Who Won the Space Race? | Renegade Cut
Earlier this month, the “billionaire space race” engaged in an embarrassing public spectacle as Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, had his spaceflight company Virgin Galactic fly him into a low, suborbital spaceflight. Not to be outdone, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, had his spaceflight company Blue Origin do the same for himself. Bezos donned a cowboy hat for reasons unknown at time of writing.
In a moment of sheer obliviousness and privilege, Bezos thanked his Amazon employees, remarking “I'd like to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you all paid for this.” [uncomfortable laughter of people with real jobs] Bezos patronizingly thanked the workers whose wages he stole, workers desperate for a union, for wasting their money on giving the richest man in the world a space vacation. The billionaire space race is part of a larger effort to privatize space travel – galactic capitalism. This includes space tourism, outsourcing NASA programs, and in the case of Elon Musk, terraforming and colonizing Mars – a project that experts believe is simply impossible due to atmospheric conditions and therefore an incredible waste of time, money and resources. At the nadir of the discourse this month, former Nevada Republican chairwoman Amy Tarkanian made this declaration: “Capitalism, not socialism, sent Jeff Bezos into space today.”
This statement is technically true in that Jeff Bezos was able to exploit his employees for so much and for so long that he was able to ride into outer space on the backs of the proletariat. Tarkanian's praise of capitalism accidentally exposed its rigid, exploitative hierarchical structure. This lead the discourse to the last time capitalism tried to justify itself through space flight: the Cold War space race of the 1950's, 60's and 70's.
If someone were to ask a random American who “won” the space race, that random individual would most likely respond that the United States did. After all, the US “won” the Cold War, and if the space race was a vestigial limb of the Cold War, it follows that the US won that, too. The problem with that answer and rationalization for that answer is that it is entirely superficial and does not actually explore what the space race truly was – nor does it explore what was accomplished in both the United States and Soviet Union.
How can we judge who “won” the space race if there were no official parameters? Realistically, the best method might be in first determining the goals of the space race in the first place. In the United States, the incredible spending involved in space flight – not to mention the creation of NASA itself – was justified to the public as a matter of national security. [“Our obligations to ourselves as well as others require us to make this effort. To solve these mysteries. To solve them for the good of all men and to become the world's leading space-faring nation.
… Whether it becomes a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence can we decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new, terrifying theater of war.”] However, not everyone bought into this supposed goal. There was a great deal of public opposition to spending so much on a space race that provided so few material benefits. The 1960's were a time of notable unrest and greater public focus on socio-economic inequality. The United States pumping so much of its budget into going to the moon seemed out of touch with common, everyday concerns.
Imagine the present backlash against billionaire space travel but amplified because the space race used taxpayer dollars – not personal fortunes. Throughout the 1960's, between 45 – 60% of the United States population believed that the government was spending too much on space flight. [“I can't pay no doctor bills, but whitey's on the moon.
Ten years from now I'll be paying still while whitey's on the moon.”] Satellite and missile technology may have been deemed necessary for national security, but nearly every other mission and achievement related to the space race had few military applications and provided little to national security. The Soviet Union sending probes to the moon and the United States sending a man to the moon did not offer new strategic advantages to either superpower. No bases were built, no missiles stored. Photographs were taken and rock samples were collected. The Soviet Union sending unmanned probes to Mars and Venus did not secure their borders on Earth, and NASA's first orbital test flight did not bring down the Berlin Wall.
To take nothing away from the scientists involved and the knowledge gained from space flight, the space race simply was not funded out of any necessity of national security and certainly not to fill our textbooks with new data on the composition of lunar soil. The space race was funded for so long and for so much because of insecurity about the United States' goal of global hegemony and its status as the world's greatest superpower. The space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was state propaganda first and everything else second. If the propagandist goal of the space race was to perform impressive accomplishments to tout the superiority of their respective programs and respective economic systems, then these accomplishments can be tallied to determine who won the space race.
For the purposes of condensing the information, this scorecard will begin in 1957, the true beginning of the space race. The first major accomplishment of the USSR space program was also arguably the inciting incident of the space race: the successful 1957 launch of Sputnik-1, the first artificial Earth satellite. In 1954, Soviet scientist Sergei Korolev, the father of practical astronautics, proposed an experimental artificial satellite as a necessary step in furthering rocket technology. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was well aware of the advancements in Soviet technology
due to the Lockheed U-2 spy plane flights over the Soviet Union as well as more traditional cloak-and-dagger espionage. Eisenhower announced that the United States would soon launch an artificial satellite, prompting the Soviet Union to go public with their already existing plans to do the same. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1, a small satellite with the capacity to produce a radio signal.
The signal was actually detectable by amateur radio operators, and it sounded like this. [beep, beep, beep, beep] The launch of Sputnik surprised and horrified the United States despite the fact that Sputnik was in no way, shape or form dangerous to the US or to anyone else. Although an Earth-shattering accomplishment and a first in world history, Sputnik was also a small sphere that “beeped” and did precious little else. Nevertheless, the threat of “space communism” terrified the United States enough to create NASA and more officially step into the space race. In an address to the nation, President Eisenhower said “Earth satellites in themselves have no direct present effect on the nation's security. However, there is real military significance to these launchings as I have previously mentioned publicly.
Their current military significance lies in the advanced techniques and the competence in military technology they imply. For example, the powerful propulsion equipment necessarily used but in the main the Soviets continue to concentrate on the development of war-making weapons and supporting industries. This as well as their political attitude in all international affairs serves to warn us that Soviet the expansionist aims have not changed.” United States politicians used this opportunity to drum up fear of the Soviet Union – an always useful political tool.
Only one month later in 1957, the Soviet Union launched a dog named Laika into space in the Sputnik-2. The launch of Laika was instrumental in paving the way for human spaceflight, as it proved that a living passenger could be launched into orbit. The Soviet Union lead the way in moon exploration.
In 1959, as part of the Luna program, the Soviets launched Luna 1, performing the first flyby of the moon. Later that year, they launched Luna 2, which actually impacted the moon. Finally, Luna 3 photographed the far side of the moon for the first time in human history. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, completing one orbit of the Earth in his capsule, Vostok 1.
Not to be outdone, the United States launched Alan B. Shepard into space one month later to far less international fanfare. If the space race was about firsts, the United States had few to its name.
In 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, flying a solo mission in the Vostok 6. The United States seemed to have little interest in matching the Soviet Union in this area, not permitting an American woman into space until 1983. US propaganda tries to claim that Sally Ride was the first “professional” woman in space and that her education makes her space flight more significant than Tereshkova's achievement.
To take nothing away from the accomplishments of Sally Ride, who had nothing to do with this revisionism, it is extremely insulting to Tereshkova, who was an experienced parachutist, went through extensive training for the mission, was chosen out of a field of 400 candidates, and earned a military commission during her training. Furthermore, in her single flight, Tereshkova logged more flight time than the combined times of all American astronauts before that date. In 1964, the Soviet Union's Voshkod 1 performed a series of firsts: the first multi-person space mission, the first space flight without the use of space suits, and achieved the highest altitude of 336 kilometers. In 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov performed the first ever space walk, and in 1966, the Luna 9 unmanned spacecraft not only impacted the moon but landed properly. Up until that point, the Soviet Union had consistently performed every major “first” and held on to every major record related to space flight.
The United States re-doubled its efforts, began performing “endurance” tests and eventually earned by far its greatest achievement: landing a man on the moon in 1969. The Soviet Union countered by landing an unmanned spacecraft on another planet, Venus, in 1970, launching the first space station, Salyut 1, in 1971, and landing the first unmanned spacecraft on Mars later that year. The fascinating part about United States' propagandistic, retroactive “win” of the space race was that United States politicians contemporaneously knew and sometimes even said outright that the Soviet Union was winning or will win said race.
Before Yuri Gagarin made his historic flight, President John F. Kennedy famously said this in 1960: “The first man-made satellite to orbit the earth was named Sputnik. The first living creature in space was Laika.
The first rocket to the Moon carried a red flag. The first photograph of the far side of the Moon was made with a Soviet camera. If a man orbits the earth this year, his name will be Ivan.” Kennedy's words turned out to be prophetic. By the 1970's, the United States had finally advanced their space program to be as efficient as that of the Soviet Union, and some engineers might even say more efficient, but the space race was never about nuts and bolts. It was about propaganda and historic missions.
If we define the parameters of the space race through by its actual political goal, the Soviet Union certainly won. Nevertheless, in defiance of the indisputable scorecard, if you ask an American who won the space race, they will probably answer “the United States” and cite the famous Apollo moon landing as their evidence, being their only recollection. So, why is this? The state fashions its propaganda not only about what is happening in the present and what will happen in the future.
It also fashions propaganda by re-writing the past. When the George W. Bush administration invaded Iraq under the false pretense of dismantling weapons of mass destruction, and none were uncovered, the official line changed.
Their true mission – all along – was to liberate Iraq and spread peace throughout the Middle East. When the United States consistently lost ground to the Soviet Union and was humiliated by the technological advancements of their adversaries, the space race became exclusively about who would land on the moon first. After all, this was a “race” and the United States determined the finish line. After Neil Armstrong made a giant leap for mankind, he passed that line and nothing else came afterward as far as the American public was concerned – and nothing came before it either.
We were always focused on the moon. More than simple state propaganda and loud, boisterous declarations about United States superiority, the American public has also come to understand the space race through curriculum. The curriculum is the planned instructions for students.
In order for there to be uniformity in a school district, the district decides on the curriculum well in advance, including textbooks, subjects, and topics that may or may not be discussed. The curriculum can be influenced or even controlled by local and state laws. For example, the Texas House and Senate have recently been arguing with one another about whether or not to include civil rights accomplishments as part of public school education.
Public school curriculum is political. However, the space race and the Cold War in general are not topics in which liberals and conservatives disagree. They all want to portray the United States as the victor and as morally correct. There are no historians in the district who are going to attempt to overrule the popular consensus – the political consensus – no matter how questionable that consensus actually is. Thus, the history portion of the curriculum across public school districts in the United States will broadly cover the US victory in the Cold War as an accomplishment of ideas rather than covert warfare, political assassinations, and civilian atrocities, and will broadly cover the space race as a contest “won” by the United States when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. This moment is so ingrained in the popular consciousness and elevated to such importance that when a recent biopic of Neil Armstrong did not include a scene with the American flag on the moon, there was an uproar.
As ridiculous as that seems, this iconic image is not only infused with nationalistic patriotism in a more general sense but is the defining image of “winning” the space race. It is representative of passing the retroactive finish line, of defeating the Soviet Union. It's not enough to show the ingenuity of scientists – because the space race was not about science. It was about propaganda. It's not enough to show the bravery of mankind – because in spite of what Armstrong said, the space race was not about all of mankind.
It was about global supremacy of one nation. The lie must be told over and over again to be believed, and deviation from this lie is anathema – treason to the United States. Another talking point that US propagandists use to declare victory in the space race is that even though the Soviet Union accomplished more in the 50's, 60's, and early 70's, the US achieved a kind of “moral victory,” claiming that the Soviet Union only made it so far because they did not value the lives of their cosmonauts.
However, this argument is transparent demonization. The Soviet Union did not have an in-flight fatality until 1967, and their space program responded by delaying any further space flights for a year and a half to ensure the safety of their people. In the same year, three American astronauts were killed in a fire during a ground test, prompting a similar delay. The United States lost significantly more of its people during training, test flights and space flights than the Soviet Union.
This is no “moral victory” for the Soviet Union either. These deaths were tragic and nobody should be applauding them or using them as demonization. Furthermore, the United States cannot claim moral high ground for their space program for another important reason. [“It was the great, enormous superiority of American technology, of course, as provided by our great American scientists such as Dr. Wernher von Braun.”]
The NASA engineering program manager was Werner von Braun, a Nazi scientist brought into the fold through Operation Overcast, eventually known as Operation Paperclip. Von Braun was not alone, as the United States provided safe harbor for many other Nazis in exchange for their contributions to NASA. The first Kennedy Space Center director was Kurt Heinreich Debus, a former member of Schutzstaffel, the paramilitary organization most infamously known for its involvement in concentration camps. Another key figure at NASA was Arthur Rudolph, a war criminal involved in slave labor at the Wittlewerk factory. The Soviet Union also employed former Nazi scientists. Both sides got their hands dirty, making any claims of a “moral victory” in place of an actual victory truly absurd.
[“Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown. 'Nazi schmatzi' says Wernher von Braun.”] The Soviet Union's superior space program was not the result of devaluing the lives of their cosmonauts. So, what was it? Why did the United States trail so far behind the Soviet Union in the first place? Why did the United States set so few records and have so few “firsts” during the space race until the end of the 1960's? It was simply a matter of priorities. United States intelligence reports from the 50's concluded that the Soviet Union was training two to three times as many scientists per year than the US. It simply was not a major concern until Sputnik.
The Soviet Union invested in science, and the United States invested in industry and the military. In the early 1950's, partly due to US involvement in the Korean War, the federal government spent most of its budget on what is only euphemistically known as “defense.” The United States invested in imperialism – often called the highest stage of capitalism.
To this day, the United States devotes a disproportionate amount of its budget and resources on its global interests. Imperialism is profitable. There was no immediate profit in space flight – only the advancement of knowledge and the potential for practical applications on Earth should greater knowledge of the universe grant us new ideas. Basically, the United States trailed behind in the space race because of the very philosophy of capitalism. So, what do you think about your best friend capitalism now, Amy?