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date: 25 September 2023

The Space Race and American Foreign Relationsfree

The Space Race and American Foreign Relationsfree

  • Teasel Muir-HarmonyTeasel Muir-HarmonyCenter for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics


The Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, captured global attention and achieved the initial victory in what would soon become known as the space race. This impressive technological feat and its broader implications for Soviet missile capability rattled the confidence of the American public and challenged the credibility of U.S. leadership abroad. With the U.S.S.R.’s launch of Sputnik, and then later the first human spaceflight in 1961, U.S. policymakers feared that the public and political leaders around the world would view communism as a viable and even more dynamic alternative to capitalism, tilting the global balance of power away from the United States and towards the Soviet Union.

Reactions to Sputnik confirmed what members of the U.S. National Security Council had predicted: the image of scientific and technological superiority had very real, far-reaching geopolitical consequences. By signaling Soviet technological and military prowess, Sputnik solidified the link between space exploration and national prestige, setting a course for nationally funded space exploration for years to come. For over a decade, both the Soviet Union and the United States funneled significant financial and personnel resources into achieving impressive firsts in space, as part of a larger effort to win alliances in the Cold War contest for global influence.

From a U.S. vantage point, the space race culminated in the first Moon landing in July 1969. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed Project Apollo, a lunar exploration program, as a tactic for restoring U.S. prestige in the wake of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. To achieve Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely back to Earth by the end of the decade, the United States mobilized a workforce in the hundreds of thousands. Project Apollo became the most expensive government funded civilian engineering program in U.S. history, at one point stretching to more than 4 percent of the federal budget. The United States’ substantial investment in winning the space race reveals the significant status of soft power in American foreign policy strategy during the Cold War.


  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy
  • History of Science and Technology

Origins of the Space Race, 1946–1956

Discussions within the United States about the geopolitical utility of artificial satellites, and the broader scientific, military, and prestige implications of establishing an American space program, predated the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik by over a decade. A 1946 report prepared by the think tank the RAND Corporation suggested that launching an artificial satellite would not only have military and scientific implications but also “would inflame the imagination of mankind, and would probably produce repercussions in the world comparable to the explosion of the atomic bomb.”1 RAND prepared another report in 1950, which investigated the military and psychological effects of earth satellites even further. Historian Walter McDougall called this document “the birth certificate of American space policy.”2 The report explained that although the primary function of artificial satellites would be reconnaissance, the U.S. government should emphasize the peaceful and scientific uses of satellites as opposed to their military function to ensure a positive reception on the world stage. By 1950, U.S. policymakers were enthusiastic about the utility of creating an artificial satellite program, but the question of how to establish the legality of overflight remained. The upcoming International Geophysical Year (IGY) supplied a partial solution.3

In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed the IGY, a large-scale cooperative scientific program that brought together scientists from sixty-seven nations to study earth science between 1957 and 1958, a period of maximum solar activity. During the planning stages for the IGY, the Special Committee for the International Geophysical Year (CSAGI) called for the development of artificial satellites to support geodetic and atmospheric studies of the Earth. This announcement gave the United States an occasion to launch a satellite within a scientific context, helping circumvent any international opposition to the “freedom of space.” At the CSAGI meeting in Rome in October 1954, a U.S.-sponsored plan for orbiting artificial satellites during the IGY was approved. Shortly after the meeting, and perhaps in response to the approval of the U.S. proposal, the U.S.S.R. Academy of Science established a commission to discuss Soviet space exploration.4

Although the IGY presented a useful non-military pretext for initiating an American space program, the Eisenhower administration was slow to move forward with artificial satellite development until it felt the pressure of being second in space. When the Soviet Union announced the creation of a spaceflight commission on April 16, 1955, U.S. government officials started taking immediate action. Donald Quarles, Assistant Secretary of Defense for R&D, had his staff analyze the military utility of a satellite program. He then passed on his report to Nelson Rockefeller, Eisenhower’s Special Assistant for Psychological Warfare, to review. When Rockefeller sent the report to the National Security Council (NSC), he attached a memo urging the committee to act quickly to ensure that the Soviets did not launch the first satellite. “The sake of prestige,” Rockefeller cautioned, “makes this a race we cannot afford to lose.”5

In May 1955, the National Security Council (NSC) submitted a top-secret statement of policy to President Eisenhower, NSC 5520, advising that his administration endorse the development of a scientific satellite as part of the IGY. NSC 5520 summed up the threat: “The inference of such a demonstration of advanced technology and its unmistakable relationship to intercontinental ballistic missile technology might have important repercussions on the political determination of free world countries to resist communist threats, especially if the U.S.S.R. were to be first to establish a satellite.”6 A small scientific satellite, the committee well understood, could also test the “freedom of space,” which they viewed as essential to the prospect of any future legality of military reconnaissance programs. The IGY, NSC 5520 suggested, presented “an excellent opportunity” for the United States to enter the space age under the aegis of a peaceful, open, scientific endeavor, clearing the way for other uses of satellite technology.7

On July 29, 1955, the White House issued a statement announcing the approval of a scientific satellite program as part of U.S. participation in the IGY.8 A few days later, on August 3, 1955, the Stewart Committee, an advisory group formed to select a proposal for the first U.S. scientific satellite, voted for the Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) Vanguard program over the Army’s Orbiter program. The following month, NRL began development of Project Vanguard, with a budget of $20 million and an eighteen-month timeline. The Soviet Union initiated their satellite program in late January 1956, with a target launch of spring 1957. Some key considerations factored into the Eisenhower administration’s support of a scientific satellite program, but interest in potential scientific findings did not steer policy. Although historians disagree about whether the pursuit of prestige or the interest in establishing the principle of overflight for reconnaissance satellites was the major driver of early space policy, they tend to agree that both were motivating factors for U.S. policymakers in the mid-1950s.9

Sputnik 1 and the Launch of the Space Race in 1957

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial earth satellite, Sputnik 1 (Russian for “Fellow Traveler”). A polished aluminum alloy sphere almost two feet in diameter with four external antennas, Sputnik 1 broadcast short radio pulses, which were picked up easily by both government and amateur radio operators around the world. In addition to tuning their radios to hear the “beep, beep” of the satellite, observers on the ground were also able to view the reflective surface of the satellite’s eighty-five-foot-long launch vehicle as it passed overhead. The path of the small satellite passed over most of the world’s landmasses because its ninety-six-minute orbit was sharply inclined to the equator.

The international press covered Sputnik in great detail and treated the satellite’s launch as the major story of the year. Much of this coverage, particularly in the United States, observed the significant propaganda value of Sputnik in the developing world, commenting on how the new image of Soviet ballistic missile capability directly impacted the balance of power in the Cold War. Within the United States, a crisis of confidence spread across the nation as Americans questioned the technological, scientific, military, and political standing of their country.10

Sputnik was not a technically sophisticated instrument. Soviet engineers had been designing an advanced scientific satellite, but it was falling behind schedule. The Kremlin gave Sergei Korolev, the Soviet space chief designer, permission to fabricate a simple vehicle to ensure that the U.S.S.R. would be the first country to launch a satellite. Since the U.S. satellite program prepared for a late 1957 or early 1958 launch date, Soviet engineers took the fall of 1957 as their target date. Although Sputnik 1 did not pay significant scientific dividends, the satellite had certain security, political, and social implications. The Soviet Union launched a second, larger satellite, Sputnik 2, a month later to commemorate the anniversary of the October Revolution. Weighing six times the previous satellite, Sputnik 2 carried the first living being into orbit, a dog named Laika. In May 1958, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik 3, the hulking scientific satellite with instruments for geophysical research.11

The United States attempted to enter the space age with the launch of a Vanguard satellite in December 1957. In the wake of Sputnik pressure, NRL set a new launch date some months ahead of its initial schedule. When technical complications forced a launch delay, Allen Dulles, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director, told the NSC that because of the publicity leading up to the launch, the United States was the “laughing-stock of the whole free world.”12 Dulles encouraged Eisenhower to consider a new policy that would make all future launches secret until after the spacecraft was successfully in orbit, to avoid further embarrassment.13 The blow to U.S. prestige that followed the launch delay was nothing compared to what would occur on the day of the launch. On December 6, after reaching a height of only a few feet after takeoff, the vehicle burst into flames while the small payload tumbled to the ground. Adding to this humiliation, members of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations offered the U.S. technical assistance as part of its program of aid to underdeveloped nations.14

After the failure of Vanguard 1, the Army’s Orbiter program received the go-ahead to put the United States back in the space race by launching its Explorer satellite. On January 31, 1958, the United States successfully launched the Explorer 1 satellite from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The tube-like payload contained a package of scientific instruments, which collected data that led to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts. The launch of Explorer 1 did not receive the widespread sensational coverage that Sputnik 1 had a few months earlier. The balance of power, according to most international newspaper coverage, had returned to equilibrium. Press in communist countries acknowledged the launch but downplayed its broader significance.15

Following these Soviet successes in space, the Eisenhower administration introduced a new set of policies designed to give the United States a more competitive edge over its Cold War rival. Eisenhower created the post of Presidential Science Advisor and recruited Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) President James Killian to take the position. Killian established the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), which acted as an intermediary between the scientific community and the executive branch. New policies reformed the American education system to meet national security needs, reorganized the Department of Defense (DoD) and centralized military R&D funding. As a direct response to Sputnik, the U.S. Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act in July 1958, which led to the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) the following October.16

The 1958 Space Act gave the new agency charge of securing U.S. leadership in space while simultaneously collaborating internationally. Negotiating the interests of the Eisenhower administration, the Department of Defense, Congress, and the scientific community, the Space Act became the core statement guiding U.S. space policy. It gave NASA direction over civilian space efforts, including the research undertaken at three former National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) facilities. The Space Act called for a council to advise the president on space exploration, it established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) within the Department of Defense to manage military space activities, and it created a civilian-military liaison committee to coordinate NASA and DoD projects. By separating the civilian and military space programs, the United States could carry out highly classified national security-related activities while simultaneously promoting its open and peaceful space efforts on the international stage. The Space Act also specified that NASA pursue international collaboration, essentially making the agency a branch of American diplomacy.

In 1958 the United States sent five civilian satellites into orbit and two probes into outer space. A year later NASA had successfully launched four more satellites and hurled one space probe past the Moon and on to the Sun. In 1959 NASA also began training seven astronauts and testing Atlas boosters and capsule instruments to prepare for Project Mercury, a human spaceflight program transferred from the Department of Defense to NASA in 1958. Two monkeys, Able and Baker, rode rockets into space and returned to Earth alive and well. By 1961, the newly established space agency was operating on a budget of $964 million and employed 16,000 people at seven centers around the country.17

Although the United States space program made significant headway in the latter half of the 1950s, the Soviet Union continued to accomplish many firsts in space. In January 1959, the U.S.S.R.’s Luna 1 became the first human-made object to escape the Earth’s gravity. The following fall Luna 2 took the first clear images of the Moon, and Luna 3 took the first images of the far side of the Moon. In August 1960, the U.S.S.R.’s Sputnik 5 carried two dogs into space and returned them safely to earth, marking the first time living creatures survived a spaceflight.18

Project Apollo and the Race to the Moon in the 1960s

On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union achieved another important first in space with the orbital flight of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Like the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, accomplishing the first human spaceflight gave the Soviet Union a major international propaganda victory that challenged American technoscientific, military, and political leadership. In the wake of Gagarin’s flight, amidst the political aftermath of the failure of the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, newly elected President John F. Kennedy came to recognize the significant international relations and national security implications of the Soviet Union’s dominant role in the space race. On April 20, he asked Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to lead a National Aeronautics and Space Council review to find a “space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.”19 Johnson response to Kennedy’s request arrived on May 8, 1961, three days after Alan Shepard became the first American human in space. The report recommended that the United States invest in a lunar exploration program, noting that neither superpower currently possessed the rocket technology to reach the Moon. The substantial international acclaim the United States would receive from landing on the Moon, Johnson’s letter explained, would be a signficant propaganda victory in the psychological battlefield of the Cold War.

On May 25, 1961, in a nationally televised joint session of Congress on the country’s urgent needs, Kennedy proposed that the United States commit to the goal of sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely back to Earth before the end of the decade. He explained, “If we are to win the battle for men’s minds, the dramatic achievements in space … should have made clear to us all … the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.” Kennedy sold Project Apollo to a budget-wary Congress by emphasizing the soft power potential of lunar exploration. Project Apollo, he underscored, would persuade people in developing countries to choose American “freedom” over Soviet “tyranny,” and in turn secure the status of U.S. global leadership.20

Interest in and discussion of human exploration of the Moon, Mars, and other destinations had been taking place within the United States long before Kennedy proposed Project Apollo to Congress. In the 1950s, science-fiction books, films, and space advocates, like Walt Disney and German rocket designer Wernher von Braun, popularized the notion that space travel would be possible in the near future. In 1959, NASA officials concluded that the agency should send humans to the Moon in the 1970s and begin preparing for lunar exploration in the 1960s. Kennedy accelerated this schedule in 1961 when he proposed that the United States send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.21

Initiating a warlike mobilization of financial and human resources, Project Apollo became the greatest open-ended peacetime commitment by Congress and, at the time, the most expensive civilian technological program in U.S. history. At its peak, NASA’s budget climbed to more than 4 percent of the federal budget. Throughout the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of NASA employees and contractors developed new hardware and a vast infrastructure to support human spaceflight, astronauts flew missions that tested capabilities necessary for lunar exploration, and the United States Information Agency (USIA) promoted the American space program throughout the world with exhibits, films, books, pamphlets, lectures, and a host of other events and media. Project Mercury, with its one-person crewed spacecraft, proved that the United States could successfully send humans into orbit. The next human spaceflight program, Project Gemini, tested rendezvous and docking, long duration spaceflight, and other capabilities necessary for the upcoming lunar missions.22 At Kennedy’s urging, the United States spearheaded the creation of a single global communications satellite system. By the end of the decade, over sixty nations had joined the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat), and geosynchronous satellites provided global communications coverage, including live telecasts of Apollo missions to television sets around the world.23

Throughout the space race, there were multiple efforts to dull the intensity of the competition. In June 1962, the United States and U.S.S.R. agreed to bilateral cooperation in four areas of space science: geomagnetic mapping, communication satellite experimentation, biomedical data sharing, and weather satellite image exchange.24 By 1963, in response to a skyrocketing budget, politicians and the general public alike questioned the judiciousness of investing major financial resources into Moon missions. Conservatives argued that funding should be going to military space development while liberals suggested that social programs and education should be a greater national priority than lunar exploration. In September 1963, Kennedy offered the solution of turning Project Apollo into a cooperative program with the Soviet Union. But in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, just two months later, Project Apollo became a memorial to the fallen president and the opportunity for a joint space program passed.25

In 1966 Secretary of State Dean Rusk urged the Space Council to “de-fuse” the space race and instead pursue space missions that enlisted scientists from Western European and developing nations. This approach, Rusk explained, would help bridge the widening technological gap between the United States and its allies, and strengthen international bonds. In the 1960s, NASA collaborated with countries around the world to develop satellites, build tracking facilities, and train the next generation of space scientists and engineers. Many policymakers viewed these cooperative projects as a means of influencing the technological trajectory of other nations, attracting the most capable scientists to contribute to American space projects, and demonstrating U.S. leadership. Although these space efforts were less publicly visible than Sputnik or Project Apollo, they became essential components of aligning the values and interests of the emerging world order with those of the United States, an effort at the core of U.S. foreign policy in this period.26

The Soviet Union maintained a competitive position in the space race through much of the 1960s. A few months after Gagarin became the first human in space, cosmonaut Gherman Titov took the first day-long flight in August 1961. The Soviet Union achieved the first long-duration spaceflight in August 1962, with cosmonaut Andrian Nicolayev’s four-day mission aboard the Vostok 3. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space when she flew Vostok 6 in June 1963. The Soviet Voskhod 1 carried three cosmonauts into space in October 1964, accomplishing the first multi-person spaceflight. Alexei Leonov took the first spacewalk in March 1965. The Soviet Union pulled off two more firsts in 1966: the first soft landing on the Moon with Luna 9 and the first landing on another planet with Venera 3’s mission to Venus. Even through the mid-1960s, it appeared that the U.S.S.R. was winning the space race, the tide would turn when the Soviet Union abandoned plans for a crewed lunar program and NASA started launching missions to the Moon.27

The First Lunar Landing

In December 1968, NASA sent the first crewed mission to the Moon aboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft. Before the flight, Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman contacted USIA Science Advisor Simon Bourgin for guidance on composing an appropriate message for the global audience that would be tuning into the first telecast from the Moon. They selected a passage from Genesis for its seeming universal relevance to the estimated quarter of the world’s population they expected would be following the flight. As the spacecraft circled the Moon, astronaut Bill Anders photographed the Earth appearing to rise above the lunar horizon. Before he left office, President Lyndon Johnson selected this picture to include in his farewell letters to international political leaders as part of an effort to communicate that Project Apollo offered a new perspective of the planet as one world.28

Figure 1. The Apollo 8 crew captured this photograph, popularly known as “Earthrise,” on December 24, 1968. It is depicted here with its original orientation (NASA 68-HC-870).

As NASA prepared for the launch of Apollo 11 in July 1969, the mission that would accomplish Kennedy’s goal of landing men on the Moon, the USIA, the State Department, and the White House prepared their public relations strategies. NASA Administrator Thomas Paine created a Symbolic Activities Committee, which was in charge of planning the commemorative and public gestures the astronauts would carry out on the Moon. The Committee’s final plans for Apollo 11 included a plaque affixed to the lunar module with the message “Here Men from the Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969, A.D. We Came in Peace for All Mankind”; messages from heads of state and American political leaders etched on a small silicon disc; a series of small flags from the fifty United States, the United Nations (UN), and each of the countries that belonged to the UN; and a large American flag to plant in the lunar soil. The Apollo 11 crew also carried mementos from the three astronauts and two cosmonauts who had perished. By projecting an image of Apollo 11 as an American-led global undertaking, the committee, along with the president and his advisors, carefully crafted this set of gestures and activities to maximize the mission’s soft power.

Leading up to the first Moon landing, the USIA invested a significant portion of its annual budget in an extensive array of programs designed to heighten anticipation and excitement, sparing no expense to take advantage of this unprecedented public diplomacy opportunity. The agency ran space-themed films in movies theaters, Apollo features on television stations in over a hundred countries, distributed millions of pamphlets, brochures, souvenirs, and photographs, and hosted a wide array of exhibits, from small window displays to large-scale exhibitions drawing millions of people. The USIA worked with foreign television networks to ensure that live coverage of the lunar landing would reach every potential TV set. In areas where live coverage was not possible, the USIA shipped foreign television networks copies of TV clips of the major phases of the mission as well as a final wrap-up after splashdown. The Voice of America broadcast live coverage of the lunar landing in thirty-six languages for an audience of roughly 750 million. Another estimated 650 million watched the lunar landing on television, the first live global broadcast in history.

The Soviet Union restricted live coverage of the lunar landing, but broadcast the moonwalk three times. For the most part, Soviet media presented Apollo 11 as a shared human achievement, not an American accomplishment, and balanced enthusiasm for the mission alongside descriptions of the importance of the failed Soviet robotic probe Luna 15. All Eastern European countries—save East Germany, Bulgaria, and Albania—carried live coverage of the mission. The flight received thorough treatment in Romania, a gesture that the USIA interpreted as an effort to improve U.S.-Romanian relations ahead of President Richard Nixon’s upcoming visit to Bucharest. The media in China, North Korea, and North Vietnam did not acknowledge the flight while Cuban media covered some of the mission.29

Although global enthusiasm for the first lunar landing was unprecedented, critique of Project Apollo and anti-U.S. government protests sprang up around the world in July 1969. During the mission over three thousand students filled Tokyo’s streets, protesting the U.S. government while Ralph Abernathy, successor to Martin Luther King Jr. as chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, along with 500 representatives from the Poor People’s Campaign, arrived at Kennedy Space Center to protest the launch and raise awareness of America’s poor. The Libyan anti-American weekly publication al-Rakib quoted a Cuban diplomat who commented, “Sending a man to the Moon is a useless luxury.” This censure illustrates how for many people the meaning of Project Apollo became inseparable from broader dissatisfaction with U.S. government policies, sharpening their criticism of wasteful government spending, U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and civil rights tensions.30

President Nixon met the Apollo 11 crew when they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969. Speaking to the crew through the window of the mobile quarantine facility on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet, Nixon told the astronauts that the White House had already received over a hundred congratulatory messages from foreign leaders. Later that day Nixon left the aircraft carrier for Guam, the first leg of a diplomatic tour of Asia and Europe aptly dubbed “Moonglow.” At a press conference in Guam, he explained that the United States would no longer send troops to support its allies but would continue to provide aid, counsel, and arms, sketching out what would become known as the Nixon Doctrine. Throughout the rest of his trip, Nixon referenced the popular lunar landing again and again, in an attempt to palliate the discussion of foreign relations challenges, especially the United States’ role in Vietnam. Nixon used his visit to Bucharest to send the message through Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu to North Vietnam and China that the United States was prepared to start normalizing relations.31

Shortly after the first lunar landing, the Apollo 11 crew served as Nixon’s representatives on a diplomatic tour of twenty-four countries named “Giant Step.” The Nixon administration expected that the tour would reap significant foreign relations dividends, prompting Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to take a hands-on role in the planning and selecting of tour locations. The list of countries the astronauts visited on their whirlwind tour can be read as an account of U.S. allies and interests in the fall of 1969. When the crew returned to Washington, Nixon greeted them at the White House and enthusiastically explained, according to astronaut Neil Armstrong, “that meeting alone [with President Ceausescu] paid for everything we spent on the space program.”32

Figure 2. The Apollo 11 crew visiting Mexico City during the Giant Step Presidential Goodwill Tour, on September 23, 1969 (NASA 70-H-1553).

In August 1969, less than a month after the first lunar landing, the USIA finalized a study on the impact of the U.S. space program on both domestic and foreign public opinion. Americans, the report concluded, were enthusiastic about Apollo 11 but concerned with the cost of a large-scale space program given pressing domestic problems, including housing, education, civil rights, pollution, and urban renewal. As the 1960s wore on, the report explained, Americans became less concerned with beating Soviet space feats and instead were interested in the direct applications and benefits of space exploration in addressing the country’s problems. The two most notable features of foreign public opinion, the report emphasized, were the tendency to view Apollo 11 as “an achievement of all mankind” and that the mission “should serve to bring mankind closer together.” According to the report, the launch of Sputnik cemented the Soviet Union’s role as a superpower in the minds of many people around the world. U.S. public diplomats concluded that the first lunar landing, on the other hand, encouraged a high degree of personal identification with the United States due to an effective policy of “openness.”33

Historians have noted that Apollo 11 had a significant immediate and lasting impact on the image of U.S. power and prestige, but the remaining six Apollo missions created few geopolitical rewards. Without Soviet competition in lunar exploration, public interest in Project Apollo waned. Although enthusiasm for missions to the Moon persisted longer abroad than within the United States, NASA canceled the final three Apollo missions, citing budgetary reasons. NASA used the leftover hardware from Project Apollo for launching Skylab, the first U.S. space station, into orbit in 1973.34

Post-Apollo Space Policy and the End of the Space Race

In the 1970s, the tenor of the international space competition shifted dramatically. While space exploration still served as a venue for demonstrating technological capabilities and the robustness of political systems, both superpowers felt the constraints of a changing global economy and the exigency of other domestic priorities. In the spring of 1969, with the achievement of the first Moon landing on the near horizon, President Richard Nixon and his advisors debated the future of human spaceflight as well as the future of U.S. space policy. Secretary of State William Rogers wrote to Nixon that “there is a close relationship between our space program and our foreign policy objectives… We are interested in space cooperation,” explaining that from a foreign relations standpoint, the United States ought to seek cooperative initiates with the Soviet Union.35 The Nixon White House concluded that the United States should not pursue an ambitious post-Apollo human spaceflight program. With the hurdles of the Vietnam War, the need to improve relations with the Soviet Union and China, balancing the federal budget, and domestic unrest facing him as he took office, space exploration was not at the top of the president’s policy-making agenda. In 1970, Nixon announced that the space program would no longer be a major national priority but instead a “regular part of our national life,” and one area of many normal government activities.36

Unlike Kennedy who treated space exploration as an essential top-down leadership initiative in the Cold War contest for hearts and minds, Nixon found few foreign relations or national security incentives for a robust and highly visible space mission like Project Apollo. Instead, the budget-conscious Nixon administration pushed for a space program that expanded cooperative activities—such as joint spacecraft projects, satellite broadcasting, and remote sensing—sharing the burden of cost with other nations while simultaneously solidifying political bonds with participating countries. In January 1972, the administration also supported the development of the Space Shuttle program, which was projected to cost less than a fourth of Project Apollo’s budget. Nixon was enthusiastic about the Shuttle’s potential national security uses, the positive impact that job creation could have on his 1972 reelection bid, and a low-cost approach to maintaining the image of U.S. leadership in space. NASA had pushed for European participation in the technological development of the space shuttle, but by 1972, due to fear of technological transfer, the United States limited the role of foreign cooperation to flying foreign astronauts and scientific experiments on the spacecraft. Between 1981 and 2011, 135 Shuttle missions carried 355 people into Earth’s orbit, including astronauts from sixteen countries.37

As part of U.S. space policy’s emphasis on international cooperation and participation in space exploration, the United States and U.S.S.R. entered a Science and Applications Agreement in 1971, which included the exchange of lunar samples, biomedical research, and data collected by planetary probes. The following year, President Nixon and Soviet Premier Kosygin signed the Summit Agreement Concerning Cooperation in Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes, which led to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), a joint human spaceflight mission between the two superpowers. The United States and U.S.S.R. launched ASTP in 1975, a symbolic demonstration of Nixon and Kissinger’s policy of détente. While the American Apollo and Soviet Soyuz spacecraft docked in orbit for two days, three American astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts conducted joint experiments and exchanged gifts. The public diplomacy coverage of ASTP, a highly choreographed symbolic demonstration of détente, emphasized the commonalities of these recent space rivals. The only differences between the two space programs, public relations material suggested, were linguistic, not ideological. Although this mission was meant to signal a new era in U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, among other sources of rising political tensions between the two superpowers, froze most cooperative space efforts, not to be reinvigorated until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.38

Figure 3. Astronauts Thomas P. Stafford and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton toast the Soviet crew during the US-USSR Apollo-Soyuz Test Project on July 17, 1975. The Soviet crew pasted vodka labels on tubes of borsch (beet soup), as a playful joke on their American counterparts (NASA AST-03-175).

By the 1980s, the technological gap between the NASA and its international partners narrowed, and Soviet space achievements were no longer the chief challenge to U.S. space leadership. The European Space Agency (ESA) successfully launched the Ariane rocket from Kourou in 1979. By 1985, Arianespace, the company that commercialized Ariane, accounted for half of the satellite market. Japan developed the H-series, a new family of launch vehicles that replaced the N-series, an earlier launch system derived from the American Delta rocket but produced under license in Japan. With the Long March-3 rocket, China launched a satellite into orbit in April 1984. At the same time, Europe, Japan, and Canada were all developing communications satellites and remote sensing satellites that were more advanced than civil sector American satellites. Australia, Brazil, China, and India had established space programs.39

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the conclusion of the Cold War, over thirty years of U.S.-U.S.S.R. space competition officially ended. In 1993, the United States, ESA, Canada, and Japan decided to invite the Russian Federation to become a partner in the International Space Station (ISS), the most extensive international cooperative space program ever attempted. The Clinton administration viewed space cooperation with Russia partly as an instrument for keeping former Soviet technical elite engaged in peaceful scientific and engineering programs. After four years of negotiations, Russia officially joined the group of nations constructing the ISS in 1998.40

Although the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union has long since ended, its logic and rhetoric continue to imbue the reality and perception of national and private space programs. In 2007, after China and Japan sent scientific probes to orbit the Moon, media outlets heralded the beginning of an “Asian Space Race.” The following year India launched a Moon probe, which added a new challenger to this apparent competition. As commercial spaceflight propels new developments in rocket technology and private companies tout promises of space tourism, claims of a space race between tech billionaires have emerged. The enduring nature of the “Space Race” framework points to the broader historical significance of U.S. and U.S.S.R. Cold War policy initiatives that turned outer space into the competitive proving ground for global leadership.41

Discussion of the Literature

Scholarship that treats modern U.S. history often mentions the space race but rarely regards it as more than a passing episode, disconnected from broader developments in American society and politics. This is in part due to years of space history’s isolation from mainstream U.S. history. For decades, and some may argue that to this day, biographies of astronauts, highly technical descriptions of space vehicles, and celebratory narratives of human achievement, dominated space historiography. By the late 1980s, the field shifted, as a growing number of historians examined the political, cultural, and societal significance of space exploration, linking space history to broader themes in the American experience. Historian Roger Launius dubbed this emerging body of literature the New Aerospace History, an allusion to the New Social History that gained momentum among the history community in the 1960s and 1970s. Historians within this expanding group did not set out to debate the validity of space exploration but instead to understand its historical implications and consequences.42

Within New Aerospace History, three studies stand out for their foundational and lasting impact on the history of U.S. foreign relations and the space race. Walter McDougall’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of the early years of space exploration has remained a core text of the political history of spaceflight. It argues that the space race promoted the institutionalization of technocracy in the United States, a perspective aligned with a common strain in conservative politics during the 1980s, which critiqued the progressive ideology of the 1960s. In a different vein, but similarly influential, political scientist John Logsdon’s The Decision to go to the Moon, an analysis of the events and conversations that led to Kennedy’s support of Project Apollo, is essential reading for any examination of U.S. space policy. Just as McDougall and Logsdon’s studies have contoured the political history of U.S. space exploration, Asif Siddiqi’s Challenge to Apollo, is a definitive account of the Soviet space program. Drawing on newly available Russian-language archival material, Siddiqi revealed the long-elusive Soviet side of the space race, not only filling in gaps but also adding a new perspective on the United States’ reactionary approach to its Cold War rival. It is unlikely to find a study of the space race that does not reference these canonical texts.43

The history of the space race, and its relationship to U.S. foreign policy is rarely treated in its entirety; save a few comprehensive studies, most literature either examines the launch of Sputnik and its immediate aftermath or the race to the Moon. Among the collection of work on Sputnik, the question of whether or not the first satellite came as a shock to American political leadership looms large. Much of this literature investigates why the Soviet Union beat the United States into space, offering various interpretations as well as insight into the Eisenhower administration’s national security strategy. The collected volume, Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite, is an excellent starting point for exploring literature on the origins of the space race.44 Scholarship on Project Apollo often treats foreign policy as a backdrop for the drama of lunar exploration and describes the Moon landing as a chiefly domestic undertaking, gesturing but not always engaging with the complex dynamics of 1960s geopolitics.45 Studies that take politics as their central focus examine presidential decision making, the rhetoric invoked to sell spaceflight as a national priority, and domestic enthusiasm and critique of federal investment in the space race. Key examples include, Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership edited by Roger Launius and Howard McCurdy, Matthew D. Tribbe’s No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture, and James L. Kauffman’s Selling Outer Space: Kennedy, the Media, and Funding for Project Apollo, 1961–1963.46

In recent years, scholars have been stitching the history of the space race more tightly back together with the geopolitical exigencies and dynamics that bore it, and engaging directly with broader concerns within diplomatic history and U.S. history more generally. Essential to these studies is the recognition that the U.S.S.R. and the United States were not simply competing with each other but competing for global influence and political alignment, a critical aspect of the space race that is often gestured to but left uninvestigated. By examining the U.S. and U.S.S.R. investment in cooperative space missions, the application of satellites for rural development, and space-themed public diplomacy events, which targeted practitioners and public audiences on each continent, this new globally oriented scholarship offers insight into the superpowers’ strategies of attaining economic, cultural, and political hegemony in the emerging world order. The volume NASA in the World: Fifty Years of International Collaboration in Space, co-authored by John Krige, Angelina Long Callahan, and Ashok Maharaj, exemplifies this new direction in space history. Further research that problematizes the relationship between spaceflight and national identity, as well as the persistent equating of space prowess with progress, will bring the history of the space race to bear on discussions of the politics of modernity, the transnational roots of nationalist science, and the dynamics of globalization.47

Primary Sources

When lawmakers passed the 1958 Space Act, they mandated the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof,” recognizing that the new space agency would likely make history.48 The space agency’s history offices and libraries support the collection and archiving of records, oral history interviews, research, conferences, fellowships, and the publication of volumes on the history of space exploration. Many of the NASA history volumes are available for download on the NASA history office website. Information about NASA history fellowships, records, oral histories, and other resources also can be found on the site. In addition to the history office at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC, the agency also maintains history offices and libraries at NASA centers throughout the United States.

Researchers interested in the relationship between the space race and U.S. foreign relations will find essential material at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland (also known as NARA II). This archive is the primary repository of U.S. government records relating to foreign relations. The major collections to consult include records from the Department of State (Record Group 59), NASA (Record Group 255), and the United States Information Agency (Record Group 306).

The National Archives’ Presidential Libraries are also an important resource for topics relating to space policy discussions within presidential administrations. Of particular note are the collections housed at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, and the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California.

Another important resource is the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, available online through the Department of State’s website and in print at NARA and most research libraries. This series includes official documentation related to major historical events in U.S. foreign relations history, beginning in 1861. The Office of the Historian at the Department of State prepares and publishes the series. Since the space race was a topic discussed across agencies, FRUS is a useful access point to material from Presidential Libraries, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, the United States Information Agency, and private papers.

Additional relevant collections, especially those of individual policymakers, are located in university archives throughout the United States, the Library of Congress, and the National Academy of Sciences, among other institutions. WorldCat is a useful online database for locating university archive collections.

Since the space race engaged partners and audiences throughout the world, pertinent archival material can also be found in archives outside of the United States. Historians have found useful material at the following archives, although it should be noted that this list is not exhaustive: the Historical Archives of the European Union (Italy), the National Archives (England), the Nehru Memorial Museum Library (India), Space Application Center Library (India), Vikram Sarabhai Archives (India), the Russian State Archive of the Economy (Russia), Russian State Archive of Scientific-Technical Documentation (Russia), National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Japan), Tsukuba Space Center (Japan), and the Pakistan Council for Science and Technology (Pakistan).

Further Reading

  • Bulkeley, Rip. The Sputniks Crisis and Early United States Space Policy: A Critique of the Historiography of Space. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • Krige, John, Angela Long Callahan, and Ashok Maharaj. NASA in the World: Fifty Years of International Collaboration in Space. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
  • Launius, Roger D., John M. Logsdon, and Robert W. Smith, eds. Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000.
  • Launius, Roger D. and Howard E. McCurdy, eds. Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  • Logsdon, John. The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1970.
  • Logsdon, John M. John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Logsdon, John M. After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
  • McDougall, Walter, … the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
  • Scott, David Meerman and Richard Jurek. Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2014.
  • Siddiqi, Asif. Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945–1974. Washington, DC: NASA History Division, 2000.
  • Siddiqi Asif A., The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight and the Russian Imagination, 1857–1957. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.


  • 1. Francis H. Clauser et al., Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship, Report No. SM-11827 (Santa Monica, CA: Douglas Aircraft Company, Inc., Santa Monica Plant Engineering Division, May 2, 1946).

  • 2. Walter McDougall, … the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 108.

  • 3. McDougall, … the Heavens and the Earth, 102–118.

  • 4. Asif Siddiqi, “Korolev, Sputnik, and the IGY,” in Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite, ed. Roger D. Launius, John Logsdon, and Robert Smith (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000), 46–47.

  • 5. Cited in Kenneth Osgood, “Before Sputnik: National Security and the Formation of U.S. Outer Space Policy,” in Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite, eds. Roger D. Launius, John Logsdon, and Robert Smith (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000), 207–208.

  • 6. “National Security Council NSC 5520, ‘Draft Statement of Policy on U.S. Scientific Satellite Program,’ May 20, 1955,” in Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program, Volume 1: Organizing for Exploration, ed. John Logsdon (Washington, DC: NASA SP 4407, 1995), 309.

  • 7. McDougall, … the Heavens and the Earth, 120–121.

  • 8. McDougall, … the Heavens and the Earth, 120.

  • 9. For a discussion of both sides of this argument, see, Robert W. Smith, “Part II: A Setting for the International Geophysical Year,” in Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite, eds. Roger D. Launius, John Logsdon, and Robert Smith (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000), 117–124.

  • 10. Yanek Mieczkowski, Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 11–26.

  • 11. James J. Harford, “Korolev’s Triple Play: Sputniks 1, 2, and 3” in Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite, eds. Roger D. Launius, John Logsdon, and Robert Smith (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000), 73–94.

  • 12. James Schwoch, Global TV: New Media and the Cold War, 1946–69 (University of Illinois Press, 2008), 52.

  • 13. Nicholas Cull, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 150.

  • 14. Constance McLaughlin Green and Milton Lomask, Vanguard: A History (Washington, DC: NASA History Division, 1970), 210.

  • 15. Teasel Muir-Harmony, “Project Apollo, Cold War Diplomacy and the American Framing of Global Interdependence” (PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2014), 59–60.

  • 16. For discussions of Sputnik’s impact on American political and social life, see McDougall, … the Heavens and the Earth (1985); Roger D. Launius et al. Reconsidering Sputnik (2000); Zuoyue Wang, In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America (News Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008).

  • 17. McDougall, … the Heavens and the Earth, 177–206.

  • 18. Roger D. Launius, “Preface,” in Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite, eds. Roger D. Launius, John Logsdon, and Robert Smith (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000), xi–xii.

  • 19. John F. Kennedy quoted in John Logsdon, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 81.

  • 20. John Logsdon, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, 113.

  • 21. Howard McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997).

  • 22. John Logsdon, After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 48.

  • 23. John Krige, Angelina Long Callahan, and Ashok Maharaj, NASA in the World: Fifty Years of International Collaboration in Space (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); James Schwoch, Global TV (2008).

  • 24. Krige et al., NASA in the World, 128–131.

  • 25. McDougall, … the Heavens and the Earth, 380–98.; Logsdon, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, 223–30.

  • 26. John Krige et al. NASA in the World, 134–135.

  • 27. Roger D. Launius, “Preface,” in Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite, eds. Roger D. Launius, John Logsdon, and Robert Smith (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000), xi–xii.

  • 28. Teasel Muir-Harmony, “Selling Space Capsules, Moon Rocks, and America: Spaceflight in U.S. Public Diplomacy, 1961–1979” in Reasserting America in the 1970s: U.S. Public Diplomacy and the Rebuilding of America’s Image Abroad, eds. Hallvard Notaker, Giles Scott-Smith, and David J. Snyder (University of Manchester Press, 2016), 127–142.

  • 29. Muir-Harmony, “Project Apollo, Cold War Diplomacy and the American Framing of Global Interdependence,” 141–189.

  • 30. Muir-Harmony, “Project Apollo, Cold War Diplomacy and the American Framing of Global Interdependence,” 182.

  • 31. Steve Wolfe, “Moonglow: Space Diplomacy in the Nixon Administration” Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly 18.2 (2011): 39–52.

  • 32. Neil Armstrong quoted in James R. Hansen, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 579.

  • 33. Muir-Harmony, “Project Apollo, Cold War Diplomacy and the American Framing of Global Interdependence,” 186–187.

  • 34. Muir-Harmony “Selling Space Capsules, Moon Rocks, and America: Spaceflight in U.S. Public Diplomacy, 1961–1979,” 127–42; Wolfe, “Moonglow: Space Diplomacy in the Nixon Administration,” 39–52.

  • 35. Wolfe, “Moonglow: Space Diplomacy in the Nixon Administration,” 40.

  • 36. Richard Nixon, “Statement About the Future of the United States Space Program,” March 7, 1970, quoted in Logsdon, After Apollo?, 115.

  • 37. Logsdon, After Apollo?, 277–301.

  • 38. Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell, The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (Washington, DC: NASA Scientific and Technical Information Office, 1978); Krige et al. NASA in the World, 138–140; Muir-Harmony “Selling Space Capsules, Moon Rocks, and America: Spaceflight in U.S. Public Diplomacy, 1961–1979,” 127–142.

  • 39. Krige et al., NASA in the World, 15–17.

  • 40. Krige et al., NASA in the World, 259–261; John Logsdon, Together in Orbit: The Origins of International Participation in the Space Station (Washington, DC: NASA History Division, 1998).

  • 41. Asif Siddiqi, “An Asian Space Race: Hype or Reality?” in South Asia at a Crossroads: Conflict or Cooperation in the Age of Nuclear Weapons, Missile Defense, and Space Rivalries, eds. Subrata Ghoshroy and Götz Neuneck (Baden-Baden, Germany: Nomos Publishers, 2010), 184–198; Christian Davenport, “The Inside Story of How Billionaires are Racing to Take You to Outer Space,” Washington Post, Aug. 19, 2016.

  • 42. Roger D. Launius, “The Historical Dimension of Space Exploration: Reflections and Possibilities,” Space Policy 16 (2000): 23–38.

  • 43. Although John Logsdon published his study a decade before the emergence of New Aerospace History, Launius includes it under this heading because of the author’s approach. Walter McDougall, … the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985); John Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1970); Asif A. Siddiqi, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945–1974 (Washington, DC: NASA History Division, 2000).

  • 44. Roger D. Launius, John M. Logsdon, and Robert W. Smith, eds., Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000); Asif A. Siddiqi, The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight and the Russian Imagination, 1857–1957 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

  • 45. John Krige, Angelina Long Callahan, and Ashok Maharaj, NASA in the World: Fifty Years of International Collaboration in Space (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 4.

  • 46. Roger Launius and Howard McCurdy ed., Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Stephen Johnson, The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European Space Programs (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002); Matthew D. Tribbe, No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); James L. Kauffman, Selling Outer Space: Kennedy, the Media, and Funding for Project Apollo, 1961–1963 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994); Logsdon, John, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Roger Launius, “Interpreting the Moon Landings: Project Apollo and the Historians,” History and Technology 22.3 (Sept. 2006): 225–255.

  • 47. Asif A. Siddiqi, “Competing Technologies, National(ist) Narratives, and Universal Claims: Toward a Global History of Space Exploration,” Technology and Culture 51.2 (April 2010): 425–443; John Krige et al., NASA in the World (2013); Teasel Muir-Harmony, “Selling Space Capsules, Moon Rocks, and America: Spaceflight in U.S. Public Diplomacy, 1961–1979,” in Reasserting America in the 1970s: U.S. Public Diplomacy and the Rebuilding of America’s Image Abroad, eds. Hallvard Notaker, Giles Scott-Smith, and David J. Snyder, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), 127–142.

  • 48. “National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958,” Public Law 85–568, in Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program, vol. 1, Organizing for Exploration, ed. John M. Logsdon (Washington, DC: NASA History Division, 1995), 337.