The Space Race Facts for Kids

After World War II ended and the mid-20th century began, the Cold War started. The United States and Russia were at war against each other. Space became an arena for this competition as both sides fought with technology, military power, and economic system to prove who was better. Keep reading for more facts about the space race!

Fiction and Trips to Space

Jules Verne’s book From the Earth to the Moon and H.G. Wells’ book First Men in the Moon is old books about the possibility of going to the Moon.

Robert A. Heinlein also wrote a book about four Americans who flew to the Moon and found people on it. The book became the inspiration for the Space Race.

The Space Race

The Cold War defined much of the early Space Age, including the missile and rocket development in the United States and the Soviet Union.

After the Soviet Union and the Cold War were over, other countries developed their space programs.

The Space Race happened during the Cold War.

The Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, partners of these two Superpowers, and the Third World nations whose support both sides sought during the Cold War.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched a satellite. This was the first time that people knew about the Space Age.

Sputnik I and II

The launch of the first Sputnik satellite marks when space flight went from being just a thought to something that exists.

The Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite. The next day, they put an article about it in the newspaper that said,

The first artificial satellite was created as a result of very intensive work by scientific research institutes and design bureaus.  On October 4, 1957, this first satellite was successfully launched in the USSR. According to preliminary data, the carrier rocket has imparted the required orbital velocity of about 8000 meters per second to the satellite.

Rocket R-1 was the carrier for the satellite Sputnik I. It caused a lot of concern in Western countries.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had a powerful rocket and achieved space flight before the West. This shows that they are ahead in the Space Race by making the first move.

People were afraid that the Soviets would attack the United States in outer space. They also thought that powerful Soviet rockets might be used to launch missiles.

Then the Soviets successfully launched their second satellite, Sputnik II. It had a dog named Laika on it.

The success of Sputnik made people think about space. People paid attention to the military rockets.

Vanguard and Explorer I

Two months ago, the United States tried to launch a rocket with an important satellite. But they couldn’t because something went wrong.

Finally, an Army team led by the German immigrant Wernher von Braun succeeded in launching the first American satellite. It was called Explorer I.

The Explorer was a spacecraft that carried some instruments. These instruments helped to find out about radiation belts. They are named after the scientist James A. Van Allen.

He wrote these words,

We were treated like heroes, rescuing the honour of the United States in this great Cold War with Russia by having a successful satellite.

The launch of the Sputnik I had started the development of communication for satellites. It also helped create two space agencies in the United States, one civilian and one military.

The First Astronauts

The space race was between world superpowers, the USA and the USSR.

Then the space projects started including people in their flights. The programs were called:

  • Vostok (East) (USSR program for one astronaut. He was Yuri Gagarin, the first man ever in space)
  • Voshkod (Rise) (USSR program for two astronauts)
  • Soyuz (Union) (USSR lunar program)
  • Mercury (American program for one astronaut)
  • Gemini (American program for two astronauts)
  • Apollo (American lunar programs)

Both countries first used the one-person spaceship. It was good for them because they got lots of experience. 

As spacecraft got larger, people could go outside. Spacewalks are when people go out of the spacecraft. It is also called an extravehicular activity.

The first spacewalk was done by a Russian astronaut called Alexei Leonov. He was tethered to a Voskhod capsule.

American astronaut Edward H. White did the first spacewalk in a Gemini space capsule three months later.

The Soviets began achieving a lot of records in the Space Race:

  • Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to go to space in 1963
  • Luna 9 was the first landing on the Moon
  • Kosmos 186 and Kosmos 188 made the first automatic docking on the Moon
  • Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 made the first docking in space by astronauts

Then US President John F. Kennedy announced,

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. 

The Space Race: Reaching the Moon

The US won the race to put a man on the Moon. This happened when Neil Armstrong did it on July 20, 1969.

The Apollo 11 mission used a Saturn V rocket, the Columbia command module, and the Eagle landing module.

More Apollo missions went to the Moon. They were Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. In three years, twelve American astronauts travelled to the Moon.

Afterwards, other American firsts happened until 1983, when Sally Ride went to space for the first time. She was the first American woman in space. Guion Bluford also went to space that year, and he was the first black astronaut there.

Read more about Apollo 11

Spacial Accidents

There were some accidents in the early days of testing. These accidents happened before we were able to test safely.

Three astronauts died in a fire during the Apollo 1 spacecraft test. Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger Bruce Chaffee.

The Soviets lost their first Soyuz spacecraft, and Vladimir Komarov died in space.

The deaths prompted the Apollo spacecraft and safety program to be redesigned. The first human-crewed Apollo flight occurred in 1968 when the vehicle travelled around the Earth 163 times during its mission. 

Space Programs to Other Planets

Besides manned spaceflight, NASA and the Soviet space program sponsored unmanned programs that sent probes to different planets and the solar system.

The first Soviet Salyut (Salute) space station was put into orbit. The Soviets launched nine Salyut modules during the eleven-year program, six of which were research stations and three of which were military reconnaissance stations.

The American Skylab 1, 2, and 3 orbited the planet. These space stations enabled the astronauts to spend extended periods in space and conduct research while there. Furthermore, the stations had plenty of room for weightless floating within the spacecraft.

Reusable Spacecraft

The Soviet Mir (Peace) space stations and American reusable Space Shuttle programs, both of which incorporated several missions, helped to expand our knowledge. The Soviets built a reusable spaceflight vehicle called the Buran (Snowstorm) and successfully sent it into orbit unmanned.

The United States designed and operated a fleet of reusable spacecraft, including Columbia, Challenger, Enterprise, Discovery, and Atlantis. In 1981, Columbia was the first to reach space.

After that, space shuttles flew missions to find satellites and bring people. They could even get other spaceships.

The Space Shuttle program was created without an escape system, resulting in two major disasters. On January 28, 1986, the Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. The crew of five men and two women perished in the tragedy.

Then Columbia went on its 114th mission in 2003. It came back to Earth, and then the spacecraft fell apart, and the seven astronauts on board died.

The End of the Space Race

After the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Space Race ended.

The Space Race had no meaning after the Cold War ended. When the military stopped, there was no reason to compete. Politicians and people didn’t care about it anymore.

Many countries want to be better and have more power. They build mega space programs to do this.

Other Countries in Space

The European nations worked together on various initiatives to develop their technologies and space programs.

When the European Organization selected Moomera for the launch test site, Australia joined the European Launcher Development Corporation (ELDO). Still, a satellite could not be launched in any of the four tests. They moved then to the South American country of French Guiana.

China has been making space missions since the 1950s. They have received help from Russia as a young communist country.

The Chinese completed a manned space mission in 2003 when Yang Liwei circled the Earth 14 times in the Shenzhou 5.

Today’s Space Race

Today’s world is far more complicated than during the Cold War, when there were only two major superpowers competing for ascendancy.

Now, new companies want to show off their spaceflight abilities. They are following the steps of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

Tomorrow’s space race will not be the same as the old days. There are more actors in it, and everyone can win or lose.


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