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Flight Plans Newsletter

09. The Cold War

by Gus Posey, The Museum of Flight

Saturn V test rocket, SA-500F, prepares to go to the moon, circa 1969- Photo Courtesy of NASA  Russia’s N-1 rocket, that would have gone to the moon, circa 1969.- Photo Courtesy of NASA

The years following World War II define a period of specific change in the United States, a transition from an America at war to a more optimistic nation filled with the promise of new technology and a chance for peace. Too quickly, however, the attitudes changed, with the colorful postwar idealism replaced by suspicion, distrust and alarm at the actions of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or U.S.S.R.

An ally during the war, the U.S.S.R. represented a collection of several Eastern European and Eurasian states dominated by the centralized power of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, or S.F.S.R. After their victory in Europe, the allies moved quickly to divide the spoils of war. In some cases, the divisions were apparent and hard to ignore, as demonstrated by the separation of East and West Germany and the construction of the Berlin Wall.

More subtly, though, both the United States and the Soviet Union sought to extract the maximum benefit from their captured German technology, and to utilize the German scientists that had, at that point, nowhere else to go. Most of the high-level Germans, including Wernher von Braun, went to America where their rocket development continued. The Soviets, content with quantity over quality, convinced several thousand German technicians to come with them, hoping to capitalize on their cumulative experience.

In both countries, the addition of the German technology quickly produced results. In America, von Braun’s team was making great strides, developing the rockets that would eventually lead to their ultimate achievement, the Saturn V. The Soviets, under the leadership of Sergey Korolyov, were having their own success, but did little to share the news with the world. In 1952, as the German technicians began to move back to Germany, the Soviet team began work on the R-5 rocket, completing their first test in 1953. Four years later, the Soviets launched the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile: the R-7 Semyorka.

With a potential payload of more than 5 tons, the rocket was capable of carrying the Soviet Union’s outsized nuclear warheads, an alarming development for those in the West.

The first flight of the R-7, in August 1957, was quickly eclipsed by another Soviet success, the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, launched in October of the same year. Despite its nonthreatening and extraordinarily simple technology, the idea of a Soviet satellite in orbit above them gave many Americans a sense that the nascent Cold War was already lost. Within von Braun’s cadre of elite rocketeers, efforts were doubled to produce a similar orbital success, resulting in the development of the troubled Project Vanguard and the successful Explorer I. Unfortunately for the American team, the “Space Race” had begun, and even before their satellite could be launched, the Soviets had already sent Sputnik 2 into space.

The effects of this flight were immediately apparent. Sputnik 2 was the first spacecraft to carry a living creature, a small dog named Laika. Although Sputnik 2 was never designed to return to Earth, an incomplete separation during launch damaged the spacecraft’s insulation; thermal control systems were damaged, most likely resulting in the death of the craft’s small passenger. Despite this engineering failure, the ability of the Soviet team to launch a living thing into space demonstrated a capability that exceeded that of designers in the West.

For the struggling Americans, the gap would continue to widen. With the launch of Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, the Soviets had put the first human into Earth orbit, an amazing accomplishment for the time. By comparison, the first American launched into space, Alan Shepard, traveled on a ballistic trajectory, completing a suborbital flight.

Following John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech that defined America’s goals for carrying a man to the moon and returning him safely, the American teams finally began to catch up to their Soviet counterparts. With the successful flight of Valentina Tereshkova in June 1963, the Soviets had achieved another milestone, launching the first woman into space. Nevertheless, American progress continued, producing successful spacecraft in the form of the Mercury and Gemini missions, and maintaining a constant increase in technical ability and knowledge of the environment beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

As the 1960s progressed and Cold War tensions increased, the Space Race continued, culminating in the American moon landing on July 20, 1969. The dedication and scientific skill of the American teams, coupled with a nearly limitless budget, had allowed for the development of the Apollo program, including the Saturn V. This amazing vehicle represented the pinnacle of American rocket development, and despite several fiery attempts, the Soviets were never able to successfully produce a comparable booster.

Still highly capable, the Soviets were able to engineer a robotic sample-return mission to the moon, among many other successes in space technology. However, the appeal of a lunar landing had vanished with the Americans’ first-place arrival. Despite some collaborations such as the Apollo-Soyuz tests, the success of the Americans in transporting humans to the moon represented the final separation of the United States and the Soviet Union, a division that both sides would maintain until the Union’s collapse in 1991.


9. The Cold War - October 9, 20071.95 MB