 31, 1958, we successfully launched our satellite after the first and utter failure on international T.V. All of our failings only further steeled our resolve. We had to beat the Soviets to the next goal.

On July 29th, 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, then transferred all remaining space assets from the military to the newly formed, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Assassination of JFK


Before Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, the U.S. was in talks to ban together with the U.S.S.R. on the space race. It was the success of the Soviets putting a man in space first that started the conversation.

John F. Kennedy takes credit for directing the race to the moon, but the race was on before he said anything. He may have sped things up, though.

NASA had already penciled plans for a program to put a satellite around the Earth, and another to land on the moon. When, September 12th, 1962, Kennedy announced, “We choose to go to the Moon,” Khrushchev said nothing.

The first time Kennedy proposed a joint effort, in September 1963, Khrushchev declined the offer. He changed his mind after considering the financial benefits of working with the U.S.

Khrushchev was going to extend the olive branch, but he was too late. On November 22nd, Oswald shot the president, ending the one chance we had to work together for the moon.

Khrushchev did not trust Lyndon B. Johnson the way he trusted Kennedy.

Despite our independent efforts, the U.S. was finally able to hang our flag on a win. We made it to the moon first.

One must wonder if we couldn’t have made it there together, without all the anxiety?

Is there a parallel world out there where the United States and the Soviets reached the Moon together, snuffing out the Cold War before the ‘80s?

Maybe. It’s more likely we are only now getting to space in that universe.