One small step

This year marks 50 years since Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. However, the US would never have made it without the decades of Cold War rivalry with the USSR.

Fifty years ago today Apollo 11 blasted off, leaving the earth’s atmosphere on a mission into space that would change the world forever. 

Four days later, on 20 July 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words – “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – as he stepped out of the lunar module and became the first human to walk on the moon. 

Worldwide, people huddled around grainy black-and-white TV screens watching in awe as history was made. The visit to the moon only lasted a few hours and the mission was over in just eight days. The only remnants left of their momentous visit was a plaque signed by US President Richard Nixon and a US flag. 

This flag was – and still is – a symbol of much more than simply an American achievement in space exploration. It was planted as a message to the world: the US had beaten the Soviets in the Space Race. 

Space exploration was just one of the many battlefields in which the US and the USSR jostled for global supremacy during the Cold War. And it was a battle that, for a long time, the Americans were expected to lose.

Kennedy’s mission

The US’ mission to put man on the moon began on 25 May 1961. President John F Kennedy confidently announced to Congress that his nation was going to send an American to the moon, (and back again), before the decade was through.

Perspective is a beautiful thing and while this may seem realistic to us now, JFK’s announcement must have felt near impossible at the time – especially given the year the US was having. 

In 1961, the USSR were ‘winning’ the Space Race. Little more than a month before Kennedy’s speech, the Soviet space programme clocked a huge scientific achievement when its astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. 

In fact, the Soviets had been leading the way in space exploration since 1957, when they shocked the world by launching the first human-made object, Sputnik 1, into space. This was quickly followed by Sputnik 2, which saw the first living creature sent into the earth’s orbit – a stray dog from Moscow called Laika. 

A bad year for the US

Back down on earth 1961 was not a promising year for the US in its global power struggle with the Soviet Union. 

In the same month that the USSR celebrated sending the first human into space, the American government was reeling from the chaos of the Bay of Pigs invasion – the CIA’s infamous failed military invasion of Cuba following Fidel Castro’s takeover.

The nuclear cherry on top of the cake came on 30 October 1961 when the Soviets tested the Tsar Bomba. The mammoth hydrogen bomb clocked in at more than 50 megatons of explosive energy. For comparison, the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima measured 15 kilotons. The mushroom cloud is said to have soared 40 miles high.

The US has to redress the balance of power. Arms Race tensions between the two superpowers came to a head the following year when the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear warfare. 

Faced with the harrowing reality of what nuclear war would mean, the rival powers quickly turned their attention away from the Arms Race and set their sights on the stars. So in 1962, in a bid to make their mark on the Space Race, NASA launched its lunar landing programme Project Apollo.

Arms Race to Space Race

In many ways the Space Race was just an extension of the Arms Race. Much of the same technology and knowledge developed in the pursuit of nuclear weaponry was applied in the development of space engineering – as were many of the same people. 

Sergei Korolyov is often recognised as the father of the Soviet space programme, for which he was chief engineer, and he was also responsible for the USSR’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

In fact, Korolyov was so central to Soviet space exploration success that many believe it was his death in 1966 that caused the USSR’s space programme to slow down. This lull gave the US and NASA the opportunity they needed to overtake. 

December 1968 saw Apollo 8 become the first manned space mission to orbit the moon and then, less than a year later, Apollo 11 put the first humans on the moon – just months within Kennedy’s original deadline. 

Space was one of several battlefields where the Cold War rivalry between the US and the USSR was played out. The need for supremacy over the other is what drove each nation to put man on the moon. So, perhaps we would all still be looking longingly at the sky wondering ‘what if?’ if not for the Cold War.


What do you think? When would humans have reached the moon if not for the Cold War? Would it have happened at all? We’d love to know what you so drop your thoughts in the comment box or tweet us at @historybombs

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Written by Louise Quick