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At the end of World War Two there emerged two world superpowers. The United States and the U.S.S.R had entirely different ideologies. The Soviet Union attempted to expand their ideologies westward and southward. Only the United States had the power to put a stop to Soviet expansion. The American industries and armed forces were at their highest peak, but they made no attempt to block Soviet expansion. They were trying to install a sense of world peace by removing their troops from Europe and increase support for autonomy and democracy throughout the world. The Soviets saw their expansion as automatic compensation for their loses in the war.
As communism grew into France and Italy, Americans saw the growth as a threat to undermine capitalism and democracy. It was not long before the hostility between the former allies was apparent. Soon the western democracies and the Soviet Union were verbalizing and acting upon their differences. These differences helped establish the "iron curtain" around the eastern block. Any plan the United States devised to offer compensation to the Soviet Union with conditions of letting the other eastern countries establish their own governments was rejected. Under the Marshall Plan Western Europe flourished, and the gap between west and east grew larger with the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union growing.
Fear of the spread of communism was increasing. There was competition between the two superpowers to spread their ideologies. One favored autonomy and democracy while the other favored totalitarian rule. The competition between the two was so intense that they competed in many areas of domination.1 One area of extreme competition between the two powerful nations was the race to control outer space. The extreme concern and race to control the beyond was started in October 4, 1957 by the Soviets. The Soviet's Sputnik was the first successful man-made satellite. Not to be outdone the United States sent their first unmanned satellite into orbit on January 31, 1958 called Explorer I. Over the next few years the United States and the Soviet Union put many satellites into orbit, some even contained animal passengers. The race to control the skies in outer space grew once again. There was suddenly a large desire to beat the Russians in space. The Americans felt behind in their quest to win the space race.2 Eisenhower immediately stepped up his space policy.
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The intensity of the space race was shown in the 1960 presidential election. Americans were interested in having a leader that would push to beat the Soviets at the race they had started. They felt they were in danger of possibly losing their democratic lifestyle. Americans saw the need to have a leader that would work to protect their freedom of having self-rule. The responsibility to protect Americans’ autonomy fell in the hands of the voters.
During his 1960 campaign John F. Kennedy never promised to land on the moon in ten years, but his campaign was geared to greater activation in space. He promised if elected to make the United States a nation that was "not first but, first when, first if, but first PERIOD." The people responded to his promise and elected him as their leader. The promise along with Kennedy’s faith in the power of technology to accomplish great feats led to his 1961 decision to develop a program to put American’s first on the moon. To rally support for his goals Kennedy stressed the importance of economic and military superiority. This increased the American desire to be the first to the moon. To be the first to the moon would indicate true power and be and example of the superiority of the United States, thus indicating the superiority of a democratic government. Kennedy hoped that this would indicate the need for an expansion in democracy and a reduction in the totalitarian state.3
The American feeling of superiority suffered a large setback in April 1961 when the Soviets successfully sent a man into space and orbited the earth.4 Kennedy and Johnson (his vice president) decided to keep up the image of the United States and democracy as a whole, a fast plan of action in space was needed. Private and public funding for NASA was stepped up. This new commitment to space drew the attention of the Americans like nothing else before, and it attracted overwhelming support.
During Johnson’s first year as President he worked to keep the space effort on top. He pressed on for project Apollo (the moon landing), on the basis of national security and as a way to honor Kennedy’s memory. The continued push for the moon also made great economic sense. Investments in NASA helped many other private companies. In 1964 Johnson established his goal of the "Great Society." He felt American’s needed to work for excellence in all that was done.
In 1965 Johnson’s dedication to betterment changed a bit. He still wanted to land a man on the moon, but he had no real plans for the space policy after the accomplishment of the feat. The increasing costs of Vietnam and domestic programs contributed to his reluctance in committing to post-Apollo activities.5 Also the Apollo I fire that killed three astronauts severely damaged NASA’s reputation. However work on the mission to the moon continued and there was much success in the further launches of the Apollo projects, including Apollo 8’s orbit around the moon.6
In the year 1969 Nixon took office and the Apollo project was continued with more launches. The Soviets continued to launch their ships as well, and were working to reach the moon before the Americans. On July 20 1969 American’s were successful in their quest to reach the moon. Apollo 11 piloted by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong achieved mankind’s ultimate glory, securing the American position as winners of the space race. In 1970 the Soviets successfully put people on the moon as well. Both countries continued missions to the moon and explored other planets, but since the competition was decided at the landing of the moon, the missions decreased and died off.7
To conclude, while looking back we can see that the race for space was did little for national security or military superiority. It was more concerned with showing the world that the United States was still the most powerful and dominating country. Does that mean it was a waste? No. At the time the United States did feel that its push for a spread of democracy was in danger. The space race was another way to rally Americans behind their free way of life. The space race helped Americans realize how wonderful autonomy is and how horrible it would be to lose their free lifestyle. Seeing that being first on the moon inspired a great sense of American pride in the greatness of their country it may be concluded that the space race was not a waste of time and money after all.
1. Frankel, Benjamin. Ed. The Cold War 1945-1991. Vol.3. (Detroit: Gale. 1992), 56-63.
2. Reeves, Robert. The Superpower Space Race. (New York: Plenum Press. 1994), 18.
3. Launius, Roger. Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership. (Chicago:
University of Illinois Press. 1997), 54-5.
4. Newman, Joseph. U.S. on the Moon. (Washington DC: U.S. and the New World Inc. 1969),
5. Launius, 78-81.
6. Newman, 103.
7. Reeves, 112-3.
Frankel, Benjamin. Ed. The Cold War 1945-1991. Vol.3. Detroit: Gale. 1992.
Launius, Roger and Howard McCurdy. Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership. Chicago: U of Illinois Press. 1997.
Newman, Joseph. U.S. on the Moon. Washington DC: U.S. and New World Inc. 1969.
Reeves, Robert. The Superpower Space Race. New York: Plenum Press. 1994.