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16 April 2011

The Space Race

Tag(s): History, Innovation, Technology

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the first manned flight into space. On 12th April 1961 a peasant farmer’s son squeezed into a capsule just 8 feet in diameter and was blasted into space on top of a rocket 20 storeys high. Less than two hours later after a single orbit of the planet in Vostok 1 the 27 year old pilot parachuted back to Earth. Yuri Gargarin from Smolensk had become the first human to travel into space.

When a journalist heard the news he called NASA for a quote. It was still the middle of the night in Florida and the press officer, angered at being woken up, said “What is this? We’re all asleep down here.” Inevitably one headline the following day read: “Soviets Put Man in Space. Spokesman Says US Asleep.”

Six weeks later, on 25th May, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech in which he set the target of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. This marked a significant acceleration of the Space Race. Kennedy said “Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there and we’re going to climb it and the Moon and the planets are there and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

That summer I attended my first speech day at my grammar school in Manchester. There were over 1,400 boys in the school and none of our auditoria was big enough to hold them all, never mind the masters and parents, so it was held in the Free Trade Hall in the centre of Manchester. My father attended because I was to receive a prize and he had his camera with him for the occasion.

By complete coincidence after the ceremonies were over we saw a procession of cars moving very slowly through Albert Square. Standing up in the open car at the front was the diminutive figure of Major Yuri Gargarin in his Soviet Air Force uniform. It turned out he had come to Manchester to receive a gold medal from the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers. He had already had lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and been honoured by the Royal Society and the British Interplanetary Society.

 As an eleven year old boy it was thrilling to be so close to the first man in space, already one of the most famous men in the world. Looking back it seems odd that at the time of the height of the Cold War- this was only a year before the Cuban missile crisis- that we should have invited a Soviet officer on such an obvious propaganda mission but at the time I cared little about such things and was delighted to see him. The Soviets had been first on many missions already. On 21st August 1957 they launched the Soviet R-7 rocket, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile beating the US by 15 months. Then they launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1. They were to put into space the first living creature, a dog called Laika; the first two-man crew; the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova; the first three-man crew; and operated the first walk in space by Aleksei Leonov in 1965.

I say “they” but actually this was largely the work of one man, Sergei Korolev, the Chief Designer. Gargarin became the famous face of the Soviet Space Programme but the brain behind it was that of Korolev. Korolev was born in 1907 in the Ukraine. He studied in Moscow under Tupolev, the famous Soviet aircraft designer. He trained as a pilot and experimented with adding rocket engines to gliders. In 1933 he successfully launched the first liquid-fuelled rocket in the USSR. Though hard working and loyal to the system he was arrested as a spy in 1938.  Under torture he confessed to crimes of sabotage and treason and was sentenced to ten years’ hard labour in an infamous Gulag prison camp.

He survived but lost all his teeth, had his jaw badly broken and may have suffered a heart attack. He seems just to have been another victim of the cruel, senseless purges of Stalin. After a while he was transferred to a prison in Moscow where he worked on aircraft and rocket design. At the end of the war the Soviets captured Nazi V2 rocket components and Korolev was suddenly promoted to Colonel in the Red Army and sent to Germany to exploit these.

The designer of these rockets, Werner von Braun, had defected to America which gave them a headstart in the race to develop missiles. Korolev realised that these were far advanced from anything the Russians had produced but with extraordinary perseverance, particularly in mind of his previous treatment, he set out to catch up. His biographer James Harford writes “His consuming passion was work, work for space exploration, and for the defence of his country.”

Von Braun had designed the V2 and went on to build the Saturn V rocket that took Neil Armstrong to the moon but all those other Soviet firsts were the work of Korolev with a much smaller budget. At the time of Gargarin's flight the Americans had only achieved a 17 minute test flight with a chimpanzee. However, the treatment in the Gulags was having its effects and Korolev was slowly dying. He died in hospital in 1966. Only then did the Soviet people learn of his accomplishments and he was given a state funeral. Gargarin was killed two years later in an air crash, the cause of which is still surrounded in mystery.

Prior to his death Korolev had designed a launcher intended to take men to the moon. Once his direction had gone his followers were unable to bring it to fulfilment. In 1969 while the US was finalising its Apollo missions the Soviets conducted two unmanned test launches. The first rocket exploded in flight, the second just fell over destroying the entire launch complex. Just weeks later Armstrong took his giant step for mankind stepping into the lunar dust of the Sea of Tranquility.

Thus America won the Space Race, at least in the terms that Kennedy had defined it. Many believe that it was a waste of money but the most comprehensive study of America’s Apollo Moon programme found that for every dollar invested, 14 were returned into the economy. Focus later shifted from one-off flights to renewable hardware, such as the Space Shuttle program, and from competition to cooperation as with the International Space Station (ISS).

With the substantial completion of the ISS, plans for space exploration by the USA remain uncertain.  Constellation, a Bush Administration programme for a return to the Moon by 2020 was judged unrealistic by an expert review panel in 2009. The Obama Administration proposed a revision of Constellation in 2010 to focus on the development of the capability for crewed missions beyond low earth orbit (LEO), extending the operation of the ISS beyond 2020, moving the development of launch vehicles for human crews from NASA to the private sector, and developing technology to enable missions to beyond LEO, such as the Moon, near-earth asteroids, and orbiting Mars. The US Congress is still working towards a compromise NASA funding bill, which may terminate Constellation and fund development of a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV).

Early this century China initiated a successful manned spaceflight programme, while the European Union, Japan, and India have also planned future manned space missions. China, Russia, Japan, and India have proposed manned missions to the Moon, while the European Union has advocated manned missions to both the Moon and Mars. From the 1990’s onwards, private interests began promoting space tourism and then private space exploration of the Moon ranging from Richard Branson to Google.

In the UK Space is now seen as an important industry in its own right. The UK Space Agency was established as a full executive agency of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on 1st April 2011. The UK Space Agency is at the heart of UK efforts to explore and benefit from space. The UK's thriving space sector contributes £7.5bn a year to the UK economy, directly employs 24,900 people and supports a further 60,000 jobs across a variety of industries. The Agency is consulting widely on a range of opportunities in space.


Cox, B. (2011, April). 50th Anniversary of Yuri Gagragrin's triumphant blast off. The Sun.

Harford, J. (1999). Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat the Americans to the Moon .

McKie, R. (2011). "I can see clouds. I can see everything. It's beautiful.". The Observer.

Pillinger, C. (2011, April). Rising in the East. Times Higher Education.

Wolfe, T. (1979). The Right Stuff.

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