The Sputnik 3 scientific probe was developed by the Korolev Design Bureau for the International Geophysical Year, and was launched in the spring of 1958. › View Larger Image
Barry points out some of the features on a schematic drawing of the gigantic five-stage N-1 rocket, one of several designs developed by the Soviet Union for its intended moon-landing program. (NASA /Jim Ross) › View Larger Image The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, commonly known as the Soviet Union dominated by Russia, battled for supremacy in space in the 1960s in a race that was much closer than people realized.
The Soviet Union had the early lead with the first launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite on Oct. 4, 1957. Another milestone was reached when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space and the first in orbit on April 12, 1961 in a Vostok spacecraft. The U.S., however, ultimately declared victory when U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969.
Even on the day the U.S. claimed victory, the outcome was not certain until American astronauts made it back safely from the surface of the moon, said NASA Chief Historian William Barry. Barry, who has been NASA's chief historian since 2010, discussed how and why the Soviet Union lost the race to land a man on the moon during a colloquium presentation Jan. 31 at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
Until the dissolution of the Soviet Union about two decades after the space race was decided, the level of the secret effort was unknown, Barry noted. There are three prevalent explanations as to how the Americans overcame the Soviets - there never was a race, the Soviets gave up or they tried but failed because of a combination of spending, poor leadership, and the death of chief designer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev in January 1966.
Two of the gigantic five-stage N-1 rockets are shown on their launch pads. The N-1 was equivalent to the American Saturn V rocket in size and thrust. Both were destroyed in explosions during or after attempted launches. › View Larger Image Barry argued that the space race really started in 1964, not 1961. In January 1964, the flight of the first Block II Saturn I vehicle known as SA-5 gave the U.S. the capability to launch a larger payload than the Soviets for the first time. Then in May, detailed plans for the Apollo program were unveiled and the Gemini program was well under way. Gemini set new records with 10 flights.
However, the USSR pulled off another coup when Alexei Leonov in the Voskhod 2 became the first human to walk in space on March 18, 1965. Then it seemed the Soviet effort stalled. Its next human flight came two years later on April 23, 1967, but ended in tragedy when the new Soyuz 1 spacecraft crashed on landing, and Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov perished. The Soviet flight schedule suggests that they dropped out of the race around the time of the change of leadership in 1964, Barry said.
Years passed and the first Soviet N-1 test launch, an effort started in 1964, came late in the game, on Feb. 21, 1969. The rocket exploded 69 seconds after liftoff. They tried again on July 3, 1969, but that one blew up just after liftoff and destroyed two launch pads.
The N-1 destruction was a setback, but the space race wasn't over until the Soviet Luna 15 crashed on the moon about two hours before Armstrong and Aldrin lifted off from the surface in July 1969, he added.
The R-7 rockets of the late 1950s became the SS-6 nuclear-armed ICBM, and also the early version of the venerable Soyuz launch vehicle. › View Larger Image "The Soviets lost the Moon Race largely because they started too late and tried to do too much at the same time. They were running, in the end, three major programs plus the parallel effort to develop the Soyuz spacecraft they needed to make it all happen," Barry said.
"They expended massive amounts of effort and treasury and all for the same reasons we did – not to colonize outer space and have a long-term human space flight program, but to achieve a political goal of upstaging the other superpower," he said.
The space race has lessons for space policy makers today.
"Countries don't spend a lot on space things unless they have a political purpose. It's not done for scientific reasons, or engineering reasons, it's done for political reasons," Barry argues.
In that case, good engineering goes out the window and the effort is not sustainable beyond reaching the political goal. Regarding future exploration of Mars, Barry hopes it evolves differently than a space race with a superpower.
"I hope we go Mars for good reasons and not political reasons and we find a way to do it within budget and collaboratively," he said.