‘Reaching for the stars’ has long been a dream of mankind. But after World War II, the US and the Soviet Union were more interested in the military side of rocket science.
It was not until 1955 that the civilian aspects of space became important, with both sides planning to put an artificial satellite into orbit. To prevent a launch being mistaken for a nuclear attack, America designed a new system, but the Soviets simply reused much of their military technology.
Even so, when they launched the Sputnik satellite on 4 October 1957, the world was shocked. US prestige suffered further when its own satellite failed to launch, earning the nickname ‘Stayputnik’. While it finally launched a month later, the damage was done.
Congressional and public pressure saw President Dwight D Eisenhower create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). After Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, Nasa’s budget was ramped up.
Ultimately the US won the space race when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in July 1969. Yet interest in space exploration steadily waned.
Arguably, more significant legacies of the era are the $36bn commercial satellite industry, and the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa, later Darpa), credited with pioneering the internet.