Who was the winner of the space race?

sputnik

The 1960s was the scene of one of the greatest industrial and technological revolutions in history. Two superpowers competed against each other to demonstrate their power and conquer a previously unreachable barrier, space. Over the course of several years, both sides invested a great deal of resources in inventing and developing what was necessary to excel. However, the true winner of the space race is still debated, a question that is not so easy to answer.

time
December 6, 1968 Time magazine cover with the theme of the race to land the first woman on the Moon.

Space Supremacy

Contrary to the United States, the Soviet nuclear program faced a major problem, the high weight of the warheads. It was necessary to build launchers with sufficient payload capacity to deploy several tons of explosives thousands of kilometers away. It was called R-7, and its reason for existence would be a key point for the supremacy of the USSR in the beginning of the space race.

Using a modified R-7, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union, using a modified put into orbit the first artificial satellite. Sputnik was a small object the size of a basketball with the ability to emit radio pulses, showing its position. This is considered the beginning of the space race.

ss 071004 sputnik50 11
Photograph of an R-7 taking off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. On board it carries the Sputnik satellite. Credits: Novosti.

On the other hand, the United States would not replicate the feat until February 1, 1958 with the launch of the Explorer 1 satellite.. It had a greater purpose than just being the first one, since it had instruments to perform scientific experiments.

While the Soviet Union succeeded in carrying Laika into orbit on the Sputnik 2 mission and then Yuri Gagarin in the Vostok capsule on April 12, 1961, it took the United States almost a year longer to develop a launcher with sufficient payload capacity to carry Laika into orbit.. Thus, the first visit to space by an American was made by Alan Shepard in a suborbital flight and it would not be until February 20, 1962 that John Glenn would manage to enter Earth orbit.

Escaping from Earth

Most of the energy of the different space missions, whether to geostationary orbit or to reach other worlds, corresponds to the energy needed to overcome Earth's gravity and remain at least in low Earth orbit. The successful launch of Sputnik I opened the gates of the entire solar system to mankind.

The first destination was the Moon, a nearby and relatively easily accessible location. In addition to being the goal proposed by President John F. Kennedy in his famous 1962 lunar speech at Rice University, Texas.

To conquer the Moon, reconnaissance with unmanned probes was required. The first of these was Soviet, originally named Mechta 1 and now known as Luna 1, and performed a flyby of 113,000 kilometers. It is currently in an orbit between Mars and Earth.

First Far Side e1572908997277
First photograph of the hidden side of the Moon. The image was intercepted by the United States and leaked to the world.

Subsequently, Luna 2 and Luna 3 would achieve the first impact and the first images of the dark side, respectively. Shortly thereafter, the United States would replicate the feat with its Pioneer program, which sought to lay the groundwork for future manned missions.

On January 31, 1966, Luna 9 would become the first successful moon landingalso offering the first images from the surface. The United States would also land on the Moon with its Surveyor program.

First photograph taken from the lunar surface.

Race through the solar system

Along with the Moon, there were the various races to visit the rest of the solar system. Due to limitations in communications, power generation and launch capability, only Mars and Venus would be explored in the early years.

To date, the Soviet Union holds the throne for Venus exploration. Several Venera probes relayed both images and data from the surface, holding several records that have not been broken.

n First Venus 1
The Soviet Venera 9 probe transmitted the first image of Venus, showing weathered rocks 30 to 40 centimeters wide.

Although the Soviets achieved the first successful landing of a spacecraft on Mars, the Mars 3 probe lost communication with Earth shortly thereafter. Only a small fraction of a first image was relayed, causing it not really to be considered an achievement. In that case, the real first landing was that of the U.S. Viking 1 probe.

Soon after, the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes and the U.S. Voyager 1 and 2 would be the first to explore the outer solar system, providing images and data like never before of the giant planets.

Because of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, it would fail to visit Halley's comet at its last perihelion. Likewise, the Soviets never visited the planet Mercury.

Lunar victory

The great achievements of the Soviet Union, and its supremacy in the early stages of the space race, were the product, among others, of Sergei Korolev. Also known as the father of cosmonautics and whose identity and role were classified until his death, he was the head behind major missions. His passing, after open-heart surgery, would be a major blow to the Soviet space dream.

The race for the Moon would culminate in the United States, carrying the first and last people to have walked on the satellite in Apollo missions 11 to 17, except for 13. While the Saturn V rocket showed its great reliability and enormous potential, the N1, the Soviet counterpart, suffered from failures in all its launching attempts.

Saturn V N1 comparison
Diagram comparing the size and shape of the Saturn V (left) and N1 (right) moon rockets.

N1 failures were classified and denied in front of the world, but they flaunted their approach to stations in Earth orbit. The Salyut program was the beginning of an important branch of today's major space exploration, the permanent stay of people in space. It included the International Space Station and the Chinese Space Station Tiangong-3.

Salyut 6
Soviet space station Salyut 6 photographed with Soyuz and Progress spacecraft docked.

Clash of ideologies

Still there are many stories left to tell and contrasts to be made. Both nations sought to show the best of themselves and to show the world their great industrial and technological power. Even if an extensive list of the different achievements is created, it is necessary to reflect on what lies behind them and the long-term impact.

Unfortunately, the Soviet Union was secretive about its space program. Most of its failures were hidden from the public, trying to highlight only those that achieved their goal. They had severe budget limitations despite high demands and expectations, leading to deficiencies in the quality of probes and spacecraft, as well as lack of safety for personnel and cosmonauts.. Moreover, its objectives were more for propaganda than for scientific research.

s132 e 012212 scaled
Photograph of the International Space Station, an orbiting laboratory product of an international collaboration led by the United States and Russia.

In the case of the United States, amateur observation of each step in the space race was encouraged, arousing a feeling of patriotism that allowed them to obtain more resources to meet their objectives.. Along with a focus on safety for both personnel on the ground and astronauts in space. The space expeditions, in addition to boasting of their achievements, wanted to collect as much information as possible, carrying numerous experiments on each expedition and providing access to information to different scientific institutions.

The winner of the space race

Defining a winner in the space race is complex, as both nations drove significant advances. Although their paths have diverged, each has contributed crucially to expanding the horizons of space exploration.. Currently, the United States continues to explore the solar systemAt present, Russia has failed in its attempts to go beyond Earth orbit.

Beyond defining a winner, all of humanity benefited from the strong research in science and research, as well as its short and long term results.. Many branches of knowledge were strengthenedThe company's research and development activities, such as medicine, computing and materials science, are improving the quality of life for much of the world and shaping the present. In addition to having created an extensive jobs program that changed the lives of thousands of people.

Francisco Andrés Forero Daza