Understanding the Space Race
By Taylor Marvin
In late January Iran made the startling announcement it had successfully launched a monkey into space. Claiming to have sent the monkey on a twenty minute suborbital flight, the launch was showcased as a demonstration of the Iranian regime’s technical ability. But international observers quickly noticed that the monkey recorded entering the capsule didn’t resemble the one showcased after the flight, an embarrassing inconsistency the Iranians chalked up to a botched photo release.
Deception aside, this story is a reminder that the drama of space exploration, genuine or faked, remains a powerful tool for building national prestige. At a time of enormous sanctions-imposed economic strain, Iran claims its recent test flight is a prelude to one day sending a human into space. Human spaceflight ambitions aren’t limited to political-outcast Iran. In 2003 China became the third country to send a human into space, and plans to send a taikonaut to the Moon by at least 2020. India has also articulated tentative ambitions for its own crewed space program at some point in the future.
But despite the growing number of nations expressing space ambitions today’s achievements in crewed spaceflight still fall short of the Space Race, the famed Cold War rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union that saw the world’s first satellite launch, first human in space, and, climactically, the Moon landings. This modern shortfall fits the broader pattern of the post-Space Race era: after the the American Apollo lunar landing program ended in 1972 the practical ambitions of crewed space programs, in contrast to contemporary forecasts, dramatically declined.
Clearly, high-profile achievements in space remain an alluring goal for prestige-minded governments. But any framework explaining why governments chose to invest in civilian space programs must also explain why no human has ventured beyond Earth orbit since 1972. Did space exploration become less prestigious after the end of the Apollo program, or did the conditions that precipitated the Space Race somehow fundamentally change? How do today’s aspiring space powers like Iran fit into this framework?
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon’s surface and into history. Optimistic observers celebrated the Apollo 11 landings as the birth of a new era in human exploration. Apollo would be followed by further, far more ambitions crewed exploratory programs – Moon bases, Mars landings, and crewed flybys of Venus filled the dreams of NASA planners. But instead of heralding a new beginning, today the Apollo program is seen as the end of an era. New budgetary realities dawned, and the US and USSR restricted their crewed space programs to Earth orbit. Today, 44 years after Apollo 11, the ambitious dreams of crewed missions beyond the Moon have not materialized.
Perhaps depressingly, this dramatic shortening of ambitions isn’t puzzling, because the Space Race was never really about exploration at all. Instead, the triumphs of Sputnik, Vostok, and Apollo were driven by the cold cost-benefit analysis of hardened Cold Warriors. Crewed space programs are long-term projects that require massive, front-end investments with no guarantee of success – national governments do not invest in them for idealistic reasons. Consequently, governments that elect to pursue crewed space programs perform sophisticated cost-benefit analysis before embarking on them. These costs and benefits move together depending on a program’s goal: more ambitions programs will cost more, but can intuitively be expected to return a greater boost to national prestige and international standing.
This cost-benefit analytical framework is the key determinant of whether governments elect to fund ambitious crewed space exploration. The most obvious benefit of human spaceflight – which captures public attention in a way uncrewed exploration does not – are heightened domestic pride and international prestige; other benefits can include technical advancements and economic stimulus in strategic science and engineering sectors. Both an increased sense of nationalistic pride among domestic audiences and prestige on the world stage is a valuable good for governing regimes. However, the value policymakers assign these prestige-driven benefits is not decided in a vacuum. The practical value of marginal gains and losses of national prestige is driven by politics. Unpopular leaders facing domestic unrest will benefit more than secure ones from increased national pride among their selectorate. Similarly, international prestige is more valuable for states facing a hostile world system than an unthreatening one.
The costs of crewed space programs are obvious, but vary in nonintuitive ways. First, some objectives are more expensive to pursue than others. Secondly, some of the technologies required for crewed space exploration have military applications; particularly, rockets. These “dual-use” technologies allow policymakers to clear civilian space programs’ technological barriers with military development they would fund anyway, reducing the dedicated cost of the program.
If the decision to heavily invest in civilian space programs can be understood as a cost-benefit calculus, the uniquely dramatic achievements of the Sputnik-through-Apollo era must be explainable by a similarly unique confluence of inputs. This appears to be the case. The US-Soviet space race was the unique product of a bipolar, ideologically divided international order and transient period of technological development that allowed civilian space programs to heavily leverage military necessities. The Space Race ended when these costs and benefits diverged. After the Apollo program ended the expected investments required for further ambitious civilian human spaceflight achievements grew, while the extent these prospective achievements’ prestige would contribute to national security fell.
First, the benefit side of the equation. The Cold War divided the world along ideological lines, with the twin Soviet and US-led blocs surrounded by a periphery of nonaligned states. In this bipolar system each opposing bloc sought to favorably shift the balance of power by attracting ideological allies. This made national prestige enormously important. The US and USSR both sought to attract unaligned nations to their respective camps by demonstrating the military and technological superiority of their system, superiority that was seen as evidence of eventual victory.
Spaceflight was a vital arena of this competition for prestige. News of space achievements, President Kennedy argued in a 1961 speech, had a powerful impact “on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.” Importantly, these demonstrations were understood not only as peaceful achievements, but also as PR-friendly proxies for military prowess. Americans greeted the unexpected launch of Sputnik with something like panic, realizing if the Soviets could put a satellite in orbit, they could do the same with a nuclear warhead.
Second, the cost. Space Race-era programs were enormously expensive; at its height NASA funding consumed over four percent of American federal spending. However, the era’s crewed space programs benefited from a unique synergy between civilian and military technological development. The new technologies required to put the first men in orbit – powerful rockets, dependable guidance systems, and heat shields that allowed a spacecraft to survive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere – were the same developed in the quest to construct nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Early nuclear weapons, particularly thermonuclear devices, were heavy objects that required powerful rockets to deliver to their targets. These rockets were easily adapted into civilian launch vehicles: President Eisenhower once explicitly noted that the military rocket engines required to deliver nuclear warheads were also “so necessary in distant space exploration.”
Much like the ideological rivalry between the US and USSR made civilian prestige projects a determinant of the balance of power, the military rivalry between the two superpowers and emerging awareness of the primacy of ICBMs in nuclear war made these technological developments top priorities. As deployed ICBM numbers rose the technologies required to put men into space were materializing, regardless of the value policymakers assigned exploration. It is difficult to overstate the role dual-use military developments played in allowing the early achievements that opened the Space Race.
This dual-use synergy allowed US and Soviet policymakers to leverage technology already in development for their civilian space programs. But importantly, there is no inherent reason why the technological requirements of civilian space programs and the cutting edge of military development must align. Indeed, this dual-use synergy was transient, and began to break down by the late Space Race. Medium-lift liquid fuel rockets similar those powering early ICBMs are the dominant technological hurdle only in comparatively primitive civilian space programs. Once these rockets matured new hurdles less related to military requirements began to appear – for example, the heavy-lift Saturn V rocket and lunar lander vital to the Apollo program had little technological relevance to military armaments.
By the mid-1960s the preconditions that spurred the Space Race had clearly changed. Funding for crewed space exploration evaporated in both the US and USSR. In America, once it became clear that the Apollo program would be a success NASA’s budget as a percentage of federal spending fell precipitously. The final Apollo missions were cancelled, as was the Apollo Applications Program, intended to adapt existing Apollo hardware to ambitious new missions. Likewise, the Moon bases and crewed missions to Mars early space planners and science fiction authors judged just around the corner never materialized.
Why? Space achievements had not grown less prestigious. To be sure, Americans lost interest in the Apollo Moon landings as the novelty wore off, but that does not mean unprecedented achievements would not have remained a powerful tool for building national prestige. Instead, the value policymakers placed on the benefits of national prestige had changed along with the international order.
The Space Race was conceived during some of the hottest years of the Cold War – Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, five years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. But by the time the Apollo program landed astronauts on the Moon, the dynamics of the Cold War were changing. The Nixon-era détente between the US and USSR relaxed tensions, making it harder for policymakers to justify expensive prestige projects on balance of power grounds. But of course, détente did not last, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric made the 1980s one of the most dangerous decades of the Cold War.
But if Cold War tensions were so high, why did another civilian Space Race fail to materialize during the 1980s? Clearly, the prestige motivation had not vanished. President Reagan, eager to regain the American national prestige he perceived as lost in Vietnam and Carter-era malaise, pushed for an aggressive Space Shuttle launch schedule that contributed to the Challenger disaster. But despite heightened Cold War tensions, the political benefits of ambitious space spending were now lower. Spaceflight as a whole were no longer novel, making it arguably less impressive and high-profile. Adversaries’ achievements also became less threatening. Unlike during the opening days of the Space Race, Americans could not spin Soviet space achievements as a threatening aspect of a “missile gap” because by the 1980s ICBMs were a proven, stockpiled weapons technology.
But the cost side of the ledger was what shifted the most. First, the dual-use synergy between civilian and military space technological development largely vanished. Unlike the advances in rocketry of the 1950s and 1960s, by the 1980s the technical requirements of civilian and military space programs had diverged, making broadly dual-use technologies rare. Staged rockets that powered ICBMs were now mature technologies, and later missile development worked towards improved accuracy and increased survivability. Expanding crewed space exploration beyond the Moon would require major progress in novel propulsion technologies, life support, system reliability, and automation. All of these advancements had only tangental military relevance. Instead, the military space programs of the post-Apollo era brought research funding to technological fields unconnected with crewed spaceflight. The Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, an ambitious ballistic missile defense scheme, focused research on laser and missile interception technology. None of these military projects spurned major advancements in dual-use technologies that could be leveraged for new, ambitious crewed space programs. This remains largely true today.
Secondly, the post-Apollo space establishment suffered from a lack of clear, obvious goals. This was not the case for the classic Space Race: first, put a satellite in orbit; then, a man; finally, the Moon. But after Apollo, the next goal of crewed space exploration was unclear. Mars was an obvious, high-profile choice, but a crewed mission to Mars likely would have been much more difficult than the Apollo program, and national leaders never pushed for one in a serious way. To be sure, NASA had grand preliminary plans for human exploration beyond the Moon, but funding – and likely, technical capabilities – for these ambitions missions were never available. This absence of a obvious, achievable goal hampered prospective Reagan-era and later American Cold War crewed spaceflight programs.
This cost-benefit framework offers an explanation for why the US and USSR invested heavily in crewed space programs during the 1950s and 1960s, but not during last decades of the Cold War. While the international system has changed immeasurably since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this same cost-benefit logic drives today’s policymakers’ decisions to invest in crewed space programs.
Again, first the benefit side of the tradeoff. High-profile crewed space achievements remain impressive. While modern China and India may not be ideological states in a bipolar world, they still retain significant prestige-motivations for crewed space programs. This is particularly true for China, which seeks to improve its position in the world order through demonstrations of economic, military, and technological power. Much like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to Chinese policymakers the civilian space program – here “civilian” is a description of goals rather than administration, as China’s crewed space program is run by its military – is intended to cement China’s great power status in the minds of international observers. But importantly, China’s prestige-driven impetus for space investments is nowhere near that facing the security-minded Cold War-era US and USSR. This lower value assigned to the benefits of space achievements is reflected in the relatively relaxed priority of China’s crewed space program: China has achieved notable successes in space, but the pace of its efforts is not comparable to the Space Race. Clearly, China – which isn’t facing a potentially existential conflict with an ideological foe – does not judge space gains to national prestige as valuable as the Cold War rivals. This, of course, makes sense. For China, prominent achievements in human spaceflight are a means of bettering its international position, not a top-priority national security issue.
Importantly, all of today’s new or aspiring space powers have only replicated the feats accomplished by the Soviets and Americans a half century ago. This, again, is practical: as today’s comparably peaceful international order lowers the value of national prestige projects, aspiring space powers accordingly set their aspirations lower. The comparatively modest scope of these practical ambitions – “been there, done that,” in the words of uncharitable American observers – also allow new space powers to benefit from the dual-use synergy between military and civilian rocket technology, allowing them to reap prestige benefits from the ICBM technology they pursue anyway. In lower capability states aspirations to extend rocket development to human spaceflight may only be a rhetorical public relations stunt. Indeed, Iran’s space program is frequently alleged to be noting more than cover for ballistic missile development.
During the 1950s and 1960s a bipolar international order and a fortuitous alignment between the technologies required for civilian space exploration and nuclear deterrence combined to create the conditions that motivated heavy investments in civilian space programs. This is not an exaggerated description – the only reason the Space Race occurred was that the US-Soviet rivalry happened to coincide with the period when long-range military rockets were an emerging determinant of the balance of power. Without this synchronicity between an adversarial international system, conflation of national prestige and security, and convergence of civil and military space technological requirements, the Space Race would not have materialized. Barring a massive fall in the expected costs of ambitious human exploration, this logic suggests that the aspirations of new and aspiring spacefaring nations are unlikely to surpass the Space Race unless the international system reverts to the hostility of the Cold War’s height.