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The Space Race

The first people landing on the Moon effectively ended and won the Space Race, which emerged about ten years after the end of World War II.

Computer scientists helped end World War II by breaking German ciphers and solving the problem of atomic detonation for the Manhattan Project, using electromechanical computers until the 1945 completion of ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose digital computer.

With the atomic age also came a nuclear arms race that that slowed the exchange of scientific knowledge between Eastern Bloc and Western Bloc countries.

An international project called the International Geophysical Year attempted to reverse this trend, focusing attention on Earth sciences in the mid to late 1950s to coincide with the peak of solar cycle 19.

President John F. Kennedy addressing Congress on May 25, 1961

President John F. Kennedy addressing Congress on May 25, 1961
(click for full NASA image)

For this project, the United States on July 29, 1955 announced its intention to launch artificial satellites. Four days later, on August 2, 1955, the Soviet Union responded with its intent to do likewise, effectively starting the competition that became known as the Space Race.

The Soviet Union launched the first two artificial satellites—Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2—on October 4 and November 3, 1957, respectively; the United States followed by launching on February 1, 1958 its first satellite, Explorer 1. The Soviet Union would again beat the United States on April 12, 1961 by launching the first human into space and into orbit, Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968), with the United States following on May 5, 1961 with the launch of its first person into space, Alan Shepard (1923-1998).

(It was February 20, 1962—nearly nine months after Gagarin’s flight—when the first American to orbit the Earth became John Glenn, 1921-2016. The Soviet Union would again lead on June 16, 1963 by launching the first woman into space—Valentina Tereshkova, born 1937; shamefully, it was a full 20 years later before the United States would on June 18, 1983 launch its first woman into space—Sally Ride, 1921-2012—giving the Soviet Union opportunity to launch on August 19, 1982 the second woman into space—Svetlana Savitskaya, born 1948.)

On May 25, 1961, just twenty days after the first United States astronaut reached space, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) in his Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs made this proposal:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

After this statement, landing the first two people on the Moon took nearly eight years and two months, and the work of 400,000 Americans, about 0.2% of our nation’s roughly 200-million people at the time.

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