The Space Race was a competition of space exploration between the United States and Soviet Union, which lasted roughly from 1957 to 1975. It involved the efforts to explore outer space with artificial satellites, to send humans into space, and to land people on the Moon.
Though its roots lie in early German rocket technology and in the international tensions following World War II, the Space Race effectively began after the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. The term originated as an analogy to the arms race. The Space Race became an important part of the cultural, technological, and ideological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Space technology became a particularly important arena in this conflict, because of both its potential military applications and the morale-boosting social benefits.
Rockets have interested scientists and amateurs for centuries. The Chinese used them as weapons beginning in the Song Dynasty, and simple (but inaccurate) iron rockets were common ship- and land-based weapons by the 19th century. Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky theorized in the 1880s on multi-stage, liquid fuel rockets which might reach space and established the basics of rocket science; his 'Rocket Equation', which determines flight velocity, is still used in the design of modern rockets today. Tsiolkovsky also wrote the first theoretical description of a man-made satellite.
In the mid-1920s, German scientists began experimenting with rockets powered by liquid propellants that were capable of reaching relatively high altitudes and distances. In 1932, the Reichswehr, predecessor of the Wehrmacht, took an interest in rocketry for long-range artillery (since long-range guns had been prohibited by the Versailles Treaty). Wernher von Braun, an aspiring rocket scientist, joined the effort and developed such weapons for Nazi Germany's use in World War II.
The German A-4 rocket, launched in 1942, became the first such projectile to reach space. tIn 1943, Germany began production of this weapon, with a range of 300 kilometers (185 mi) and a 1,000 kilogram (2,200 lb) warhead, as Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengeance Weapon 2). The Wehrmacht fired thousands of V-2s at Allied cities, causing substantial damage and loss of life. They consumed an enormous amount of resources, very disproportionate to their effectiveness.
As World War II drew to a close, U.S., UK, and Soviet military and scientific teams raced to capture technology and trained personnel from the German facility at Peenemünde. The United Kingdom and the Soviet Union had some success, but the United States arguably benefited most, taking a large number of German rocket scientists — many of them members of the Nazi Party, including von Braun — from Germany to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. American scientists adapted the German rockets for use against hostile nations and other uses. Post-war scientists, including von Braun, turned to rockets to study high-altitude conditions of temperature and pressure of the atmosphere, cosmic rays, and other topics.
Cold War roots
After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union became involved in a Cold War of espionage and propaganda. Space exploration and satellite technology could feed into the Cold War on both fronts. Satellite-borne equipment could spy on other countries, while space-faring accomplishments could serve as propaganda to tout a country's scientific prowess and military potential. The same rockets that might send a human into orbit or hit a specific spot on the Moon could send an atom bomb to a specific enemy city.
Much of the technological development required for space travel applied equally well to wartime rockets such as Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Along with other aspects of the arms race, progress in space appeared as an indicator of technological and economic prowess, demonstrating the superiority of the ideology of that country. Space research had a dual purpose: it could serve peaceful ends but could also contribute to military goals.