The Space Race: End of Space Rivalry
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project crew. (Photo: NASA)
By Martand Jha

The Space Race: End of Space Rivalry

Feb. 20, 2019  |     |  0 comments

The Space Race was one of the many important phenomena that happened during the Cold War. What made the Space Race a phenomenon was the politics behind it. It is interesting to see that both the Cold War and the Space Race impacted each other. While the Cold War led to the Space Race and turning it into a space rivalry between the US and the USSR, the Space Race in turn intensified the Cold War itself. Outer Space as an arena became “mainstreamed” in the international politics.

One way to look into the Space Race is by looking into the leaderships in these countries at different points in time during the Cold War. Each leader had a different style of functioning and when the leadership changed, many a times continuities of the past regime broke down. This happened in many cases and the same was true for both America and Soviet Russia as well. For instance, US space policies changed with the change in the presidency. The Eisenhower administration’s space policy was different with that of Kennedy’s and Kennedy’s space policy differed from that of Johnson’s. Similarly, in USSR, the space policies were different in Khrushchev’s time as compared to Brezhnev’s. But certain continuities and discontinuities were bound to happen during any change of regime in any part of the world. The point here is that these leaders from both the countries were directly involved in the decision making vis-à-vis the Space Race. Sometimes, these leaders had their own specific opinions regarding Outer Space which had a big impact on the space policies, while some leaders didn’t come out in the open about their views on Space Race. In both the cases, the leadership had a clear impact not only in the development of the space programs but also on the discourse of international politics of space.

The views of international bodies such as the United Nations became extremely important after the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) came up with the Outer Space treaty in 1967. During this period, a propaganda war was being played out by the media on both sides by the superpowers. Also, the views of leaders from different countries who were not the part of this Space Race also mattered. This is because the politics of space wasn’t just restricted to the two superpowers but the world at large was impacted by it directly or indirectly.

There was a rapid advance in space technology by the early 1970s. Due to this, a need for collaboration and cooperation between the US and the Soviet Union arose. Both the countries knew that duplicity of the same efforts was a complete wastage of time, money, resources, manpower and energy. Therefore in 1975, for the first time US and Russia sent a combined Apollo-Soyuz mission. This joint spaceflight marked the end of the race in Outer Space between the two superpowers. To understand in detail how it happened, one needs to focus on the first half of the 1970s. By the start of the decade, the Space Race had already reached its peak when Apollo 11 landed the first man on the moon.

Space Race in the 1970s

The Space Race by the turn of 1970 had reached its stage of maturity. The United States by then had already become a leader in the race. Their mission to place a man on the moon and return him safely back was already achieved. In fact, not only was the US the first country to do so, the USSR made four failed attempts to launch a lunar landing craft between 1969 and 1972, including a launch-pad explosion in July 1969. This was celebrated widely as the victory of the United States over the Soviet Union in the space race. After that, US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) started experimenting more openly. Earlier, the focus of the missions was to land a man on the moon or sending a satellite into the space but now the focus shifted to collect more scientific data from the outer space and moon.

The adaptability of humans in outer space was being tested now. Earlier, mostly scientists, aerospace engineers and technical staff were involved in the space programs, now the role of biologists and geologists increased manifold. This was seen in the case of both the superpowers. The aim was now to look for a possibility of life outside earth. The very thought of the existence of life other than on earth fascinated many people. However, the space missions never aimed primarily to look for water in the 1970s. When Apollo 15 was launched to the moon by NASA in 1972, it intent was very clear. For three days, Apollo 15 Commander David Scott and lunar module Pilot James Irwin conducted the lunar surface operations. They collected a lot of surface material from the moon and took them back to earth for extensive examination of the topography of the area. This was also known as NASA’s first “J-mission”. The J-missions were primarily designed to conduct lunar exploration over longer periods of time.

The Soviet Union was already a pioneer in experimenting in outer space. It was the first country to have many “firsts” in its resume of Space program, continuing its tradition of successes in the Space Race in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Similarly, the USSR succeeded in conducting the first soft landing on Moon in 1966 when an unmanned spacecraft under the Luna Space program landed on moon. The first photograph of earth from any other celestial body was taken in this very mission. To cut short, both the superpowers remained engaged in various kinds of “Space Rendezvous”, ranging from sending unmanned missions to Mars by USSR in 1971 to sending Pioneer 10 satellite to cross the asteroid belt and reach Jupiter.

Next in line was the Skylab and Mariner missions launched by NASA from 1972 to 1974. The Skylab was a space station built by the US which orbited the earth from 1973 to 1979. “The unmanned Skylab station was launched into orbit by a Saturn V booster. Almost immediately, technical problems developed due to vibrations during liftoff. A critical meteoroid shield ripped off taking one of the craft's two solar panels with it, and a piece of the shield wrapped around the other panel keeping it from deploying” (NASA, 2013). The Soviet Union was the first nation to loft a space station in the year 1971.

The Cold War Space Race was a blessing in disguise in many ways; especially in the field of science and technology.

Once the Skylab was put into position, the United States sent three manned missions to this lab one after the other. Each mission set a new record bettering the previous one. The crews in these missions spent weeks in this lab; the crew of the Skylab 4 mission set a record of spending 84 days there. By this time, things started to cool off between the US and the USSR, especially in the arena of making outer space a battleground for supremacy over each other. The scientific community at large had understood that outer space and other celestial bodies can’t be a property of any nation. By now, it was also well understood that the potential of outer space could be harnessed much better if both the superpowers started collaborating rather than competing. Right from the start of the Space Race, one thing which was common was the duplicity of efforts by both the nations. In hindsight, one realizes that had this duplicity not been there, a lot of resources could have been saved for new researches.

But history doesn’t work on “ifs” and “buts”. If duplicity of efforts were a con, the Space Race gave a necessary push to the space programs in both the countries. In a space race as in life, it is observed that many a times competition tends to bring out the best from the competitors. Looking at the Space Race of the Cold War era, one can safely say that both the US and the USSR tried their level best to become the foremost power in the field of outer space.

The End of Space Rivalry

By the turn of 1975, things moved more towards cooperation. On July 15, 1975, for the first time in history, the US and Soviet Union joined hands to collaborate in what was known as Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP).  The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project would send NASA astronauts Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton and Vance Brand in an Apollo Command and Service Module to meet Russian cosmonauts Aleksey Leonov and Valeriy Kubasov in a Soyuz capsule. A jointly designed, US-built docking module fulfilled the main technical goal of the mission, demonstrating that two dissimilar craft could dock in orbit. But the human side of the mission went far beyond that (NASA, 2015).

Today, it seems perfectly normal for a joint international space mission to be conducted. But ASTP was a watershed moment for many reasons. Firstly, one needs to appreciate the context in which it happened. With the Cold War still going on, the decision to go forward with the idea of a joint space mission was a novel one. It paved the way for all future collaborations in the outer space. This had political implications as well because it showed that the relations between the two superpowers had reached a position where they were not only looking eye to eye but were making efforts to improve their ties. This was also the time when détente was the buzz word describing the improving relations between the United States and Soviet Russia. Many scholars and space historians attribute the Apollo Soyuz Test Project to be one of the results of détente. On the Test Project, the three astronauts and two cosmonauts got to interact among themselves. This was like coming together of two antagonistic civilizations for a greater cause. This was a break-point in the Space Race and the end of an era. The competition continued between these two superpowers for outer space supremacy but now the difference was none of them were working consciously to outdo each other, like they did in the past.

Who Won the Space Race?

This is a question of major debate as both the superpowers saw phases in which they were doing better than the other. If one looks at the early part of the Space Race, it appears that the race was heavily tilted towards Soviet Union when it became the first country on the planet to launch an artificial satellite, i.e., Sputnik 1 in 1957. The second major moment for Soviet Union came when it sent the first man (Yuri Gagarin) to space. On the other hand, the Space Race tilted towards the United States when it managed to place the first man (Neil Armstrong) on moon and return him safely back home in 1969. Subsequently in the 1970s, when budgets increased in NASA, the United States outspent the USSR and launched much more satellites than any other country in the world, making NASA the most premiere space research agency on the planet.

However, the Space Race which turned into space rivalry ended up in collaboration between the two superpowers during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. So, the question of winning or losing the Space Race is not an objective one. The binary of victory and loss are measured in absolute terms. There are clear winners and losers in a competition. But here, that was not the case. The intention of being a clear winner was absolutely there which led to the start of the Space Race but because both the superpowers ended up gaining a lot from the point they started investing in their space programs, none of them won or lost. However, the United States stamped its relative superiority over the USSR by the end of the Space Race.    


The Cold War Space Race was a distinct and unique phenomenon within the phenomenon of the Cold War. What made it unique and distinct was the time in which it happened. Never before in the history were there two superpowers that were almost equally capable of destroying each other and setup their hegemony globally. Secondly, the global balance of power was seen for the first time. Although great powers used to exist, there were no superpowers.

There are many takeaways and lessons which could be derived from the episode of Space Race.  Firstly, and most importantly, the Space Race started as a race to achieve “absolute power” and not “relative power” but as the race turned into rivalry, both the superpowers started striving for “relative power”. As Kenneth Waltz notes in the anarchy of international politics, relative gain is more important than absolute gain (Waltz, 1959). Secondly, the Space Race was also a race between two ideologies, two political systems and two civilizations (east vs west). Samuel P. Huntington elaborated this in his book, Clash of Civilizations. Thirdly, the Space Race shows how ideologies take a back seat if profits, gains and supremacy are ensured by overlooking the ideals. This happened when Americans used Werhner Von Braun and his team of engineers to build their space program, despite knowing Von Braun and his team’s Nazi past.

The Cold War Space Race was a blessing in disguise in many ways; especially in the field of science and technology. The outer space travel required the invention of many new things. It included things like artificial limbs, water purifier, adjustable smoke detectors, satellite television, freeze dried food, space blankets etc. The standard of engineering got better during the Space Race because in a competitive race both the superpowers attached a lot of value to their successes as well as failures. Therefore, the scope of technical errors had to be minimal. This demanded a very high quality of trained individuals who could cater to the extremely precise requirements of rocketry, missile technology and space crafts. A whole new discipline of engineering bloomed and blossomed during this period.

The Space Race was also about the clash of towering individuals. While Werhner Von Braun was the architect of the American space program in the United States, Sergei Korolev led the Soviet Space program to new heights. The important lesson learnt during the Space Race is that the potential of the outer space is huge, which could be utilized for civilian purposes and for the benefit of mankind at large. To put it simply, the “constructive potential” of outer space outweighed its “destructive potential”.

Another new area which originated and evolved due to the demand of that time was international space laws which had to be written. They were signed and ratified as treaties by many countries across the world. These were legally binding in nature. The role played by the media to set the agenda for public debate about the Space Race was a crucial aspect of the space race. Many times, media was used as a tool for spreading false information as well as propaganda. The lesson learnt in this case was that either media was used by powerful governments or media tries to portray their own agenda as the public agenda. Both of that happened during the Space Race. While the former was the case in Soviet Union, the latter was seen in the United States. To conclude, the Cold War Space Race is an important chapter in Cold War history and in the international politics of space which can’t be overlooked if we want to understand the politics of the Cold War in a holistic manner.


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