How America Almost Lost the Space Race

Fear of nuclear war, a Russian scientist’s untimely death, and a former Nazi all helped the United States land on the moon first.

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In 1962, a top scientist at NASA declared that landing a man on the moon would be “the most dramatic physical event in history.”

His assessment was shared by many, including President Kennedy. So it was no surprise that America poured millions into its space program. And no surprise that getting to the moon became a contest between the U.S. and its ideological rival: the U.S.S.R.

The Cold War was heading to outer space.

The American space program had Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi officer who had developed the V-2 rocket that terrorized London in World War II. By capturing him and putting him to work on their own rocket program, the United States’ space program took a giant step forward.

However, the Russians had Sergei Korolev. As early as 1933, he was launching rockets for the Soviets. But the Russian program fell behind in 1938, when Korolev was sentenced to a Gulag on charges of being “anti-Soviet.” After six years, he was released and sent to work with the German rocket scientists being rounded up by the Red Army. Three years later, he successfully launched the R-2, Russia’s version of the V-2 rocket.

Meanwhile, the Americans, under von Braun’s direction, were launching V-2 replicas in the New Mexico desert.

The Russians began pulling ahead. Under Korolev’s direction, they started developing multi-stage payloads to give their rockets more power and versatility. By 1949, they had extended the range of their rockets to 186 miles. By 1957, their missiles could fly over 4,000 miles and deliver a payload — like a nuclear bomb — weighing up to five tons. They could also — in theory — send men into orbit around the earth.

Then, on October 4, 1957, came the announcement that shocked America. The Soviets had launched a missile with a thrust over six times greater than any U.S. missile and sent a satellite into orbit around the world — The Sputnik I.

In an editorial from its November 9, 1957, issue, The Saturday Evening Post declared, “Nobody but an idiot would declare that Russia’s Sputnik is just a stunt without military significance. Plainly the Soviet Union’s success in launching this satellite carries enormously important implications, among them the possibility that the Reds will be able presently to unload devastating missiles upon this country.”

Saturday Evening Post editorial, "The Reds Hoped That 'Moon" Would Panic Us"
(Click to Enlarge)

Officials in Washington had been closely monitoring the Soviet space program. They realized that the Russians now had the capability to launched a nuclear warhead onto American soil.  Just as important, the success of the Sputnik launch had diminished American technology and expertise in the eyes of the world.

Sputnik put new urgency in the U.S. space program. Unfortunately, American prestige suffered a further setback in December 6, 1957, when the launch of a U.S. Vanguard rocket, televised live to the nation, failed spectacularly.

The failed Vanguard rocket launch on December 6, 1957 (Uploaded to YouTube by Birdie Xu)

In 1959, Russia launched the first space probe to reach the moon. And in 1961, they put the first man in space when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth.

So it isn’t surprising to see a Post author in 1962 asking “Can We Still Be the First on the Moon?” The answer, according to author Don A. Schanche was not “particularly reassuring.”

The Soviet rockets were, he wrote, considerably more powerful. They were developed with the goal of doing the heavy lifting to carry nuclear bombs to the U.S. Meanwhile American scientists focused on launching lightweight satellites. Rather than developing more powerful rocket engines, the U.S. team spent their time on miniaturizing its space equipment.

Now NASA turned its attention to developing more powerful booster engines, like the Titan and Saturn series. But this still wouldn’t let the Americans catch up, Schanche wrote. Russians were within a month of being able to link up two space vehicles, something America wouldn’t achieve until 1966.

What Schanche couldn’t have foreseen was that the U.S. space program would build up momentum by 1965. In the following two years, it accomplished its first spacewalk, first spacecraft orbit change, an eight-day spaceflight, a 14-day spaceflight, and the first spacecraft docking.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin seen shaking hands with the crew of Gemini 4, in 1965
Yuri Gagarin shaking hands with the Gemini 4 astronauts in 1965 (NASA)

And that linkup between two Russian space craft expected in 1962? It didn’t occur for another five years.

The two countries’ space programs underwent a reversal of fortune in 1966, when Sergei Korolev died suddenly. There was no competent successor. The next Soviet manned rocket, launched the next year, resulted in the first cosmonaut’s death in Russia’s space program. Russia’s moon landing, planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, never took place.

With the Apollo 11 mission safely returning from the moon, the Americans declared the space race over and won. Seeing America’s advances, the Soviet program switched its efforts to building space stations.

U.S. President Richard Nixon meets with the crew of Apollo 11 as they sit in their recovery chamber.
President Nixon welcoming the Apollo 11 astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin, from their Mobile Quarantine Facility (NASA)

The contest over, at least to American satisfaction, the way was clear for cooperation instead of competition. Six years after the moon landing, in 1975, America linked up its Apollo space craft with the Russian Soyuz space station 18 for the first international space mission.

First page of the article, "Can We Still Be First to the Moon?" as it appeared in the Post. This links to the full article.
Read “Can We Still Be First to the Moon?” from the November 3, 1962, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Apollo 11 mission control celebrates. (NASA)

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