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Early Cold War: 1945–1962

Space Race and Arms Race

Causes and Effects of the Space Race

The Cold War spawned a race in space technology and exploration between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The space race, a rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union for achievements in space exploration, was a major part of the Cold War. The superpowers competed on political, economic, and scientific fronts.

The Soviets ignited the race in October 1957 when they launched Sputnik I, the world's first satellite. The following month they launched a second satellite, Sputnik II. Sputnik II included a dog, the first living creature sent into space. The accomplishment garnered positive world attention for the Soviets. American attempts to launch satellites had failed up to this point, and the American public expressed concern that the United States was falling behind in the space race.

In July 1958 Congress responded to the Soviet challenge by creating NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a civilian national aeronautics and space agency. NASA was to spearhead the country's nonmilitary space research and exploration projects. Because the Cold War was ongoing, the government also formed a "secret" military and spy agency. The Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency jointly managed this agency, named the National Reconnaissance Office. The agency developed radar-surveillance and photo-intelligence satellite systems. In September 1958 Congress signed into law the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). The NDEA was passed to provide funding for American schools, namely in the fields of science and technology, in order to meet the nation's rising security needs and compete with the Soviet Union.

In a joint session of Congress in 1961, President John F. Kennedy called for the United States to send people to the moon within the decade. This changed the focus of the space race, and both countries intensified their efforts to be the first to put humans on the moon. The United States won this race on July 20, 1969, when American astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

Milestones of the Space Race

Date Event Country
October 4, 1957 The Soviet Union ignites the Cold War space race by launching Sputnik I, the first satellite, into space. Soviet Union
September 13, 1959 The first unmanned spacecraft reaches (and crashes into) the lunar surface. Soviet Union
October 7, 1959 The first photos of the far side of the moon are taken. The event is shown on worldwide television and puts the United States back in the race. United States
April 12, 1961 The first man orbits Earth. The Soviets receive worldwide publicity. Soviet Union
February 3, 1966 The first unmanned spacecraft lands on the moon. Soviet Union
July 20, 1969 The first human walks on the moon. The event is acknowledged by the world as a stunning accomplishment. United States

Causes and Effects of the Arms Race

The arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States quickly escalated and lasted until the end of the Cold War in 1991.

The arms race, a rivalry between unfriendly or hostile nations to accumulate or develop weapons, began when the Soviet Union held its first nuclear test. Ever since the United States used nuclear weapons to end World War II, the Soviets had been determined to acquire such weapons. On August 29, 1949, they achieved their goal by detonating the first atomic bomb at a remote test site in the region of Kazakhstan. Five months later, President Truman authorized the U.S. military to develop a "superbomb"—a hydrogen, or H-bomb—that would be a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Japan in 1945. A nuclear arms race had begun, and the race quickly escalated. In 1952 the United States tested its first H-bomb. The Soviets tested their first H-bomb in 1953.

By the late 1950s Soviet and American engineers and scientists raced to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The Soviet Union had the first success with an ICBM and used it to launch its satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. The United States launched its first ICBM in 1959. The two rivals continued to compete for decades, and their nuclear arsenals grew exponentially. At the end of 1956 the Soviet Union had 84 nuclear warheads, and the United States had over 2,000. By 1989 the Soviet Union had built an arsenal of 11,000 warheads, while the United States had over 13,000. The nuclear arms race that had begun in 1949 did not end until the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. However, the process of disarmament began with the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on December 8, 1987. By signing the INF Treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union set in motion an end to the arms race that had lasted nearly 40 years.

The arms race had a negative effect on the Soviet economy. The country's economic problems were exacerbated by allocating a large portion of its resources to research and the production of nuclear arms. In the United States, some saw the arms race as positive because it created jobs as the military built more weapons. Others believed diverting funds from other areas was a mistake. But the arms race effect on the Cold War was enormous. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War came about partly because of the cost of its arms race with the United States.