The Space Race: Scientific and Societal Impacts of the Event

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Table of Contents

  • Scientific Impacts
  • Technology
  • Space Exploration
  • Societal Impacts

The Space Race between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) post World War II was a major event that affected a myriad of different fields and changed the world as it was. This superpower race intensified the Cold War rivalry because for the first time mankind was looking to compete in the arena of space. Dominance over space and the race to outdo one another became a matter of pride for both the United States and USSR. The competition to conquer space was so huge that a new record was set by one of the two superpowers almost every year throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

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There were many “firsts” during the Space Race. The first intercontinental ballistic missile in 1957, the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1) in 1957, the first dog in orbit (sent by Sputnik 2) in 1957, the first solar-powered satellite, the first communication satellite, etc.1 But the Space Race didn’t just leave an impact on the area of space research, it left a wider impact in the field of technology. The technological advancement required for the dominance of space was deemed a necessity for national security, and it was symbolic of ideological superiority. The Space Race spawned pioneering efforts to launch artificial satellites; prompting human spaceflight in low Earth orbit and to the visitation to the Moon, eventually resulting in unmanned space probes to the Moon, Venus and Mars.

Even though technology has played a role in political endeavors and international relations throughout history, it hadn’t been so apparent as it was during the Space Race. The Space Race was a measure of dominance between two feuding countries; neither country was willing to back down, leading to some of the major technological feats accomplished by man.

However to historically understand of the significance of this race, it is important to not only look at the events that transpired during these years but to also examine what motivated each of these world powers to take part in such a competition. Significantly, the events that took place during this time have shaped current U.S. and Russian involvement in space exploration and these current involvements also deserve our attention.

The US was caught by surprise when it found the Soviets had succeeded at launching an artificial satellite on October 4, 1957.2 Within months, Americans made a series of investments, including the creation of NASA,3 to catch up and eventually beat the Soviets in the space race. The upshot: even though Soviets breached space first, a little more than 10 years later, it was Americans who were the first (and at the time, the only) humans on the moon.

The US government’s reaction to Sputnik’s launch was fairly subdued all things considered. Its spy planes had been monitoring Soviet developments, and so they likely knew a launch was imminent. “So far as the satellite itself is concerned, that does not raise my apprehensions—not one iota,” declared Dwight Eisenhower, US president at the time.4

Even though Eisenhower had publicly stated that Americans were working towards launching small satellites two years earlier, in 1955, perhaps his administration was worried that going first would expose the country’s advanced military rockets. Or America simply did not have the technological capabilities to compete with the Russians at this stage. Either way, two months after Sputnik, on December 6, 1957, the first American attempt to launch a satellite used the non-military Vanguard rocket.5

Sputnik had caused hysteria among Americans, who had relaxed into believing that they were technologically superior to the communists.6 If a Soviet satellite could fly over US skies, then surely Soviet nuclear missiles would soon follow.7 To make matters worse, the Vanguard launch was a failure and was watched on televisions across the country.8 To the American public, and many U.S. politicians, it seemed they were losing to the Soviets, and so far behind that they might never be able to catch up.

The USSR understood the power of using science and technology for propaganda, and wielded it effectively with Sputnik.9 But Washington was not going to take it lying down. Apart from the creation of NASA, Eisenhower also created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to specifically ensure there would be no more technological surprises,10 and congress passed the National Defense Education Act to overhaul the country’s public school science curricula11 and get more Americans to attend college. Over the next decade, the country poured money into beating the Soviets in space, edging out ahead in the mid-1960s. The U.S.’s efforts to reach space seemed unparamounted by anything seeing that nearly 5% of the country’s budget went to NASA alone at the space agency’s peak.

To most people, the word “propaganda” is a pejorative. In its pure sense, however, the term simply means to advance a cause. While the US may not have as strong an adversary in Russia today as it did in the Soviets during the Cold War, but American politicians and government agencies continue to use science and technology for propaganda.

For instance, NASA’s dwindling coffers have forced it to become more innovative in communicating the importance of its work and seek more funding. Through giving voice to its rovers, NASA has become adept at winning the internet.12 Or when Vice President Mike Pence wants to drive home his boss’s motto to “make America great again” by promising, in a speech on Oct. 5, to send Americans “back to [the] moon” and gain space leadership “once again.”

Now though, the US is the leader in space by a big margin. What it, and the world, really needs is a Sputnik moment for terrestrial problems. As the Soviets and later the US taught us, the power of propaganda can be effective if we are ready to wield it. The impacts previously discussed barely scratches the surface of the impacts of the Space Race; it is an event that has had a plethora of impacts that broke countless boundaries.

Scientific Impacts

The Space Race left a legacy in the field of space research worldwide. As the pioneers of space missions, both the United States and USSR helped their allies build their space missions through the training of scientists and engineers, the transferring of technology, and by allowing other researchers to visit their space laboratories.14 That way, both superpowers could learn and improve their knowledge and skills related to space research.


The technological impacts of the space race are truly unprecedented, so many inventions both stemmed and improved from the Space Race. All of the technology that came from the Space Race was used to better the lives of citizens globally and improve military readiness. The Space Age and the Voyager missions, both events which have profoundly changed our technological world, having both resulted in the creation of GPS, we also have to point to that remarkable achievement as the beginning of GPS.15 The global positioning system (GPS) was originally developed by the military for precision navigation and weapon targeting purposes. The GPS developers probably did not foresee how this technology would transform almost every industry, as well as day-to-day life, on a global scale. Using maps and travel atlases and stopping to ask for directions are now largely anachronisms. GPS has enabled ride-hailing services, as well as package tracking and delivery. It has improved our fitness by tracking our workouts. It has improved our safety by quickly providing our location in emergency situations. GPS will be there in the future to facilitate emerging technologies such as self-driving cars and package deliveries by drone.

Infrared ear thermometers — a NASA-derived advancement — measure the amount of energy emitted by the eardrum in the same way the temperature of stars and planets is measured, using infrared astronomy technology. Artificial limbs have drastically improved using advanced space program shock absorbing materials and robotics. Deep space exploration missions depend on excellent digital image processing technology developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL adapted this technology to help create modern CAT scanners and radiography. The list of technology from the space race goes on. Consumer products like wireless headsets, LED lighting, portable cordless vacuums, freeze-dried foods, memory foam, scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses and many other familiar products have all benefited from space technology research and development.16 Modern laptop computers are direct descendants of The Shuttle Portable Onboard Computer (SPOC), which was developed in the early 1980s for the space shuttle program.

Technology from the space race has also been applied to directly improve public safety and reduce the risk of accident and injury. Anti-icing systems allow aircraft to safely fly in cold weather. Safety grooving, which first was used to reduce aircraft accidents on wet runways, is now also used on our roadways to prevent car accidents. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors were first developed for the NASA Skylab program in the 1970s. Modern firefighting equipment widely used throughout the United States is based on NASA-developed lightweight fireproof materials.

One of the most important advancements made is in the area of food safety. NASA was faced with the problem of feeding astronauts in confined environments under weightless conditions. They also could not tolerate any sort of crumbs, bacteria or toxins. NASA worked with the Pillsbury Company to develop the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) concept. HACCP is designed to prevent food safety problems during production, rather than catching them after they had already occurred. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has used HACCP guidelines for the safe handling of seafood, juice and dairy products since the early 1990s.

Space Exploration

In the Space Race, the search for microbial life had not been a main driver of space exploration, the main focus at the time being to display dominance of the USSR and to solidify the United States position as the ‘most superior’ country. However, as the years went by the discovery of extraterrestrial substances became more and more of a driver to the further accretion of space exploration. Life, in particular with regard to Mars, but also now extending to more exotic environments like the Jovian moon Europa, became the point of interest to many people on earth. With that search for life on new worlds, planetary protection protocols have been put in place, both for our own planet and others. Contact with intelligent extraterrestrials beyond the solar system will remain a more remote possibility, and when and if it happens we should learn from the history of culture contacts on Earth.

Societal Impacts

How did conceptions of status and hierarchy relate to the opportunities for economic mobility that existed in the space complex? To what extent did space work create a stepping stone into the middle class? For people who did move from lesser circumstances, what did their newfound status and wealth mean for them? What were the visible signs of their economic mobility? Did the economically mobile retain ties to their friends and family who were not so fortunate? To what extent did conceptions of economic mobility, class, and social status change over time among space workers?


Even though not strictly occurring within the Space Race, groundbreaking astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983. Though Ride’s 1983 flight on the Challenger space shuttle17 was the first time an American woman had been in space, she wasn’t the first woman. Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian cosmonaut who spent three days in space two decades earlier, was the world’s first.18 The United States was even less eager to work with women astronauts than the USSR: When it selected its first astronauts, it required all candidates to have engineering degrees and to have graduated from jet pilot testing programs in the military, since the military didn’t allow women to be test pilots, applicants were, by default, men.

However in the early 1960s, a privately funded project called the Woman in Space Program challenged that.19 When two researchers wondered if women might fit better in small, cramped spacecrafts, they decided to test the premise out. The experiment evolved into a program that invited elite female pilots to undergo NASA’s testing regimen. The project was funded by Jacqueline Cochran, herself an elite pilot. Eventually, 13 women were identified, trained and passed NASA’s barrage of selection tests.

However, the program was suddenly canceled in 1962. When the House of Representatives held hearings to find out why, NASA cited rules that excluded women. Astronauts, including John Glenn, testified about the cancellation. “It is just a fact,” Glenn testified. “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes… The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”20 Even though the 13 women were qualified to become astronauts, they never stepped foot on a spacecraft.

Though it seemed impossible, Ride was ultimately able to have her chance to reach space. Ride’s first flight was a success, and eventually press chatter about her gender died down, instead focusing on her professional ability. She became one of NASA’s most well-known and well-respected astronauts, not just because of her gender. Not only did Ride serve NASA in space on two flights, but she was appointed to help investigate the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. She also helped with NASA’s strategic plan and, after retiring from the agency, was a physics professor, science communicator and author.

Ride died in 2012, and five years later when NASA named its most recent astronaut class, 50 percent were women. That’s exactly how she would have wanted it. But perhaps the best tribute to Ride will be when gender parity is so common as to attract little or no notice. As she said in 2002, “It’ll be a wonderful day when this isn’t news.'

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