A look at the Cold War Space Race, from Yuri Gagarin’s historic orbit of the Earth to Neil Armstrong’s landing on the Moon

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As we cheer the success of India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission, a leap forward in the country’s space exploration, one is reminded of the race to the Moon in the 1960s that pitted two Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union and the United States, against each other, specifically the trailblazing Apollo missions led by the latter that captured the world’s imagination decades ago.

On April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin completed a single orbit around Earth, becoming the first human to journey into outer space, the Soviet Union seemed to have taken the lead in the ‘Space Race’, causing tremendous consternation in America. Weeks later, US President John F. Kennedy decided to shift the focus. In his plea to Congress on May 25, 1961, he urged the nation to send Americans to the Moon before the end of the decade.

It seemed to be a tall order then. For several reasons. The act of venturing into space, opening a hatch, and stepping outside had never been undertaken by any human being. The concept of two manned spacecraft meeting in the void of space was an untested notion as yet. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) just did not have the technological wherewithal.

First and foremost, the rockets capable of propelling astronauts to lunar distances were yet to be developed, as were compact computers to navigate spacecraft through the complexities of space travel. Space suits tailored for lunar voyages were yet to be designed, and a lunar lander remained a distant dream. Even the fundamental infrastructure of tracking stations to maintain communication with astronauts en route was non-existent.

The race to the moon

The race between the Soviet Union and the US had begun even before Kennedy took office. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union had surprised the world by launching the first satellite, Sputnik, into space, using a rocket. A month later, it launched the second satellite, Sputnik 2, which was the first to carry a living animal, a dog named Laika, into orbit. It demonstrated the technological capabilities of one of the world’s two power blocks that were vying with each other to send objects beyond our planet in a clear bid for world domination. In response, the US worked diligently and launched its first satellite in January 1958.

Neil Alden Armstrong (August 5, 1930-August 25, 2012), the first person to walk on the Moon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Gagrin had soared through space at 17,000 miles an hour. The only space traveller to safely land in just his spacesuit, his landing was about 200 miles off target due to a premature shutdown of the rocket motor that slowed his spaceship. He had touched down in a field using his parachutes, greeted only by Russian potato farmers. The flight was announced by the Soviets on Moscow radio while Gagarin was still in orbit, shortly after a private alert from the Pentagon. This confidence was notable given that the rocket configuration used for Gagarin’s flight had previously failed on eight out of sixteen launches.

The US had answered by sending Alan Shepard into space a few weeks later, though he didn’t orbit the Earth. When the US aimed for the Moon, the Soviet Union followed suit. The competition seesawed with new milestones achieved by both sides. If the US sent John Glenn to orbit the Earth (the first American to do so during the three-orbit, five-hour MA-6 mission) on February 22, 1962, the Soviet Union sent the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space and accomplished the first spacewalk outside a spacecraft; on June 16, 1963, Tereshkova was launched on a solo mission aboard the spacecraft, Vostok 6. On February 3, 1966, however, the Soviet Union got one step closer to the Moon by landing the first unmanned spacecraft, Luna 9, on its surface.

After Gagrin’s feat, the headline in Time matched the size of those seen when it reported the attack on Pearl Harbor and the release of the first atomic bomb. That was what Kennedy saw on the front page when he woke up on the morning of April 12, 1961. The opening sentence of The New York Times’ article set the stage: “The Soviet Union declared today that it had triumphed in the race to send a man into space.” Gagarin had changed the narrative in the favour of the Soviet Union. In a mere 108-minute orbit around the planet, space exploration had transitioned from science fiction into news, from a dream to a tangible reality.

How the US scripted its triumph

In 1961, when Kennedy formally introduced the Apollo programme, which propelled humanity to lunar shores, NASA allocated a mere $1 million for its annual budget. Astonishingly, within just five years, the agency’s expenditure escalated to a staggering $1 million every three hours, running continuously around the clock, to fuel the ambitions of Apollo. It involved a workforce three times larger than that of the Manhattan Project responsible for creating the atomic bomb, writes Charles Fishman in One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (2019).

1968 was a calamitous year in American history, marked by the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, widespread urban riots, war and campus protests, and the divisive Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But it was also the year when NASA propelled three astronauts aboard an Apollo capsule to the Moon, allowing them to orbit a mere 70 miles above its surface on Christmas Eve, redeeming a year plagued by despair and despondency. The Apollo 8 crew — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders — were chosen as ‘Men of the Year’ by Time, which termed it as “a triumphant voyage that acted as a much-needed salve after months of upheaval.”

While it seemed like the Soviet Union was ahead in the race to the Moon, the US managed to take the clear lead. On July 20, 1969, two Americans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, not only landed a spacecraft on the Moon, but also took historic steps on its surface. “That’s one small step for (a) man. One giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong’s famous words went down in history books. This made the US the first, and only, nation to have humans walk on the Moon.

In the 1960s, those who were racing to reach the Moon had a broader perspective — the Moon was never their final destination. “The point of going to the Moon wasn’t just to land on the Moon. It was to open the solar system to human exploration and settlement,” NASA historian Roger Launius wrote. Through its Apollo programme, NASA laid the foundation for the digital revolution. For instance, they were early adopters of integrated circuits — the initial computer chips — which powered the computers onboard the Apollo command and lunar modules. NASA’s role as a client kickstarted the integrated circuits market, leading to a staggering 90% reduction in their cost over just five years.

NASA’s impact on semiconductor firms wasn’t limited to economics. They imparted expertise in producing nearly flawless chips at high speeds and in large quantities. The reliability and value of integrated circuits got a fillip through NASA’s demand. The agency’s use of these chips for real-time calculations in Apollo’s spacecraft, hurtling at approximately 24,000 miles per hour towards the Moon, reflected America’s engineering and programming prowess in the 1960s. The digital revolution picked up momentum in the mid-1970s; while consumer electronics such as handheld calculators (1972) and digital watches (Pulsar, 1972) that we now associate with that era took another decade to become commonplace, the promise of space technology was already influencing the collective imagination

As the US made history, the Soviet Union never achieved a manned Moon landing. Instead, it concentrated on using unmanned spacecraft to explore the Moon and build a space station. Just last week, Russia’s first lunar mission in nearly half a century suffered a setback. The Luna-25 spacecraft lost control and crashed into the moon, precipitated by an issue during the pre-landing orbit preparation. As Russia’s once-potent space programme continues to decline and America drifts backward, decade by decade, it’s India’s moment under the moon.

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