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"I am the man who arranges the blocks,
Forget the Moon, Just Hit The Opposing Side
The start of the Space Race actually dates back to the 1930's. The Versailles Treaty having banned them from research on cannons, the German Army instead began experimenting with the use of rocket-propelled artillery. Many prominent scientists (Most eminently Werner Von Braun) were accordingly recruited into large-scale rocket development in 1932. It was the work of these scientists during the Second World War which eventually led to the creation of the V1 "buzz bomb" (a precursor to the modern cruise missile), and later the infamous V2 rocket. The V2, first successfully launched in 1942, became the first man-made object to make it out of Earth's atmosphere. Soon after, it was fitted with a payload of high-explosives and fired at London and other Allied targets, becoming the world's first practical ballistic missile as well.
With the end of WWII, a lot of these German scientists ended up unemployed and were quickly grabbed by the Americans or the Russians. Sometimes ignoring possible war crimes  they were shipped back to the USA and the Soviet Union to work on respective rocket programs. The Americans had the good luck to end up with Von Braun and most of his research staff and vital papers, having evacuated them from possible Soviet capture under the direction of a U.S. Military operation code named "Operation Paperclip".
As a result, the Soviets wound up getting a smaller but non-inconsequential share of the spoils (mostly mid-level engineers and technicians, and a large amount of rocket parts). They in turn selected native rocket researcher and former gulag resident Sergey Korolyov (Sergei Korolev), to head their analogue to "Operation Paperclip"  and later the whole Soviet rocket effort.
The immediate goal of both sides was not space exploration, but rather the development of better ICBM technology as a means of delivering nuclear weapons to each other's shores. Military demands were put ahead of any dreams anyone yet had about Moon-shots. For almost a decade, no serious attempt was made for any peaceful use of space vehicles as both sides focused on improving rockets for use as weapons platforms. But by the mid 1950s, it was apparent that the technology needed to put a warhead into space could also be repurposed to put up a man-made satellite, and this would be a PR-bonanza to whichever side in the emerging Cold War could accomplish it first.
The Eisenhower Administration announced the U.S. desire to launch such a satellite on July 29th of 1955, with the Soviet Union following 4 days later. The Space Race was on.
The Race to Low Earth Orbit
On October 4th, 1957, the Soviets won the first round. A modified R-7 Semyorka/SS-6 "Sapwood" ICBM launched a silver ball into orbit. All it really did was go "beep" on the radio, but it made the American government beep too. Not only had they lost the first leg of the Space Race, but it had come completely as a surprise and made the US realize it was actually somewhat behind with missile technology. With Sputnik 1 ("satellite", also translated as "sojourner", or "fellow traveler"- you've got to like the simplicity of Russian spacecraft names), the USSR had also shown the capacity to drop a nuke anywhere on the planet.
The propaganda coup for the Soviets only got better when the hastily-prepared US answer to Sputnik, a small satellite quickly strapped on to a Vanguard rocket developed by the Naval Research Laboratory, blew up on the launch pad after only rising 4 feet into the air. The satellite itself was thrown clear during the explosion and began to mockingly transmit its signals while lying on the ground. The press derided it as "Flopnik", "Kaputnik" and "Stay-Putnik". Von Braun and the US Army had actually been further ahead in rocket research at the time, but the task for the first American satellite launch fell to the Navy for political fears that using the Army's designs and hardware was a security risk and would be seen as "militarizing" the space race. Von Braun himself was furious at the decision, correctly predicting it would be a failure. Indeed, of the 11 total Vanguard launches attempted in the following months, only 3 didn't fail.
The Soviets quickly followed Sputnik up with Sputnik 2, carrying a dog named Laika. (Russian for "barker", again, gotta love the simplicity.) It was never intended to bring her back alive, and Laika died from overheating and stress five to seven hours after launch (a fact not revealed to the West for over forty years). Over the next three years, more Sputnik tests would be launched, growing in complexity in both the scientific apparatuses and living passengers they carried. With Sputnik 5, they sent up two dogs, 40 mice, two rats and some plants, bringing them all back safely. By the end of the series, the crude metal ball of Sputnik 1 would evolve into the more elaborate Vostok capsule, capable of carrying a live human into space.
Meanwhile, the US had finally gotten their first satellite into orbit in January of 1958. Explorer 1 discovered the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding Earth  and gathered other scientific data for a three month period until it's batteries went dead.
With this experience gained, it was on to the next step, putting a live human into space.
(And hopefully bringing them back alive)
The Race to Manned Spaceflight
Towards this end the US conducted the Mercury program, a cramped capsule barely big enough for a single person put into orbit by one of several proven rockets in the US missile arsenal. The program started in 1959 with a series of unmanned test launches that eventually graduated to launching a monkey and a chimpanzee as precursors to putting a man in orbit. On may 5th, 1961, Alan Shepard became America's first real astronaut, riding a Mercury capsule dubbed "Freedom 7" into space for a brief 17 minute suborbital flight. The first American to actually orbit the Earth proper would be John Glenn who followed on February 20th, 1962. His "Friendship 7" capsule made three Earth orbits before landing successfully.
The Mercury program conducted several more manned flights and was a source of valuable experience, but one thing it did not accomplish, was doing it first.
On April 12, 1961, one month before Sheppard's flight, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space aboard a Vostok capsule. He made one Earth orbit, re-entered, and then parachuted out of his capsule to the ground. Once again, the Soviets had come out ahead.
Like Project Mercury, the Vostok series of flights would also be a valuable learning tool for spaceflight. Six total launches would occur from 1961 to 1963 which would set other space "firsts", including the first simultaneous orbiting of two separate spacecraft (Vostok 3 and 4) and the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova (Vostok 6).
Unlike Mercury, however, the Vostok missions required the cosmonaut to bail out prior to landing. The G-forces involved in riding the capsule all the way to the rough ground landing had been deemed too risky. In this regard, Mercury was the first spacecraft that allowed its pilot to remain inside for the duration of the flight, but again Soviet secrecy hid this fact for many years (as it would disallow their claiming international altitude records).
Also hidden by the Soviets was the worst disaster of the Space Race era. On October 24th, 1960, a Soviet R-16 rocket being prepped for a test launch exploded on the launch pad when the second stage engines ignited prematurely, detonating the first stage like a bomb. The massive ensuing fire killed between 80 to 120 workers and ground personnel, most notably Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, head of the military branch of Soviet rocket programs. He was announced to have died in an airplane crash, and the disaster would not be revealed publicly until the 1980's. Up to this day, no activity at all is conducted on October 24th out of respect.
The Race to the Moon
In 1961 President John F Kennedy had announced his vision of a US lunar landing by the end of the decade (1969). Since then, the Moon had been the ultimate goal in the Space Race. Now with the success of Mercury behind them, the US got serious in making this a reality. It was soon realized that there would be a lot of complex tasks involved when it came to landing men on the Moon; there were questions of orbital docking and navigation, flights with multiple crew, extravehicular activities (EVAs, otherwise known as "spacewalks," etc.) and so embarked on the Gemini program to explore these areas. Gemini involved a larger, two-man capsule (although it was very small and uncomfortable for the astronauts) put into orbit on top of a Titan booster. There were 10 manned Gemini missions in 1965 and 1966, gaining valuable experience. This ultimately would lead to the Apollo program, with the sole intent of putting men on the Moon. Apollo would also require a new three-man capsule, a Lunar-landing craft and construction of the largest rocket ever built to launch them, the famous Saturn V.
The Soviets didn't rest on their laurels either. Once the Vostok series was done, they modified the capsule into a two-crew version, the Voskhod series. They also performed the first spacewalk, again, ahead of the Americans. Around this time the Soviets also managed to get the first unmanned probe to actually land on the moon (Luna 9 in 1966). Later, they landed a spacecraft with a remote-controlled moon rover and also launched three successful sample-and-return missions. Despite these successes, their actual manned Moon program was beset by various problems virtually from the start.
First, Sergei Korolev fell somewhat afoul of the new Soviet government -- he was Khrushchev's darling, and after the latter got himself ousted in 1964, it meant a lot more Executive Meddling around and a lot less funding: the Soviet Moon program had barely one-fifth of the purchase-power of the American budget. Then, Korolev famously feuded with leading rocket engine designer at the time, Valentin Glushko, leading to the selection of Nikolai Kuznetsov as the engine designer. Kuznetsov had built only jet engines before, and couldn't supply anything like the Saturn V's enormous engines, so he went for "a lot of mid-sized ones" approach. The Soviet Moon launcher, the N1, had a staggering thirty engines on its first stage. This complex engine array had an enormously labyrinthine plumbing system, which couldn't be tested before the rocket's launch, so it was plagued by a number of unknown bugs and resonance modes. In all, four unmanned test launches of the N1 were attempted, all resulting in mid-flight explosions. (including once at an altitude of 300 feet). In 1966, in the middle of the N1 debacle, Korolev himself unexpectedly died of complications after pretty routine heart surgery. His death left a vacuum in the leadership position of the Soviet program that proved impossible to fill.
In 1967, the US Apollo missions began; the very first, Apollo I, a ground test, ended in disaster when a fire broke out in the capsule. Early Command Modules were defective and had faulty wiring. Nominally everything was fireproof, but they'd failed to account for the fact that the capsule had been filled with a pure-oxygen atmosphere at greater than sea-level pressure for testing. The three astronauts (Mercury veteran Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White - who had made the first US spacewalk - and space rookie Roger B. Chaffee) all died in the capsule due to smoke inhalation. One of the reasons was that the hatch wouldn't open (it opened inward, which meant that the increased pressure held it shut) and couldn't be blown off by explosive bolts in an emergency (as the flames spread in the capsule, the astronauts attempted to unbolt it from its mountings). Ironically, Grissom himself was responsible for this feature. During his Mercury flight, there had been problems with the hatch. His capsule was lost in the Atlantic and he nearly drowned when the hatch prematurely blew open while it was still in the water. Thus, a "safer" version had been installed on Apollo 1. The problems were quickly rectified, however.
The Soviets also experienced disaster in their efforts the same year. On April 24th, 1967, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when (to cap a series of potentially lethal malfunctions) his parachutes failed to deploy on an emergency re-entry, causing a fatal crash into the ground. Much like Apollo 1, the disaster put the Soviet program on hold while flaws with the craft were worked out. This had been the maiden flight of the Soviet's new Soyuz capsule (test launches had been cut as a time and cost saving measure) which was large enough to hold a crew of three cosmonauts with the intention of also making it to the Moon by 1968. Though the problems behind the crash were also quickly solved, continuing problems with the N1 meant that the Soyuz still did not have a reliable launcher to get it there, appropriate symmetry to the US's early rocket failures that had put it initially so far behind in the Race.
Meanwhile, the Americans were back on track with their Apollo program. A series of manned and unmanned test flights of various lunar hardware culminated in December of 1968 with the Apollo 8 lunar flyby that performed all functions of a Moon mission except the lunar landing itself. Next year saw the final fruition of the program with Apollo 11; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got to walk on the lunar surface in the Mare Tranquillitatis on July 20th, 1969.
After Apollo 11, six more manned US moon landings would be attempted. Apollo 13 famously had to abort mid-flight when an oxygen tank ruptured, forcing an emergency return that was dramatically depicted in the film of the same name. Apollo missions 12 and 14-17 were all successful. The last 3 Apollo missions, 18-20, were canceled under budgetary pressure and their resources diverted to other space projects. The Apollo 17 mission of 1972 was the last time to date that man has walked on the Moon.
The American success effectively ended the Soviet effort. Ironically, by that time the Soviets basically had everything needed to make a successful Moon landing (including a one-person lander that was tested in Earth orbit) except for the booster. The flight could have been possible if they decided to launch the various parts of the spacecraft separately and assemble them in orbit. But with Korolev's loss, and lacking funds, no one had enough clout to insist. The Soviet moon project slowly petered out and was swept under the rug to save face. The N1 rocket program itself was canceled in 1976
In 1975, one of the Apollo Command Modules docked with a Russian Soyuz capsule, and the astronauts shook hands and shared food. This was seen as the official end of the Space Race, and the beginning of a new era of cooperation in space. But "era of cooperation" doesn't have a cool rhyme.
Within a few years, the United States became the first to employ a new kind of largely reusable spacecraft--the famous shuttles of the Space Transportation System--which became a workhorse for the American space program for the next 30-some years. The Soviets would also develop their own reusable spacecraft, the Buran Shuttle, but it only managed a single unmanned test flight in 1988 before the program was crippled by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Even if it was a very promising platform ), it fell victim to a general feeling that such expensive toys were unwise investments. With funding literally disappearing overnight, the new Russian space program was forced to fall back on the Soyuz capsules, which proved more than up to the challenge, serving all the way up to the present day.
This technology of unrivaled complexity came with a price--the Challenger explosion was the single worst in-flight space disaster of any nation (not to be confused with on-ground disasters, like the R-16 explosion), with seven deaths, only matched by the later disaster of the Columbia. It also proved Awesome but Impractical in that almost all of its goals turned out to be much more easily (and cheaply) met by expendable unmanned boosters. The STS program initially aimed to achieving a significant economy of scale, utilizing a fully reusable vehicle that could be launched about once a week, but the budget cuts and technical problems had led to a severe scaling down of the project and resulted in only a partially reusable vehicle whose after-flight "maintenance" basically accounted to disassembling it and building a new one from the resulting parts, which usually takes about a half of the year (so long, weekly launches).
While the Americans won the Moon race, the Soviets eventually proved more successful in the business of space station building. The first Soviet space station, Salyut ("Salute") 1, was launched in 1971, and suffered many teething problems: the first crew to go there couldn't enter it, the second crew did, and performed important work, but then tragically died on re-entry when their capsule accidentally depressurized.
The U.S. retaliated in 1973 with Skylab, a much larger space station which used surplus Project Apollo hardware, essentially replacing the huge S-IVB third stage on a modified Saturn V; instead of propelling an Apollo to the moon, it would be outfitted as a station and stay in Earth orbit. Three crews (using Apollo spacecraft launched on smaller Saturn IB rockets) visited the station before space policy changed and the use of Apollo hardware was ended. NASA hoped to use the space shuttle to boost the station and visit it again, but delays to the shuttle's development and unexpectedly high atmospheric drag meant Skylab re-entered over Australia in 1979 and broke up. It was the first and only space station ever built by the USA alone.
The Soviets, meanwhile, continued the Salyut programme throughout the 1970s, also using it as a cover for the similar military Almaz space stations (the Soviet military eventually concluded, along with its U.S. counterpart, that manned reconnaissance stations were not significantly better than automated satellite reconnaissance). Salyut 7 significantly upped the ante in 1982, being the first modular space station testbed, and followed by the famous Mir ("peace") in 1986. Mir was constructed from several components and sufficiently alarmed the Americans to persuade them to plan to use the shuttle to build "Space Station Freedom" in the Reagan years - which was repeatedly cut back by successive presidents, one of the cut-down designs being derisively referred to as "Space Station Fred".
Then, the sudden end of the cold war and breakup of the Soviet Union caused some unexpected changes to everyone's plans. With the new Russian Federation space programme being strapped for cash and Space Station Freedom/Fred/Alpha still on the drawing board, NASA signed an agreement with the Russians by which the Shuttle would visit Mir and the U.S. would help fund the Russians in exchange for use of their hardware. This Shuttle-Mir programme lasted from 1994 to 1998, and was a great success; however, Mir was decaying and suffered a serious accident when a Progress automated freighter collided with it in 1997. There was a fire and a breach, with part of the station being exposed to vacuum, and Anglo-American commander Michael Foale had a Crowning Moment of Awesome when he and his colleagues helped save the station from this science-fiction-like incident, even salvaging many of the science experiments.
This incident shook American confidence in Mir and, lacking funds, the station was deorbited in 1999. At the same time, however, a remarkable international endeavor was beginning. After noting the spiraling costs of Space Station Freedom/Alpha, the fact that the Russians had hardware for a "Mir-2" space station they could not afford to launch, and that the Japanese and European Space Agencies also wanted to launch space stations but were low on funds, the Clinton administration brought all the groups together and the International Space Station was born.
The ISS has been under construction since 1998. While costs have risen, partly thanks to the Shuttle Columbia accident and therefore the shuttle being unavailable for construction at times, all the station's main components are now in place, and in 2009 it had finally reached the stage where the crew could be raised from three to six. This is important, as the former crew of three really did not have much time in between maintaining the station to actually do the science experiments that are the station's purpose. The ISS contains components from the US, Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency, and has now been resupplied by ships from all four participants as well. However, its high maintenance costs have resulted in the ISS being somewhat unpopular with some at NASA, who regard it as eating up the budget they need for more ambitious missions such as returning to the moon. This has led to some ridiculous ideas like the station being de-orbited just after it's finished, which have fortunately been derailed. (De-orbiting is required under international space law; however, the Russians and possibly the Japanese have said that if the U.S. pulls out, they intend to keep their own ISS components in orbit and use them as the cores for new stations).
Besides the ISS, privately-owned space stations are now being built by Bigelow Aerospace (with two small-scale prototypes called Genesis currently in orbit) and the Chinese, who were blocked by the U.S. from participating in the ISS programme, are planning a series of small space stations similar to the Soviet Salyut programme from the 1970s.
Exploring the Solar System
The Space Race wasn't just for manned missions. Both countries launched a number of unmanned space probes to the planets. The most famous of these were the Mariner spacecraft, a series of probes that started launching in 1962. Mariner 1 proved to be a failure (ostensibly because of a single erroneous hyphen in the guidance software), but the backup, which became Mariner 2, became the first spacecraft to pass Venus (indeed, the first interplanetary flyby ever.) Mariner 3 also failed, but Mariner 4 became the first to flyby Mars. Mariner 5 was another Venus flyby, this time with more scientific equipment. Mariners 6 and 7 went back to Mars. Mariner 8 was another failure, but 9 settled into Mars orbit, where it actually remains to this day. Mariner 10 managed to visit both Venus and Mercury in 1974 (it was the only probe to photograph the latter until MESSENGER arrived in 2008).
The other famous line - the Pioneer probes. Pioneer 1, 2, 3, and 4 went to the Moon. Pioneer 6, 7, 8, and 9 make up a solar weather monitoring network, to warn about magnetic storms which can be dangerous to satellites in Earth orbit - Pioneer 6 (launched in 1965) was contacted as late in 2000 and is still considered active. Pioneer 10 and 11 are the most well known. Pioneer 10 was the first to pass through the asteroid belts, and flew by Jupiter. NASA was still in contact with it until 2003, as it headed out into interstellar space. Pioneer 11 visited Jupiter as well, and provided some of the first looks at Saturn. These two probes also carried a plaque with information about Earth, should they happen to be picked up by any marauding aliens.
In 1975, the Viking probes were launched. They were among the first planetary landers, and highly successful. These landers were equipped with experiments designed to test for life, but they were largely inconclusive; still, the view they showed of the Martian landscape was the nail in the coffin of the "little green men" vision that existed prior. The landers had matching orbiters as well, which provided valuable data of their own, right up to the end of the decade.
The last set of probes from this period were the Voyagers, arguably among the most famous unmanned probes of all time. Due to a very fortunate alignment of the planets, Voyager 1 and 2 were able to visit several planets. Voyager 1 provided the world with the famous "Pale Blue Dot" photo, giving people a sense of how small the Earth actually is. Voyager 2 visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The probes provided a huge amount of data, and revolutionized a lot of the thinking on how the outer gas giants behaved. Like the Pioneer probes, they were equipped with information about Earth, just in case they were ever found. The "Golden Records" contain photos and sounds of earth life, music, and messages in a variety of languages. Both Voyagers are still in contact, on their way out of the solar system.
On the Soviet side, aside from the very successful series of the Moon landers, which generally should be counted as a part of the Moon Race, there were a number of the unmanned probes as well. The most extensive and successful of them was the Venera (Venus) series of probes launched in The Seventies and The Eighties that finally conclusively proved what a Death World Venus really is. the first of these generally coincided with the American Mariner launches and were intended to study the Venusian atmosphere, determining it's composition was mostly carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid. No one, however, expected the tremendous pressure of this atmosphere, and the probes died when they exceeded their crush depth. Submarine designers were then consulted, and later probes proved much more resilient and even managed to land, transmitting images of the barren stony desert with some mysterious (and possibly moving) rocks.
Venera series was continued with an equally successful Vega series (a portmanteau of VEnus+HAlley's comet), utilizing similar hardware, which was aimed at the further study of the Venusian atmosphere by the means of weather balloons, and, on the second leg of their journey, a flyby of the Comet Halley. Both spacecraft were quite successful, transmitting the first images of a comet's core and spectroscopy measurements of its coma.
Latter studies, however, hit a roadblock. A curious peculiarity of the Soviet unmanned program is that while it was quite successful with the inner Solar System, for some reason, it invariably failed when Mars was concerned. The aforementioned Mars probe that lost contact with the Earth shortly after landing was only the tip of the iceberg, it was followed by several other failed probes.
For example, after the successful Venus series, Soviet scientists felt that they now had an experience advantage and embarked on an ambitious program of studying the Martian satellite Phobos, creating a complex and sophisticated series of Phobos spacecraft.
Unfortunately, all three of them  failed for various reasons. Phobos-1 turned off its attitude engines and lost the ability to point its solar panels to the Sun, quickly depleting its batteries, because of the error in the command upload that accidentally triggered a test routine in its main computer that should've never been used in flight. Phobos-2 successfully completed its flight to Mars, but just as it deployed its scientific instruments and was preparing for the actual work, all contact with it was inexplicably lost. It was later attributed to onboard computer malfunction, but the last several images transmitted by the probe contained some strange objects that fueled conspiracy theorists that it was shot down by aliens even up to this day. Mars-96 is probably the most tragic of the three, as it was lost in a launch mishap and fell into the Pacific ocean without even achieving orbit.
Depictions in fiction
- ↑ The Nazis used concentration-camp and slave labor extensively for V2 production, in fact, more people were worked to death building the rockets than were killed on the ground by their actutal combat use.
- ↑ Though "conscripted" may be a better description than "selected". He did get Colonel rank, though
- ↑ Sputnik 3 detected radiation first, but its tape recorder broke and the Soviets didn't have world-wide ground coverage so they couldn't map the belts.
- ↑ Glushko advocated the use of hypergolic (that is, room-temperature) fuels, like NDMH and NO4, and had built several very successful ICBMs and carrier rockets based on them, while Korolev felt that the fuel toxicity outweighed its advantages. Plus there was the small matter of Glushko having named Korolev as a traitor during the purges of the 1930s.
- ↑ Americans basically had the same problem with Saturn V, but it had only 5 engines instead of 30, so the problem could be isolated and solved much easier.
- ↑ It achieved the first fully automatic landing of a fixed-wing aircraft, in foul weather and completely unexpected strong crosswinds during touchdown. There's a legend that the control system's chief designer almost had a heart attack when the gust of wind appeared and almost threw the shuttle off the runway, but the robotic pilot performed flawlessly, catching the lander in the nick of time and easing it back on the strip.
- ↑ Two Soviet cosmonauts were on Mir at the time, along with the first Briton in space, and are sometimes called "the last citizens of the USSR", as they did not become "Russian" until touching down days later.
- ↑ The Russians managed a Mars landing earlier, but contact was lost shortly after touchdown
- ↑ The later and also failed Mars-96 probe was based on a repurposed Phobos hardware.