The Space Age came into focus during the mid-1950s as it became more and more well-known that a ballistic missile could reach orbit. In the United States this can be pinned on a series of articles published in Collier’s magazine from 1952 to 1954 under the general title “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” With the aid of Willy Ley, Fred Whipple, Heinz Haber and journalist Cornelius Ryan, Wernher von Braun presented his vision of space exploration to the American public.
While there wasn’t an enormous amount of official interest in United States space exploration, the concept seeped into the American consciousness just in time for the International Geophysical Year (IGY). In 1952 the International Council of Scientific Unions called for a worldwide push of geophysical research from July 31, 1957 to December 31, 1958. The death of Stalin in 1953 led to a mild thaw in the Cold War and the possibility of some scientific cooperation between the capitalist West and the USSR and its clients, and the IGY was a great success.
As part of the lead-up to the IGY, the United States announced Project Vanguard, which was to launch a satellite some time before the end of 1958. The US Army, Navy, and Air Force—all of which were developing rockets for their own use—each tried to snag this plum and its associated funding. The Air Force had little to offer as their Atlas rocket was still in relatively early development: it would not make its first orbital launch until December 1958, and even that was only possible because of a massive increase in funding and personnel during the “missile gap” that couldn’t have been foreseen at the time.
The Army and Navy each made their cases more plausibly. Wernher von Braun’s Hunstville team proposed modifying a Redstone nuclear missile into the Jupiter C as a launcher. It was quite close to completion but suffered from two political problems: it had been designed primarily by German engineers, many of them former Nazis, and it was derived from a weapon at a time when the US was interested in establishing space exploration as a peaceful endeavor. If nothing else, President Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t interested in potentially ratcheting up tensions with the Soviet Union by launching what could be reasonably seen as a nuclear missile; his balancing of the American budget depended on military cuts.
Meanwhile the Navy had worked with Glenn L. Martin (later part of Martin Marietta, in turn now part of Lockheed Martin) to develop the successful Viking sounding rocket and proposed extending it with another two smaller upper stages so it could act as an orbital launcher. While less far along than the Redstone, it contrasted favorably for political purposes: it had been developed primarily for scientific research and by American engineers. In the absence of any great time pressure, the choice was obvious. The Navy proposal was selected, and their prospective rocket named Vanguard.
Von Braun didn’t take this lying down and engaged in a stealth campaign to give his Huntsville team the laurels he’d long chased. On September 20, 1956 they test-launched a four-stage version of the Jupiter C that was quite capable of putting a satellite into orbit. Unfortunately for him the powers-that-be were quite aware of his dissatisfaction and watched the launch preparations to the point that there was an observer on site to ensure that the final stage of the rocket was unfuelled and loaded with sand. Von Braun was not going to be allowed to launch anything into orbit “accidentally on purpose”.
This attitude changed radically on October 4, 1957, where to the shock of the world the United States was beaten to space by the Soviet Union. Using an R-7 nuclear missile as a launcher, examples of which had been launched successfully twice before in August and September, the USSR put Sputnik 1 into space.
Von Braun was furious and soon announced that, if asked, he could put an American satellite into space within 60 days. American governmental officials were sanguine, though, even congratulatory and let Vanguard continue. Political pressure mounted as a second Sputnik (this one carrying the dog Laika) was orbited in November and then December’s attempt at launching the Vanguard satellite exploded two seconds after launch. The United States made it into space on February 1, 1958, when the Huntsville team and the Jupiter C were given their chance and they launched the IGY satellite Explorer 1.
Both the Americans and Russians then moved forward on a manned space program, starting with the one-man Vostok launching on an R-7 for the former, and the one-man Mercury capsule on top of the Mercury Redstone that was derived from the Jupiter C for the latter. Though the Mercury was smaller than the Vostok (1355 kilograms compared to 4726 kilograms) and less-capable (Vostok could stay in orbit for a week, while a Mercury astronaut had to return after a day at most), the Russians once again beat the American effort by placing Yuri Gagarin in Earth orbit on April 12, 1961. The Americans made two suborbital Mercury flights, which did nevertheless qualify as “Men in Space” by clearing 100 kilometers in height, before placing John Glenn in orbit on February 20, 1962.
Both programs then focused on multi-astronaut spacecraft, with the Russians launching a variant of the Vostok, the Voskhod (once again on an R-7) with first three men then two. After Glenn the Americans stepped up development of the three-man Apollo they had begun working on as early as 1959 then, realizing that there would be several years before it was ready which could be used to explore orbital docking and maneuvering, developed the two-man Gemini capsule for the interim. The Saturn I and V, derived from the Jupiter C, were created at the same time to be used as launchers for Apollo.
The three-man Voskhod 1 launched on October 13, 1964 and Voskhod 2 chalked up the first spacewalk on March 18, 1965. The first multi-man American trip, Gemini 3, was overshadowed when it took off five days later, while a spacewalk didn’t follow until Gemini 4 in June. But despite the Russians apparently continuing their lead in the space race, for all intents and purposes they were done. The Russians were still using essentially the same equipment they had used to launch Sputnik and Gagarin and anything new was still a ways down the pipeline. Tellingly, the first manned Gemini had gone up on a Titan, a new launcher from the Air Force.
The transition was punctuated by the death of Sergei Korolev on January 14, 1966. Until his funeral his name was essentially unknown, partly so that the successes of the Russian space program could be credited to the State as a whole and partly out of fear that he might be assassinated. Cryptically referred to as “Chief Designer” instead, Korolev was the USSR’s counterpart to Wernher von Braun, having headed the programs to design the R-7 as well as the Vostok and Voskhod capsules. He had even directly intervened to start a crash project that built Sputnik 1 when it became apparent that the initially intended Object D (which would eventually become Sputnik 3) was not going to be ready in time. With his death the Soviet space program passed on to his lieutenant Vasily Mishin, who would prove to be incompetent.
From then on the Americans began scoring firsts. In 1965 and 1966 they achieved the first-ever rendezvous between two spacecraft (Gemini 6 and 7), the longest flight (14 days, with Gemini 7), the first docking between two spacecraft (Gemini 8).
The USSR’s main highlight in the late 1960s was the development of the Soyuz capsule, which as of December 2011 is still in use and is the most reliable and successful spacecraft in history, numbering 112 manned launches. Unfortunately political pressure made its first use necessary before it was ready and the Russians chalked up a dubious first—the first death on a spaceflight as Vladimir Komarov died on April 24 1967 in the crash landing of Soyuz 1 after a mission in which his spacecraft repeatedly malfunctioned around him.
The United States had had their own tragedy a few months earlier, when a fire during the testing of an Apollo capsule on the ground killed three astronauts. The never-flown mission retroactively named Apollo 1, their deaths would keep another Apollo from flying with a crew on-board until October 11, 1968. But from then on it was smooth sailing for the Americans as the next mission, Apollo 8, launched on December 21, 1968 and memorably had its crew greet the Earth on Christmas Day from their position in lunar orbit.
Two more tests (including Apollo 10, which descended to with 10 kilometers of the moon’s surface as a final dress rehearsal for the next mission) led up to the end of this era of manned spaceflight. In arguably the single most famous event of the 20th century, Apollo 11 took three people to the moon, with Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to walk on its surface on July 21 1969.
The Soviet government claimed for decades afterward that they had never had any intention of sending men to the moon, though they twice launched an unmanned probe that would return a lunar rock sample in the period just before Apollo 11 in an attempt to upstage the American accomplishment (both failed). Since the collapse of the USSR and the opening of their archives it’s become clear that this was far from the case, as we shall see.