As we wade waist-deep into Cold War 2.0, it’s time to reminisce about the original Cold War which formed the backdrop for the mother-of-all-races that landed a man on the moon.
Cold War 1947 to 1991: From Ash Heap to Bankruptcy
Today, “global” brings to mind the globalisation of markets, supply chains, and the democratisation of international travel. Everything we use, wear, eat, can come from a dozen countries before we pick it off a shelf, be this real or virtual; and sounds and images from faraway places are beamed to our attention 24/7. For a large segment of the world population, the village is truly global.
Not so, during the Cold War years, as globalisation wore a wholly different face. Instead of a village, the spectre of nuclear war had turned the entire planet into a global arena over which every sphere of life was keenly contested from diametrically opposite poles in a fight to the finish. Each side had enough nukes to turn out the lights permanently at the turn of a switch. Each offered such opposing answers to the question of life, the universe and everything that only one side could conceivably be right. All had to pick a side, in the global contest between the USA and the USSR, with an Iron Curtain of arms and men drawn in between.
USA vs USSR
The Individual, Private Ownership, Capitalism
The individual is free to make life choices, have private possessions including owning a business. Personal initiative is glorious.
The Collective, Social Ownership, Communism
The rights and needs of the collective supersede that of the individual; no private ownership, everything is ‘shared’, belongs to all, property of none. Communal labour is glorious.
Do anything, say anything, buy anything, on your own dime, no gulag.
No private wealth, so generally high income equality. Modest means for all except elites like Communist Party members/functionaries, executives of favoured industries etc. who get special coupons to shop in exclusive department stores.
Thus the Cold War smouldered, from the still-warm ash heap of World War II, for six tumultuous decades before Communism ran headlong into a wall of cheques it could no longer cash, breaking into pieces in 1991 that include Russia and the rarely-heard-about Commonwealth of Independent States. Communism lost. But not before taking a few trophies in the Space Race, though ultimately losing that, too.
Space Race: Arms Race Main Event with Contestants Dressed for ‘Science’
Curiosity and the itch for any “final frontier” aside, the primary motivation driving the Space Race is also that perennial sense of insecurity, a not-unfounded belief in our fellow man’s desire to reach a higher vantage point from which to hurl rocks at us — if he could, and not if we get there first.
Foundation: Technology for space exploration is built upon ballistic missile technology that Nazi Germany developed in lieu of multi-engined strategic bombers. Germany was running out of pilots and her enemies had to pay for aerial bombardment of German cities, hence the development of the unmanned V-1 flying bomb (“Vergeltungswaffe Einz”, for Vengeance Weapon 1) which pioneered the use of jet technology in an era of props; followed by the liquid-fuel rocket powered V-2, which was the first man-made object to travel into space by crossing the Kármán line on 20 June, 1944. A closing act of WW2 in Europe was the mad grab of the German rocket programme (both personnel and materiel) by USA and USSR swooping in from west and east, respectively.
2 August 1955: The Race is on!
On 29 July 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s press secretary announced that the US planned to launch “small Earth circling satellites” by 1958 as part of its contribution to the International Geophysical Year. Four days later, the USSR answered that it would also launch a satellite “in the near future”.
4 October 1957: First Satellite in Orbit
The Soviets beat the Americans to the first milestone with the launch of Sputnik 1 into orbit, the first man-made satellite in space. Four months later on January 31, 1958, the US launched its first satellite, Explorer 1.
3 November 1957: Laika, First Animal in Orbit
The Soviets launched Laika, a stray mongrel from Moscow, into space aboard Sputnik 2. Laika was the first animal to orbit Earth. She didn’t come back.
12 April 1961: First Man in Space
Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first man in space, completing one orbit of Earth in his Vostok 1 capsule. Some two weeks later on May 5, Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space.
Yuri Gargarin’s successful space mission just months into his presidency jolted John F. Kennedy from his erstwhile disinterest in space research. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was tasked with looking into the state of America’s space program and on the recommendation of his advisors, President Kennedy decided to bet on the Apollo Program with its goal of accomplishing a crewed landing on the Moon. It was thought that this objective was far away into the future that it gave America a fighting chance to catch up with and indeed overtake the USSR in the space race.
As one of the greatest orators of our time, Kennedy’s famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech on 12 September 1962 poured new energy into America’s dash for the finish line. He would not live to see it – Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963 – but America would beat the Soviets at planting its flag on the moon, on 20 July 1969.
20 July 1969: First Man on the Moon
USSR – bags several stages; USA – wins the Race
Well, two actually. After a series of peripheral firsts clocked by both sides, it is America that prevails in the quest for the ultimate prize: Apollo 11 successfully puts Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin on the moon. This is followed by a subsequent five crewed landings on the Moon. The last landing occured in 1972; total number of visitors:12.
July 1975: Détente, Race Ends, Era of Cooperation Begins
The world breathes easier that the Space Race doesn’t just end with victory/defeat but extends into cooperation. The 1975 docking of an Apollo module and the Soviet Soyuz 19 in space signalled the end of the Space Race (overtly) and heralded a new era of cooperation that continues to this day.