From 1945 to 1991, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) engaged in the Cold War, a conflict in which the communist Soviet Union and the democratic United States competed for influence over countries around the world. During this era, the US and USSR also took their rivalry beyond earth into space through a series of aeronautic developments and flight tests known as the Space Race. After advances in defense technology during World War II and the United States’ use of atomic bombs, each side looked to propel its scientific and technological capability forward by building new missiles, rockets, and spacecraft. The Soviets had many early successes in the Space Race, including the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik (1957), and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin (1961). However, the United States caught up and eventually overtook the Soviet Union, particularly when American astronaut Neil Armstrong and the crew of the Apollo 11 mission became the first humans to land on the moon in 1969.
The Space Race witnessed extraordinary feats of courage, intelligence, and ingenuity as astronauts and cosmonauts made voyages that previous generations thought were impossible. It also involved deception and espionage as the US and USSR competed for technological advantages. Both sides imprisoned, exchanged, and executed spies to protect these scientific secrets. The Space Race yielded many impressive achievements: putting humans into space, inventing new rocket technologies, launching satellites into orbit, and landing people on the moon. The race also resulted in frightening and powerful technology, including the development of thousands of nuclear missiles strong enough to destroy much of the earth. This set focuses on the Space Race during the mid-1950s and 1960s and examines the impact of the Space Race today. The selected documents, clips, and images raise questions about who “won” the race and shed light on the paradox of the Space Race—a period of tremendous scientific advancement that also yielded destructive technology and weapons.