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Space Race: The Battle to Rule the Heavens

Did your teacher send you here? If so, the extension questions are at the bottom of the post – but read the post first to help you answer them!


When I was in primary school one of my favourite books from the school library was a book narrated by R2-D2 and C3-PO. It was a history of the future of mankind and I remember vividly the mention that by the year 2000 millions of people would be living on the Moon. Alas, they were a little too optimistic, and I remember even then thinking ‘wait, what? Well that’s only in a few years so… they better get a scooby on” (or words to those effect). But it showed the post-Apollo euphoria that followed the 70s. The Space Shuttle, while expensive, in its concept drawings looked like the next step towards colonising the stars. The Challenger and Columbia disasters were still to come.

30 years on from visiting that primary school library, I am still distraught that C3-PO, an android I trusted dearly, lied to me. But, it did spark a lifelong obsession with the history (and future) of space travel. I hope the 7 lessons I have made here on the Space Race will help teachers and students share some of that excitement.

I have owned this book for years and years – dipping in and out of it occasionally – but only just now getting a chance to properly look at it again.

It gives an overview of the development of rocket technology during the Second World War and how the USA was able to benefit the most from the ex-Nazi scientists who moved across and helped them set up their own rocketry program. Things obviously really kick off with Sputnik in 1957 which stung the USA into action, but not before the USSR was able to launch the first man and woman into space, the first space walk and the first man made object on the moon – Luna 2 – in 1959.

The USA in turn fought back through the Mercury Missions and then obviously Apollo (with Gemini in between) The US Apollo program wasn’t pretty, they threw a lot of money at it, 2.5% of US GDP was devoted to this one program over a ten year period. It ate up budgets for almost anything else, much to the annoyance of some politicians and scientists.

Things that most people forget but are worth remembering:

1. The shock of Sputnik is forgotten in to the post Apollo world, as Cadbury puts it “"The sudden rise of Sputnik shattered the American image of themselves as a superpower in control of their own destiny."

2. Apollo 8’s ‘Earthrise’ is said to have kick started the environmental movement on Earth.

3. The USSR beat America in almost every aspect of the Space Race – until Apollo 11. The big one.

4. The use of NASA gave a moral and ethical legitimacy to the real work – the construction of ever bigger and better ICBMs with which to annihilate the USSR (and all life on Earth…), As Cadbury says "It was not just a matter of technological achievement, but of moral leadership. Spaceflight would provide the moral high ground from which the West could lecture the world.”

5. Lots of animals went into space - the Soviet Union sent a dog named Laika into space in 1957, while the United States sent a variety of animals, including monkeys, dogs, and mice.

The break in time between Apollo and Artemis – still not completed – makes the Moon Landings seem all the more bizarre. Today children buy toys that have many hundreds times more computing power than Nasa had access to at the time.

Extension Questions:

1. What is the historical context of rocket technology development during the Second World War, and how did the USA benefit from ex-Nazi scientists?

2. What event occurred in 1957 that motivated the USA to launch its own space program?

3. What were some of the accomplishments of the Soviet Union in the early stages of the Space Race, and how did the USA eventually catch up?

4. What was the significance of NASA in the broader geopolitical context of the Cold War?

5. What is an interesting fact about the use of animals in space exploration programs?

6. How did the Apollo program impact the US budget and what were the consequences of this?

7. What is the significance of Apollo 8's 'Earthrise' and its impact on the environmental movement?

8. What is the author's perspective on the morality of the space race?

9. How does the author describe the technological advancements in space exploration since the Apollo program?

10. Why does the break in time between Apollo and Artemis make the Moon Landings seem more bizarre?


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