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The Space Race was the defining events starting shortly after WWII that culminated with the first manned lunar landing. This technological and political struggle helped to shape the Cold War and created the infrastructure and agencies that now run modern space research and exploration.
It’s important to realize that the push for Space Exploration could not have occurred without the devastation of the two World Wars. Many of the scientific advances of the early 21st century were some way or fashion tied to these two global events and the build up and development of weapons. The seeds of the modern rocket were found in the modification of Robert H. Goddard’s liquid fuel rocket by German rocket scientist. Led by Von Braun they developed the first ballistic missiles which were used to bombard London. After the end of the Second World War, the Allied nations scramble to acquire the technology and scientists of defeated Germany.
In a top secret operation called Paperclip, the United States lucked out in gaining a majority of Germany’s rocket scientist including Von Braun. These individuals would be the designers of the rockets that would be used by the US during the Space Race.
The single most important event at the beginning of this era of innovation was the launching of Sputnik by the Russians. It was the first artificial satellite ever launched and it set into motion the start of the space race. By this time the two remaining global superpowers Russia and the United States had already entered a period of espionage and proxy wars called the Cold War. The blow to US moral was critical as the general public feared that Sputnik signaled major leaps in technology for Russia which could lead to its victory over the United States.
This was crucial as space exploration in the United States was considered a waste of money that could either be diverted to social programs or military projects. The fear caused by Sputnik forced American politicians to act, starting the race to “beat” the Russian in space exploration. Until the end of the sixties Russia maintained its dominance sending the first living creatures and eventual man and woman into space. The game changing moment occurred under the leadership of President John F. Kennedy and his successor Lyndon B. Johnson. Both men were able to sway public opinion and marshal resources to attain the goal and sending men safely to the Moon and back. This eventually occurred in July 1969 with Apollo 11 mission and signaled the eventual end of the space race.
If you liked this article there are several others you might enjoy on Universe Today. There is an article that is about Explorer 1 one of the earliest satellites. There is also an article that is a Q&A piece with one of the Apollo 11 astronauts.
There are also great resources on the net. Newseum.org has a great time line of the space race. There is also a great article about sputnik on nasa.gov.
You can also listen to Astronomy Cast. Episode 114 The Moon Part 2 Exploration is about the lunar landing.