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To What Extent Did The Space Race Exacerbate Political Tensions Between The USA and USSR during the Cold War?

Abstract. The Cold War is a part of history that has affected how we perceive a great deal of the world around us. The Cold War was a war like no other, beginning directly after the single most devastating event in the history of the world, The Second World War. The two superpowers, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, stood as the symbolic representatives of pan-capitalism and pan-socialism, respectively, whose ideas were strongly opposed.

In this study, I focus on the political tensions between the two opposing powers from the beginning of the Cold War to the end of the Space Race and the changing political situations during this time. One source I found particularly useful was from the NASA History investigation into Soviet Space Programs that would challenge the United States’ Apollo space program, which offered insightful information about the Soviet regime and the opinions of politicians within the USSR regarding the importance of the Space Race and attempt to conclude that the propaganda and political and military pressure from each superpower exacerbated the need to reach the Moon.

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My analysis of the sources includes political figures at the heads of each state in other situations that changed the political perspective of the world at the time, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and at the same time assess some internal domestic issues faced by each state, such as the R-16 Rocket Disaster which the Soviet government covered up until 1990. A great benefit to this study is that a great deal of information has become declassified, allowing for more investigation. Overall, the Space Race’s propaganda and implications for Missile technology significantly increased tension between the Superpowers.

Main Body/Investigation. Origins of the Cold War. To consider how the space race raised tensions between the USA and USSR during the Cold War, we need to determine what the Cold War was and how it developed. In diplomatic terms, there are three types of war. Firstly, a ‘hot war’ is where all diplomatic efforts have failed and fighting occurs. Secondly, a ‘warm war’ is where forces are being prepared for fighting while talks are still ongoing but could break down at any time. Finally, the ‘cold war’ describes the relationship between the USA and USSR from 1945 to 1980.

It is hard to specify an actual point from which the Cold War began, but an excellent point to start with would be confirming the United States of America’s possession of nuclear weapons on July 24th, 1945. The confirmation of the possession of more nuclear weaponry than was first expected was a shocking revelation that would prove to disturb Nikita Khrushchev throughout his time as Soviet Premier, from 1958 to 1964. The two superpowers took the steps to ensure the other would not attempt a nuclear attack meant that the following 50 years became synonymous with espionage, defectors, stealth, spies and betrayal.

The lengths were gone by both political superpowers to keep track of the other superpower while at the same time resolving the fallout (in America’s case, quite literally) of a global war. Political tensions in terms of distrust and hostility towards the USSR became a public affair when the news was released of a Soviet defector in the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, Canada. On 5th September 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a clerk at the embassy, gave evidence to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, warning them of a ring of spies working in secrecy within Canada and other countries in the West.[1]

This greatly affected the USA’s perspective of the USSR, less as an ally, more of a threat. This was a prime example of the extent to which the USSR took its espionage, establishing a network of spies within Canadian territory, enabling them to exchange information with spies in other western countries, leading to a network of spies dispersing information between each other and at the same time giving the information to the core of the spy ring, stationed in Moscow or a more remote location somewhere deep within Russia.

NATO. The development of NATO showed the international commitment to the halting of the USSR. It hinted at the hostility towards communist states that may arise due to the USSR’s position as a superpower with the capacity to threaten the United States. The formation of NATO may have marked an international willingness to stand against the USSR. Still, it did not make any guarantee against communist threats from within any of the participating states. A grave blow came to the US when on June 8th, 1949, numerous American celebrities were revealed to be sympathizers to the Communist party.[2]

Within months of the embarrassment of a domestic communist issue, the US faced a major issue with the USSR. On August 29th, 1949, The RDS-1 (First Lightning) Nuclear Weapon was tested at Semipalatinsk, Kazakh SSR.[3] The weapon was instantly criticized in America and became referred to as “Joe-1” after Joseph Stalin. On October 1st, 1949, Mao Zedong announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China, adding 25% of the world’s population to the side of Communism. Mao’s determined approach to Communism was a threat to the US, as was his lack of interest in the US threats:

“Mao also at this time dismissed the potential threat of American Military and nuclear power as a ‘paper tiger’ that could be overcome by a ‘people’s war’ drawing on the unstinting commitment of the whole population.”[4] Within months, the USSR and the People’s Republic signed a mutual defence pact, binding two of the most powerful states together in a pact that left America in a difficult position in terms of directly addressing the USSR or the People’s Republic. Any threats made would be returned by not one, but two enormous states. The potential for propaganda and the message this sent to the west would be devastating – Communism was spreading to millions of people. America would need to do something soon to redeem some sort of ‘bragging rights’.

Two separate cases of espionage made headlines in 1951, as on March 29th Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage for the part they played in transferring atomic secrets to the Soviet Union in the Second World War, while on April 23rd, William N Oatis was arrested in Czechoslovakia for alleged espionage. Not to be seen to be letting Communism get the better of them, on October 10th, 1951, Harry S Truman announces the Mutual Security Act, a counter-communist piece of legislation, promising US Military Aid to “free peoples”.[5]

Soon the threat of communism would come under serious fire from the West, with great steps made to push back communism and pressure Russia into standing down and accepting the US as the superior state. In June 1952, Strategic Air Command placed Convair Long Range B36 and B47 StratoJet Nuclear Bombers with an effective payload at Nouasseur Air Base in Morocco, within striking range of Moscow. At the same time, the US Navy announced the development of the first Nuclear Submarine, USS Nautilus.

The leaders of each nation both acknowledged that this rivalry marked the beginning of an era of missile-based warfare, with the strategic deployment of IRBMs being used as a deterrent to avoid any possibility of genuine conflict being required. NATO soon reasserted itself as the superior power in the nuclear race, with the United Kingdom testing Operation Hurricane, becoming the 3rd Nuclear Power on October 2nd, 1952, while on 1st November 1952, the US tested its first Thermonuclear bomb, Ivy Mike. The military capacity of NATO was developing and missile technology would soon need to improve in order to pose the threat of long-range missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear payload from the USA to the centre of the USSR.

In January 1954, the US launched the world’s first Nuclear Submarine, the USS Nautilus. However, this series of successes in the US’ favour was short-lived. On June 2nd, 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed that communists had infiltrated the CIA and the Atomic Weapons Industry. On top of this revelation of a security breach, the USSR had formed a Communist counterpart to NATO, including East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, the USSR and others.

This counterpart became known as the Warsaw Pact. “In theory, the Warsaw Pact was to provide resources, men, and money to be used for defence purposes; in practice, the available forces were controlled by the USSR, which benefitted from it, since it provided a buffer zone between east and west and reduced Soviet military expenditure.”[6]

Space Race. This amalgamation of states allowed the USSR to gain resources from other states and increase the output of technology for missile and rocket technology with very little impact on the USSR’s own resource expenditure. The result was the Sputnik Satellite, launched 4th October 1957. The headline in the New York Times claimed “Soviet fires Earth Satellite into space; it is circling the globe at 18000 M.P.H.; sphere tracked in 4 crossings over the U.S.” [7]

The main concern with the launch of the Sputnik became that of surveillance – it was not only the fact that the USSR had the capacity to launch missiles across the world, but also that they could launch satellites that could pass over the US with ease. The device also trumped the US’ efforts, as a tagline mentioned “The device is 8 times heavier than one planned by the U.S.”[8]. The US had been shown up and had to drastically reassess priorities and pursue this situation as to not be seen as lagging behind the USSR: “The Soviet leader was animated the rest of the evening, speaking in glowing terms about the new era of missiles, which could” demonstrate the advantages of socialism in actual practice” to the Americans.”[9]

This threat did not go unnoticed by the USA. After the successful launch of Sputnik 2, with living dog Laika aboard on November 3rd, 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower called together an emergency committee to discuss the potential threat of the USSR and stated that the US was falling behind, and emphasized the need for American citizens to be protected by fallout shelters in the event of a nuclear attack. The USSR, just over a week later, would make a threat to the USA that showed just how prepared Nikita Khrushchev was to fully commit to a Nuclear arsenal, by challenging the USA to a ‘shooting match’.

The message this sent would be a wake-up call to the USA, reaffirming the need to develop advanced missile technology to be paired with the Nuclear weaponry that had been developed in the West over a decade and a half earlier. August 1958 showed a movement within the West, with THOR IRBMs (Inter-Range Ballistic Missiles, with an effective range of 1,500 Nautical Miles) being set up in the United Kingdom[10], within striking distance of Moscow, and in September 1958, a US C130 Reconnaissance Airplane was shot down over Armenia by MIG-17s. These hostile movements took encroaching steps towards the heart of the Soviet Union and the core of the Warsaw Pact.

The use of reconnaissance planes and the establishment of IRBM facilities in the United Kingdom showed the concern and paranoia of the United States, and the concern regarding the threat of Soviet attack, and the United States’ desperation to peek behind the iron curtain to spy on Soviet missile development. The representatives for both factions met at the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow, July 24th, 1959, at which Vice President Richard Nixon met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to openly debate each nation’s capabilities.

The Kitchen Debate was a manifestation of the political tension built up over the past two decades, which led to Khrushchev threatening President Nixon with the Soviet Union’s superior missiles. On August 7th, 1959, the Explorer 6 satellite was launched by the USA, sent to take photos of the Earth. The leap forward was enormous, for with the capacity for taking photos of places from space came the capacity to spy on places, and with developing camera technology, soon locations could be monitored from orbit. Soon after, in April of 1960, the establishment of Jupiter IRBMs in Italy began, another NATO ally within striking distance of Moscow, capable of doing considerable damage to the USSR’s fatherland. This constant system of cause and effect between the two superpowers shows the increasing suspicion of the USSR.

On May 1st, 1960 the USA’s focus on the USSR’s missile capabilities became evident as Francis Gary Powers, a US pilot, was shot down in his U-2 Spy Plane over the Soviet Union, while just under a year later, April 12th, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in Space, in the rocket Vostok 1. The Vostok Rocket had been praised as a pinnacle in scientific successes and heralded in a new era of space travel – but the rocket was placed on a pedestal still dusted with the ashes of failure. On October 24, 1960, a rocket designed by Chief Designer Mikhail Yangel was due to be tested. The R-16 was tested as an alternative to the underperforming R-7 made by Sergei Korolev.

However, thirty minutes prior to launch, as the equipment was being set up for launch, the volatile materials within the rocket exploded, engulfing the pad and the 128 staff on it in a fiery inferno. The heat melted the tarmac of the entire station floor and the bodies of those caught in the blast were melted to dust. The USSR was quick to hide this catastrophic failure and terrible loss of the lives of some of their greatest cosmonautical minds, by placing a prohibition, banning the discussion of the tragedy for thirty years afterwards, lifting the ban in 1990.[11]

The secrecy of the Soviet Union remained as infallible as ever, 45 years on, with secrets still being kept under strict supervision. The information that was fed out of the Soviet Union at that time was monitored closely to ensure the rest of the world only saw what the Soviet Union wanted them to see. But despite this, the Vostok rocket program was a success, with Gagarin hailed a hero of Socialism: “The world’s first satellite-ship “Vostok” with a human on board was launched into an orbit about the Earth from the Soviet Union. The pilot-cosmonaut of the spaceship satellite “Vostok” is a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Major of Aviation Yuriy Alekseyevich Gagarin.”

A month passed before the USA announced their next move. During this month, communication with the American Embassy in the Soviet Union was focused entirely on the political situation regarding Germany. The fear within the White House was that Khrushchev would wait until after the Party Congress had passed for him to commit to any policies he saw fit, and to apply pressure where he felt it necessary: “While I do not think Khrushchev is in any real danger from his colleagues, the one issue which might cause them to attempt to unseat him would be believed he taking action which might lead to war. I do not believe he will take such a risk before Party Congress.

Presumably, after Congress which will doubtless add more of his supporters to Central Committee, he will probably be in a position to carry out any policy he desires.”[12] The US’ response to this challenge was enormous. On May 25th, 1961, John F Kennedy announced to a joint session of Congress that the United States would, before the end of the decade, land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth. The headline of the Hammond Times read “JFK Man on Moon Price: $7-9 Billion”[13] This shows the concern of the common man, not to trounce the socialists of the east, but rather the cost at which every taxpayer must foot the bill for such a venture into the future of mankind.

From this, we can argue that the Space Race was an idea generated by the political elite which was depicted as the American conquest of the Moon, which was not an issue that preyed on the minds of the populace. But the US did not lose sight of its goal – the repression of the Socialist movement spreading from the East. The establishment of IRBM stations across western and central Europe meant that military generals in the USSR felt it would be more appropriate to have a standard military force with nuclear weapons as a small portion of the entire force:

Nikita Khrushchev expresses concerns that his Generals are not taking his “single-variant” strategy of preparation for Nuclear War seriously. At this point, Defense Minister Rodion Ya. Malinovskii claimed that the next world war “will inevitably take the form of a nuclear rocket war”; claiming the main weapon would “be the nuclear weapon and the basic means of delivering it to the target would be the rocket”. Nuclear weapons would also lead to “decisive military results in the shortest period of time and over enormous territory”; and stressed that any war between the superpowers would inevitably escalate to the use of nuclear weapons and the USSR must prepare its forces to fight a nuclear war.[14]

Cuban Missile Crisis. The debate over levels of reliance upon nuclear weaponry continued on, while at the same time, the military capacities of nuclear weaponry were still being explored. The issue of the Cold War is often most commonly remembered for what would follow swiftly afterwards. The Cuban Missile Crisis was triggered by the refusal of America to engage in any trade with Cuba after the coup led by Fidel Castro resulted in Castro seizing power and allying Cuba with the Soviet Union. After the unsuccessful Bay Of Pigs invasion to eliminate Castro’s government and remove the threat of Communism from the USA’s proximity, Castro and Khrushchev agreed to established IRBMs within Cuba, allowing the USSR to direct missiles at any city in the US.

This then led to an embargo line preventing the shipment of any materials between the USSR and Cuba, in an attempt to prevent any more missile sites or equipment from being established. The world stood nervously waiting as the threat of a nuclear holocaust obliterating the entire planet hung over the heads of everyone across the world. The nations faced Mutual Assured Destruction and decided that the best option would be to stand down from one another and let diplomacy take over. However, the crisis still had an effect:

“This greatly changed the US’ perspective on the USSR. After this, the US attempted a more wary approach, aiming to resolve issues instead of instigating a conflict of some sort. A CIA analysis of the situation brought about a generalized opinion that the USSR “is not ready either to increase tensions or take steps to ease them. Moscow seems to want to buy itself a little time to see what directions events will take and sort out its interests and objectives.”[15]

However, this view was going to change very soon. On October 31st, 1961, the USSR detonated the ‘Tsar Bomba’ an atomic bomb with a 50 Megaton yield. The weapon is the most devastating nuclear weapon tested so far, with work being undertaken to establish a rocket-mounted version. This was the deadliest threat the USSR had made. The death of John F Kennedy left the Presidential position vacant until it was filled by Lyndon Johnson, who, on April 20th, 1964 announced that the USA would cut back on production of materials for the manufacturing of Nuclear Weaponry, at the same time Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced the same intentions for the USSR.

This reduction would mean Khrushchev would have to stand down from his “single-variant strategy” and instead assess the possibility of having a more elaborate military force, relying upon nuclear weaponry as a contingency plan. However, Nuclear weaponry was not entirely removed from the equation. Khrushchev’s legacy lived on, as in April 1967, Brezhnev “hinted at the possibility… that a nuclear war in Europe might involve nuclear weapons, implying thereby that it might not. Thus, a nuclear war, even in Europe, was not inevitable.”[16]

Moon Landings. But the space race soon took on a breathtaking quickening of pace. Soviet space crews were attempting to launch their shuttles in order to pass the Moon, circle it and land back safely on Earth, while the Apollo program wanted to put a man on the Moon, and have him return safely, all the while watched by hundreds of millions of expectant American citizens: “The advantages of this could be important, both in technical and scientific knowledge gained as well as in a public demonstration of what the United States could achieve. So far Apollo had been all promise; now the delivery was about to begin.”[17]

Following the successes of Apollo craft before it, and the ambitious attempts at the Moon made by the Zond spacecraft (albeit somewhat limited by the USSR’s differing trajectories to the USA, limiting their launch capabilities, meaning their ideal launch window was December 1968, a time at which their technology was not ideally primed for a Moon landing), the Apollo 11 craft took off from Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center on July 20th, 1969, successfully delivered Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the Moon.

The Space Race had been won by the United States of America., but the USSR held many titles, such as First Animal in Space, in the form of Laika, as well as the first man in Space, in Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin. The struggle for supremacy was still not decided – The USA had succeeded, but the Soviet Union had beaten the USA to every other possible hurdle. America’s success was slow and did not prove anything substantial. The success of America only worsened the tensions between the two superpowers, as the now humiliated Soviet Union sought to save face and redeem some honour in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Legacy of the Space Race. Space, as an idea, had changed dramatically. The embittered USSR’s Space Program now found itself fuelled by an inconceivable need for vengeance. The USA had beaten them to the Moon, but the USSR was not ready to let the race be finished there. “Carrying out a simple automated circumlunar mission less than a month after Apollo 11 might indicate a disregard for public perceptions of the Soviet space program, but the timing of the launch was apparently more of a coincidence than anything else. The Soviets did, however, go to great lengths to play down the news of the mission.” [18] The news of the success of Capitalism against the Soviets would be a humiliating blow, and the Soviets wished to keep the news out.

Conclusion. The Space Race did exacerbate tensions between the USA and USSR during the Cold War, as the propaganda and media allowed the Space Race to be portrayed as a metaphor for the constant struggle for superiority between the two superpowers. With improved rockets and greater technology for more accurate calculations of trajectory and the like, missiles could be precisely targeted to an ideal location, with trajectories tracked and great distances could be scaled due to the developments made in propulsion systems and the experimentation with mixtures of fuels meant that rockets could travel greater distances with almost no effect in terms of excess weight being carried in the fuel pods, with some fuel compounds reducing the weight of the rocket instead.

The Cold War’s effects are still felt today – the developments made in the race to the Moon have ushered in an era of satellites, space photography and the hunt for life on other worlds. The rivalry of the Cold War is one still closely watched with some anticipation. The Socialist movement has long been depicted as the sworn nemesis of the USA, the symbol of capitalism and self-creation. Personally, I feel that this is a rivalry that would not be laid to rest by a rocket race to Earth’s nearest satellite, and instead would exacerbate it and further develop the issue, as the rockets become more powerful and the nuclear payloads increase.

But on reflection, it is easy to see just how much difference the Space Race made. The pressure of the government elites rested on the shoulders of those responsible for venturing into space and without the work of those great minds the world we live in today might just be a different place, and the Cold War might have ended a far more troubling way than it eventually did, with political tensions spilling over and more encroaching missile emplacements until eventually, the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis would repeat themselves and the standoff would not end so peacefully.


  • Paul J. Bailey, China in the Twentieth Century Blackwell Publishers, 2001
  • Hammond Times article – Visited 20/6/12
  • Dale R. Herspring, The Soviet High Command, 1967-1989 Personalities and Politics, Princeton University Press
  • David Holloway. Stalin and the Bomb (New Haven. CT: Yale University Press. 1994)
  • Research Memorandum from the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Thomas L. Hughes) to Acting Secretary of State George Ball, October 7, 1965, Foreign Relations of the United States 1964-1968 vol. 14 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office 2001), document 132.
  • Roger Launius, NASA: A History of the U.S. Civil Space Program (Malabar. FL: Krieger Publishing Co. 1994)
  • John Paxton, Encyclopedia of Russian History: from the Christianization of Kyiv to the break-up of the USSR, ABC-CLIO, 1993.
  • Rodion Ya Malinoski, “Bessmertnyi podvig sovetskogo naroda” (“The Immortal Fear of the Soviet People”), Pravda, June 22 1961.
  • Message from the American Embassy in the Soviet Union – Telegram from the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State Source: Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/5-2461. Secret; Limit Distribution. Visited 20/6/12
  • New York Times Headline – Accessed 19/6/2012.
  • Col. A. Radionov, “The Time Has Come to Tell: It Happened at Baykonur: At the First Launch of the New Rocket. How Marshall Nedelin Died. The Memory of the Living” (English title). Krasnaya Zvezda, October 24, 1990
  • Asif A. Siddiqi, Challenge to Apollo: the Soviet Union and the space race, 1945-1971 (The NASA History Series)
  1. – Visited 19/6/2012
  2. – Visited 19/6/12
  3. David Holloway. Stalin and the Bomb (New Haven. CT: Yale University Press. 1994). pp. 306-07.
  4. China in the Twentieth Century, Paul J. Bailey, Blackwell Publishers, 2001
  5. – Visited 19/6/12
  6. Encyclopedia of Russian History: from the Christianization of Kiev to the break-up of the USSR, p433, John Paxton, ABC-CLIO, 1993.
  7. Accessed 19/6/2012.
  8. Accessed 19/6/2012.
  9. The challenge to Apollo: the Soviet Union and the space race, 1945-19741 by Asif A. Siddiqi p. cm.-(The NASA history series)
  10. – Accessed 19/6/2012
  11. Col. A. Radionov, “The Time Has Come to Tell: It Happened at Baykonur: At the First Launch of the New Rocket. How Marshall Nedelin Died. The Memory of the Living” (English title). Krasnaya zvezda, October 24, 1990, p. 2
  12. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State Source: Department of State, Central Files, 762.00/5-2461. Secret; Limit Distribution. Visited 20/6/12
  13. Visited 20/6/12
  14. Rodion Ya Malinoski, “Bessmertnyi podvig sovetskogo Naroda” (“The Immortal Fear of the Soviet People”), Pravda, June 22, 1961.
  15. Research Memorandum from the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Thomas L. Hughes) to Acting Secretary of State George Ball, October 7, 1965, Foreign Relations of the United States 1964-1968 vol. 14 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office 2001), document 132.
  16. The Soviet High Command, 1967-1989 Personalities and Politics, Dale R. Herspring, Princeton University Press, p58.
  17. Roger Launius. NASA: A History of the U.S. Civil Space Program (Malabar. FL: Krieger Publishing Co.. 1994), pp. 89- 90
  18. The challenge to Apollo: the Soviet Union and the space race, 1945-19741 by Asif A. Siddiqi p. cm.-(The NASA history series)

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