The Space Race Heightens Cold War Tensions

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This is Phil Murray. And this is Rich Kleinfeldt with THE MAKING OF A NATION -- a VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.

Today, we tell about the race to explore outer space.

On a cold October day in 1957, the Soviet Union launched a small satellite into orbit around the Earth. Radio Moscow made the announcement.

RUSSIAN: "The first artificial Earth satellite in the world has now been created. This first satellite was today successfully launched in the USSR."

The world's first satellite was called Sputnik One. Sputnik was an important propaganda victory for the Soviets in its Cold War with the United States.

Many people believed the nation that controlled the skies could win any war. And the Soviet Union had reached outer space first.

The technology that launched Sputnik probably began in the late 19th century. A Russian teacher of that time, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, decided that a rocket engine could provide power for a space vehicle.

In the early 1900s, another teacher -- American Robert Goddard -- tested the idea. He experimented with small rockets to see how high and how far they could travel. In 1923, a Romanian student in Germany, Hermann Oberth, showed how a spaceship might be built and launched to other planets.

Rocket technology improved during World War Two. It was used to produce bombs. Thousands of people in Britain and Belgium died as a result of V-two rocket attacks. The V-two rockets were launched from Germany.

After the war, it became clear that the United States and the Soviet Union -- allies in wartime -- would become enemies in peacetime. So, both countries employed German scientists to help them win the race to space.

The Soviets took the first step by creating Sputnik. This satellite was about the size of a basketball. It got its power from a rocket. It orbited Earth for three months. Within weeks, the Soviets launched another satellite into Earth orbit, Sputnik Two. It was much bigger and heavier than Sputnik one. It also carried a passenger: a dog named Laika. Laika orbited Earth for seven days.

The United States joined the space race about three months later. It launched a satellite from Cape Canaveral, in the southeastern state of Florida. This satellite was called Explorer One. It weighed about 14 kilograms. Explorer One went into a higher orbit than either Sputnik. And its instruments made an important discovery. They found an area of radiation about nine hundred-sixty kilometers above Earth.

The next major space victory belonged to the Soviets. They sent the first man into space. In April, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched in the vehicle known as Vostok. He remained in space for less than two hours. He landed safely by parachute near a village in Russia. Less than a month later, the United States sent its first astronaut into space. He was Alan Shepard. Shepard remained in space only about 15 minutes. He did not go into Earth orbit. That flight came in February, 1962, with John Glenn.

By 1965, the United States and the Soviet Union were experimenting to see if humans could survive outside a spacecraft. In March, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first person to do so. A special rope connected him to the spacecraft. It provided him with oxygen to breathe. And it permitted him to float freely at the other end.

After about ten minutes, Leonov had to return to the spacecraft. He said he regretted the decision. He was having such a good time!

A little more than two months later, an American would walk outside his spacecraft. Astronaut Edward White had a kind of rocket gun. This gave him some control of his movements in space. Like Leonov, White was sorry when he had to return to his spacecraft.

Later that year, 1965, the United States tried to have one spacecraft get very close to another spacecraft while in orbit. This was the first step in getting spacecraft to link, or dock, together. Docking would be necessary to land men on the moon. The plan called for a Gemini spacecraft carrying two astronauts to get close to an unmanned satellite.

The attempt failed. The target satellite exploded as it separated from its main rocket. America's space agency decided to move forward. It would launch the next in its Gemini series. Then someone had an idea: why not launch both Geminis. The second one could chase the first one, instead of a satellite. Again, things did not go as planned.

It took two tries to launch the second Gemini. By that time, the first one had been in orbit about eleven days. Time was running out. The astronauts on the second Gemini moved their spacecraft into higher orbits. They got closer and closer to the Gemini ahead of them. They needed to get within six hundred meters to be considered successful.

After all the problems on the ground, the events in space went smoothly. The two spacecraft got within one-third of a meter of each other. The astronauts had made the operation seem easy.

In January, 1959, the Soviets launched a series of unmanned Luna rockets. The third of these flights took pictures of the far side of the moon. This was the side no one on Earth had ever seen. The United States planned to explore the moon with its unmanned Ranger spacecraft.

There were a number of failures before Ranger Seven took pictures of the moon. These pictures were made from a distance. The world did not get pictures from the surface of the moon until the Soviet Luna nine landed there in February, 1966.

For the next few years, both the United States and Soviet Union continued their exploration of the moon. Yet the question remained: which one would be the first to put a man there. In December, 1968, the United States launched Apollo eight with three astronauts. The flight proved that a spacecraft could orbit the moon and return to Earth safely.

The Apollo nine spacecraft had two vehicles. One was the command module. It could orbit the moon, but could not land on it. The other was the lunar module. On a flight to the moon, it would separate from the command module and land on the moon's surface. Apollo ten astronauts unlinked the lunar module and flew it close to the moon's surface.

After those flights, everything was ready. On July sixteenth, 1969, three American astronauts lifted off in Apollo eleven. On the twentieth, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin entered the lunar module, called the Eagle. Michael Collins remained in the command module, the Columbia.

The two vehicles separated. It was a dangerous time. The Eagle could crash. Or it could fall over after it landed. That meant the astronauts would die on the moon.

Millions of people watched on television or listened on the radio. They waited for Armstrong's message: "The Eagle has landed." Then they waited again. It took the astronauts more than three hours to complete the preparations needed to leave the lunar module.

Finally, the door opened. Neil Armstrong climbed down first. He put one foot on the moon. Then, the other foot. And then came his words, from so far away:

NEIL ARMSTRONG: "That's one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind."

Armstrong walked around. Soon, Aldrin joined him. The two men placed an American flag on the surface of the moon. They also collected moon rocks and soil.

When it was time to leave, they returned to the Eagle and guided it safely away. They reunited with the Columbia and headed for home. The United States had won the race to the moon.

This program of THE MAKING OF A NATION was written by Jeri Watson and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Rich Kleinfeldt. And this is Phil Murray. Join us again next week for another VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.