The Space Race

Created By

Brenna Wynn Greer, Wellesley College

  • The Cold War, 1945-1975: Race for Military and Technological Supremacy
  • The Cold War, 1945-1975: Containment and Early Cold War Conflicts

Introduction & Context

During World War II, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had been allies, both members of the Allied Powers. But this was a marriage of convenience. When the war ended, tensions brewing between the democratic and capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union crystallized into the Cold War. From the late 1940s through the 1980s, the conflict between these two superpowers shaped global politics and determined the priorities of each nation state. Space exploration became a central means through which the United States and the Soviet Union sought to demonstrate national strength and superiority. As was true of the nuclear arms race, technological advances central to the space race – such as rockets, satellites, space stations, and space transportation systems – were considered military assets that contributed to national security. In the early years of the space race, the Soviet Union was soundly out front, with early victories such as the 1957 launch of the satellite Sputnik 1 and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbit of the earth in 1961. In response to Sputnik, the U.S. government established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to advance the American space program. Sputnik also compelled Congress – with strong encouragement from President Eisenhower – to pass the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which provided student loans for the study of math, science, and languages in college, and marked the first time the federal government directly funded higher education.

In the 1960s, NASA’s Mercury, Saturn, Gemini, and Apollo programs culminated in the United States landing the first man on the moon in 1969 – a decisive Cold War victory. Following the moon landing, NASA began developing the space shuttle program, an initiative organized around reusable space transportation vehicles that could carry people and cargo into space. During the same period, the Soviet Union became increasingly handicapped as a contestant in the space race because the cost of space exploration and the arms race was crippling to the Soviet economy. Ultimately, in 1991, the United States won the space race by default, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. However, the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia space shuttle disasters, which killed 14 astronauts, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe, and resulted in the loss of billions of dollars, led the American public to question the value of NASA and space exploration.

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Teaching Tips Download PDF

The video and audio clips in this source set are drawn from documentaries, news broadcasts, newsreels, speeches, and interviews. Together, they provide an understanding of how the U.S. space program developed, in large part, as a response to concerns about technological advances and military capabilities of the Soviet Union. These sources provide an overview of the space program from the earliest years of the Cold War through the establishment of NASA, the successes and failures of the Apollo program, and the development of the space shuttle program in the 1970s and 1980s.

Background Information

Before engaging with this resource set, students should be familiar with the following:

  • Post-World War II Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union
  • The nuclear arms race
  • The 1957 launch of Sputnik 1 and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin’s 1961 orbit around the Earth

Essential Question

What was the significance of the space race in U.S. history?

General Discussion Questions

  • What is the relationship between the Cold War and the U.S. space program?
  • How did the U.S. respond to the push for military superiority in space?
  • What national priorities are reflected in how the U.S. space program developed?

Classroom Activities

1) Ask students to listen to and watch the following sources:

How do these different sources present the value of space exploration? What were perceptions of the relationship between the U.S. space program and U.S. strength and security? What motivated the United States and Soviet Union to “race” when it came to space exploration?

2) Ask students to watch and listen to the following sources:

Based on these two sources, how has education figured into space exploration? What types of education were considered necessary within the context of the Cold War? What resources did the United States and Soviet Union put toward education within the context of the Space Race? Are effects of the relationship between education and the space race apparent in U.S. education today?

3) Ask students to watch and listen to the following sources:

What did the space race signal about national priorities, values, or ideals? In the United States, whose interests has space exploration served?


Greer, Brenna Wynn. "The Space Race" WGBH and the Library of Congress.

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