Who won the Space Race?

With the success of Alfonso Cuaron’s latest film, Gravity, which features space debris from a Russian missile as a prominent plot device, I am reminded of the fierce 20th century competition between Russia and the US over the cosmos and want to ask the somewhat rhetorical question: who really won the Space Race?

Well for one, let’s acknowledge that the space race is not over (will it ever be?) and that opinions may change in the coming decades as mankind continues to explore the final frontier and gets closer to putting a human on Mars.

Second, the July 1969 breathtaking broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon is understandably considered the triumphal high point of the Cold War-era contest between the USA and the USSR.

It’s also true that the USSR never really stood a chance in the race to put a man on the Moon. Jalopnik just released a fascinating piece explaining in detail why the Soviet Union’s kerosene-fueled N1 rocket was never able to reach the same heights as the Saturn V that launched the crew of the Apollo 11 on their historic mission.

The N1:

The N1 had four test launches, all resulting in failure:

But, courtesy of the Jalopnik commenters, let’s not forget some important milestones that the Soviet’s did reach first:

– First satellite in space (Sputnik)
– First animal in space (Laika)
– First man in space (Yuri Gagarin)
– First woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova)
– First probe to land on the Moon (Luna 2 in 1959, it crashed)
– First probe to land on the Moon and survive impact (Luna 9 in 1966)
– First rover on the Moon (Lunokhod 1, 1970)
– First to release a film version of the novel Solaris (the George Clooney version was not released until 2002)

So there’s that.

One additional thing to note is that the Soviet’s were extremely cautious with their own Luna program, fearing that sending a man to the Moon would lead to a hazardous Solar Radiation Event.

This caution is atypical, as one reason the Soviets were the first to achieve the milestones noted above is that they often threw caution to the wind. The thinking with the ill-fated Luna 2 probe, the first to ever ‘land’ on the Moon was that “hey, crashing counts as landing!!”

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4 Responses to Who won the Space Race?

  1. I just read the piece about the N1 and tried to post a response but couldn’t – it’s just there are a few errors in it:

    The Soviet system was not infamous for poor quality rockets in the slightest; but they just had a different approach to their testing. They’d launch, see what went wrong and fix it- and so on and so forth… The problems with the N1ts were actually fixed by the time the lunar mission had been cancelled – they were supposed to be dismantled, but instead, ended up in a warehouse and wasn’t until 30 years later they were taken to the States for testing: they were more efficient than anything the American’s had, because they were based around cclosed-circuit system, whereby exhaust waste was funneled back into combustion chamber… It was technology the NASA had never tried to develop because they considered it to be too difficult, despite the obvious benefits.

    Other than that, an interesting read.

  2. onion dome says:

    Thanks for the clarification!

    Here is the take of another reader:

    “have to comment that the issue of who won the space race is still open and that the Chinese are well positioned to win the next phase, the Soviets won phase one, the US phase two (moon) and the US and the Russians ran neck and neck in phase two extended (shuttle, ISS), and the Chinese will step ahead in the next decade or so when they land on the moon while we channel our private sector into near space operations and tourism.”

  3. News Media says:

    Wonder if India vs. China will be the new space race.

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