The Space Race


The Space Race began in the 1950s. It was the time of the Cold War, in which the United States and the Soviet Union fought for technological superiority. Each country wanted to prove that its political and economic system – capitalism on one side and communism on the other - was better. Both superpowers wanted to launch the first satellite and put a human being into space. The Space Race was also a part of the arms race after World War II.

In 1957, the Soviet Union surprised the western world by launching the first man-made object into space. Sputnik was a small ball with four antennae sticking out of it.  Four months later the United States launched Explorer I. To the shock of the US, the Soviets had beaten them in the first phase of the Space Race. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human sent into Earth orbit, only a month before American astronaut Alan Shepard was launched into space.


The American defeat was a blow to the western world. In the early 1960s John F Kennedy, America’s newly elected president, announced that the US were willing to show that they could put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. After the Mercury and Gemini projects had sent astronauts to earth orbit, Project Apollo faced the task of putting a team of three astronauts into lunar orbit and sending two of them to the moon’s surface. During the 1960s, NASA received more money than ever before.

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11’s lunar landing module Eagle touched down on the moon’s surface. Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. The Americans had finally achieved a major victory in the Space Race.

After 5 more lunar landings rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union ended.  In the 1970s, the Americans and the Soviets started working together on space missions. The race to the moon was over and funding for NASA was reduced radically.

The Space Race produced many failures on both sides. While Russian rockets blew up on the launch pad ,three Americans got killed during a ground test in 1967.  The most dramatic event came when oxygen tanks exploded during Apollo 13’s mission to the moon; however, NASA managed to get the astronauts safely back to earth.




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  • achieve = do; succeed in something
  • announce = to say officially
  • arms race = when two or more countries fight to have the largest number of weapons
  • beat = win over; be the first
  • blow = setback, shock
  • Cold War = unfriendly relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II; it lasted until the end of Communism
  • decade = a period of ten years
  • economic = system of producing goods in a country
  • face the task = to have a very difficult problem to solve
  • failure = disaster, breakdown; not a success
  • funding = here: money from the government
  • however = but
  • human being = person
  • launch = start
  • launch pad =place from where a rocket takes off into space
  • lunar = moon
  • major = very big, important
  • man-made = not natural, made by people
  • mission = trip, journey
  • orbit = when an object moves around the earth or another planet
  • oxygen = gas that is in the air and which we need to breathe; it has no colour and no smell
  • radically = very much; almost completely
  • receive = get
  • reduce = lower
  • rivalry = conflict, competition
  • rocket = object used for carrying things or people into space
  • stick = come
  • Soviet Union = communist country that existed between 1922 and 1991; it was the largest country in the world
  • superiority = being better than others; in control
  • superpower = country that had great political power and a big army
  • surface = the top layer of an object
  • technological = about new inventions and machines
  • touch down = land
  • victory = win