The space race

After Germany's defeat, the United states and the soviet Union raced to capture as much German rocket technology as they could. Both sides saw rocket-powered ballistic missiles as the ideal method for delivering nuclear weapons. However, rocket scientists such as von Braun, working for the Us, and the soviet Union's sergei Korolev, both genuinely motivated by the desire to conquer space, were able to divert their respective countries' missile programs toward other, more ambitious goals.

Both countries aimed to launch a satellite in the International Geophysical Year of 1957. Political considerations led the Us to attempt launches with an underpowered naval research rocket rather than von Braun's more powerful military rockets. The soviets had no such problems, and took an early lead, successfully launching the first satellite, sputnik 1, on october 4, 1957.


Sputnik 1 transformed the world when it was launched in 1957. A 185-lb (84-kg) metal sphere, its main instrument was a radio beacon that transmitted a simple signal back to Earth to prove it had survived intact.

aluminum sphere 2 ft (58 cm) in diameter aluminum sphere 2 ft (58 cm) in diameter

the first animal in space

Within a month of Sputnik 1, the Soviet team was ready to launch a far more ambitious satellite. Sputnik 2 weighed 1,120 lb (508 kg) and carried a passenger—a dog named Laika. She survived for a week, until her air supply was exhausted.

playing catch-up

On December 6, 1957, US attempts to launch a satellite with a Vanguard rocket ended in an explosive fireball. Von Braun's military team was then told to prepare for launch, and the first US satellite, Explorer 1, reached space on January 31, 1958.

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