The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union began in 1957 when the Russians were the first to launch an artificial satellite, Sputnik. The achievement gave Russia bragging rights to claim the achievement and showed their technology was superior to America's.
Not only was conquering space an important scientific victory, it also had military implications. Americans were already nervous about the Soviets' perceived military might, especially the potential development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The idea that the Soviets were ahead of America in the space race added to the anxiety. But President Eisenhower did not show much interest in either space programs or cosmic exploration. President Kennedy, however, did.
What was the first living being in space?
In November 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2. On board was a dog named Laika, who became the first living creature to go into orbit. A few hours into orbit, Laika died from apparent stress and overheating. In 1961, Khrushchev presented the Kennedys with a dog named Pushinka, a daughter of one of the first dogs to successfully return to earth after being shot into orbit.
A turning point came on April 12, 1961 when a 27-year-old Soviet fighter pilot named Yuri Gagarin was sent into space on the world's first piloted space mission. His spacecraft, Vostok, orbited the earth once before re-entering the atmosphere and bringing Gagarin safely back to land. It was an electrifying event and put the Soviets clearly ahead in the space race.
Gagarin's flight had a profound effect on Kennedy. He took it as a personal affront against America's honor. On May 5, 1961, a former navy test pilot named Alan Shepard became the first American in space with a 15-minute flight. Americans responded with wild enthusiasm, and Kennedy saw an opportunity to both regain the lead in the space race and to unite Americans in a common cause.
Less than a month after Shepard's flight, Kennedy made a stunning announcement to Congress: America should work to put a man on the moon. Although many members of Congress thought the idea was science fiction, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) rose to the challenge and began crafting a plan to achieve the goal of a lunar landing.
“I believe 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…. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space. And none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
— John F. Kennedy
Over the next several years, the United States launched numerous manned flights, but the Soviets always remained one step ahead. What Americans didn't know then was that many of these achievements were done at extreme risk to the Soviet cosmonauts. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was willing to sacrifice cosmonauts if it meant keeping the illusion of superior Russian technology.
Kennedy was assassinated before his dream was realized, but his commitment to the program ensured its survival. Eventually, through the Gemini and Apollo missions, the United States caught and surpassed the Soviet space program.
By the beginning of 1968, America and the Soviets were in a dead heat. But by the end, two failed Soviet lunar missions gave the United States the lead in the space race, which it would never relinquish. On July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of his lunar craft and walked on the moon. Kennedy's bold challenge had been answered.