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The Space Race: Motivations and Consequences

This post is a personal commentary on the space race and the consequences and results from it. It is intended to understand the nature of the space race and the motivations of the space race. 

Part I


The progress in Scientific understanding and knowledge of the world over the course of the last two hundred years have been truly impressive and has led to much progress in the state of mankind.


A V-2 Replica.

Modern rocket science can be traced to the pioneering work of German Scientists in the 1930s . led by Wenher von Braun. Von Braun and his team of scientists were instrumental in the development of the V2 Rocket, the “Grandfather of all missiles” and what is considered to be the first ballistic missile. It was deployed in 1944, and more than 3,000 V2s were fired over the course of the war.

It is at the close of the Second World War that one gets exposed to the nature of developments that were to follow. As Nazi Germany was being overrun by the Soviets from the East and the US-UK from the West, they also raced to “take into custody” scientists and engineers who was on the forefront of the Third Reich’s various scientific projects. The United States, in an operation called “Operation Paperclip”, offered a pardon and immunity from prosecution in return for working for the US in various scientific projects. They also used the the threat of prosecution rather liberally to recruit them.

The Soviets, in comparison “offered” contracts to some 2,000 German scientists and engineers, and they moved almost all the scientific equipment and material they had captured to Russia. A staggering amount of technology was transferred from Germany to the allies, and it would not be a misrepresentation to call it a “War booty” that the victors extracted from Germany.

While the identities and reasoning for the employment of the German scientists & engineers in Russia would provoke no question (Who would dare?), in the United States, Von Braun and other Germans were bleached of their association with the Nazis, and were given employment with the US Army and later with the NACA (the predecessor of NASA) and eventually NASA.

Both the Soviets and Americans were keen to capture any information that could lead to the development of their very own ballistic missiles. The Americans were exceptionally concerned with better methods of delivery for the Nuclear bomb, especially since the Soviet themselves had gone nuclear by 1949. The Soviets meanwhile, had borne the brunt of the just concluded war and was extremely vulnerable to a possible invasion by the United States. These motivations played a huge role in their respective decisions to launch Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile Programmes (ICBM).

The Space Programmes of both nations were thus in fact fallouts of their respective quest to military pre-eminence. The Sputnik was launched with a modified R-7, the world’s first ICBM. The R7 was further modified to become the launch vehicles of the Vostok, Voshkod and Soyuz programmes. As can be illustrated in the below image:


The American Air Force’s Atlas -A missile (their first ICBM) was modified to the Atlas-D which became the launch vehicle for the launch of their own first human spaceflight technology (Mercury).

The Space Race was the biggest propaganda war that happened between the United States and Soviets, with both nations attempting to “outdo” each other in a show of scientific advancement and progress. The race was “won” by the Americans when the first humans landed on the moon. The rockets that reached the Moon, of the “saturn” series of rockets, were designed initially as military rockets by the German core that Von Braun led.

One can see that the rapid progress that mankind achieved in the 20 year period (1949-69) had slowed significantly, and the reason is simple – the Superpower nations lost interest in further progress in the realm of Human spaceflight, and the reason is simple  – the United States had won, and the Soviets lost, and their economy was starting to strain.

Part II


I am not suggesting that progress has not been made In our understanding of space, but  I am pointing out that the primary reason for the advancements that we saw in the Cold War was due to military & propaganda considerations by the superpowers of the day. Once they had been done, the funding of the space programmes of the Americans and Soviets declined. In fact, the US which used to fund the NASA as high as 3-4% of the budget, barely leaves 0.5% of their budget now.

Human Spaceflight was not a necessity for mankind by itself when it happened, rather it happened primarily because of the considerations of the Soviets In outperforming their rival. Humans did not reach moon because it was necessary for us to reach the moon, rather, it was necessary for the US to one- up their rivals, who had launched the first satellite and had the first cosmonaut. All the results from the projects were delightful but unexpected results for mankind.

Even in a current era, such an understanding holds true:The emerging space powers, India and China, are both aspiring superpowers, are also motivated by the mini- Asian Space race to invest in their own space programmes, and it is obviously motivated by military considerations.

Progress and scientific development is not limited by the lack of curiosity or scientists, It is rather limited  by financial considerations in the modern world. The limitations are not of religious orthodoxy or fear of persecution, it is to win funding from a University or wealthy donor for scientists, so that they can continue their projects. States, as the most powerful political, social and financial entities, are obviously the greatest funders (and beneficiaries) have dissimilar motivations or incentives to those entertained by scientists.

The progress, innovation and advancement mankind made in the Space race period is not attributable to the “spirit of scientific enquiry”, but rather to the hostility between the two great powers of the era. Their motivations were not  “humane” in nature, rather, their considerations were based on “outdoing” one another.

A romanticised notion or view of the cold war progress would hold us no good. It is rather prudent for us to understand that the nature of progress made, and correctly evaluate the consequences of such progress.

Note: This post may be updated or followed by other posts. 


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