Some people race on a track. Others race up mountains. And in the mid-1900s, two countries were in a race to space. They were the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR). Each wanted to show that it was the best at science. Most people say America won this race when it put two men on the Moon.
Why were the countries racing? The United States and the USSR were the world’s biggest superpowers. Their nations were very different. The United States was capitalist. The USSR was communist. The people of each nation felt their kind of government was better.
The competition began in the 1950s. This was after World War II. These countries didn’t fight each other directly. But they did make weapons. Those included missiles. Rocket science grew to new heights. The space race was a chance for both nations to keep practicing.
The USSR took an early lead in the race. It launched the first satellite on October 4, 1957. Sputnik 1 was the first man-made object to fly around Earth. Then on April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union sent the first person into space — Yuri Gagarin. His flight lasted 108 minutes.
The United States was trailing in the race! NASA launched its first satellite in 1958. Then Alan Shepard became its first astronaut in May 1961. U.S. President John F. Kennedy challenged his country to do better.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade,” Kennedy said in a 1962 speech in Houston, Texas. He added that America would set space goals “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Kennedy wanted a rocket that would take men to the Moon.
NASA worked to do that before the 1960s were over. Its Apollo program aimed to land a man on the Moon. Thousands of people worked on it with one hope. Each Apollo mission was a step forward. By Apollo 11, it was time to put humans on the Moon. (Apollo 11’s launch is on the cover.)
On July 20, 1969, American astronauts planted a red, white, and blue flag on the Moon’s surface. That showed the world that the United States had won the space race. Meanwhile, an unmanned USSR craft crash-landed on the Moon.
Kennedy did not live to see his dream come true. But his words still live on. “The exploration of space will go ahead,” he said in 1962. “It is one of the great adventures of all time.”
Updated July 19, 2019, 5:02 P.M. (ET)
By Ryan Cramer