New Space Race

August 4, 2017 – Volume 27, Issue 28
Is the U.S. falling behind Russia and China? By Patrick Marshall


First Space Race

Most historians mark Oct. 4, 1957 — the date the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite, into Earth orbit — as the beginning of the first space race. The next day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's press secretary called the Russian launch “no surprise” and said the United States was “not in a race with the Soviets.”

“Both of the statements were naïve at best,” wrote space historian Ted Spitzmiller.49

The Soviets’ success in making it into space first stunned the American public, but the nation's policymakers also focused on Sputnik's weight, Spitzmiller wrote in The History of Human Spaceflight. At 184 pounds, the satellite offered “convincing evidence that the Russians did have the power, the guidance, and the ability to launch ICBMs,” or intercontinental ballistic missiles, he wrote. “This was seen as a threat to the very existence of the free world.”50

The Eisenhower administration and Congress moved quickly to expand U.S. space programs. In signing the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, Eisenhower commended Congress for acting quickly to approve the legislation, which he said equipped the United States “for leadership in the space age.”51

Besides creating NASA, the act specified that the Defense Department would manage U.S. military activities in space. Eisenhower initially wanted the Pentagon to direct all U.S. space efforts, according to John Logsdon, a historian at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum.

But his science adviser, James Killian, and Vice President Richard M. Nixon convinced him that it made more sense to create a separate civilian space agency “to carry out an open program of scientific activities and to engage in international cooperation,” wrote Logsdon. “This would provide a contrast to the closed and secretive Soviet space effort.”52

NASA did not have to start from scratch. It absorbed the earlier National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, with its 8,000 employees, an annual budget of $100 million and three major research laboratories — the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in California and the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Ohio.53

The new space agency immediately undertook its first manned space program — Project Mercury, with the goal of putting a U.S. astronaut into Earth orbit and returning him safely to Earth. But a month before Project Mercury's first launch in 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. The next year, on Feb. 20, 1962, U.S. astronaut John Glenn circled the planet three times before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda.54

Eisenhower's proposed fiscal 1961 budget called for reducing NASA's budget. He warned John F. Kennedy's incoming administration that “further tests and experiments will be necessary to establish if there are any valid scientific reasons for extending manned spaceflight beyond the Mercury program.”55

But in 1961, while Project Mercury was still active, NASA started Project Gemini. The new program involved 10 launches of two-man crews performing the first spacewalks and other tasks, and testing technologies for the upcoming Apollo Program, which aimed to land astronauts on the moon.56

Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. walks on the moon (Getty Images/NASA)  
Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. walks on the moon on July 20, 1969. When the Trump administration said in June it would resurrect the National Space Council to oversee all U.S. activities and policies in space, Aldrin said the council would be “absolutely critical in ensuring that the president's space priorities are clearly articulated and effectively executed.” Trump has said he wants NASA to send astronauts back to the moon by 2019. (Getty Images/NASA)

According to Logsdon, Kennedy began his presidency with a “complex” attitude toward space. He initially viewed space exploration as a way to ease relations with the Soviet Union, but before the end of 1961 he would commit to sending U.S. astronauts to the moon by the end of the decade.57

Eight days after the Soviet Union sent Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961, Kennedy called on his administration to identify a “space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.” On May 25, he told a joint session of Congress of his plan to send astronauts to the moon and backed up that commitment by increasing NASA's budget 89 percent.58

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the lunar surface. By the time the Apollo program ended in 1972, 12 astronauts — all Americans — had set foot on the moon. No humans have been there since.59

As the United States and Soviet Union expanded their investments in the space race, they also began developing anti-satellite weapons. As early as 1959, the United States attempted to hit one of its own aging satellites with a missile. The Soviets began developing anti-satellite capabilities as early as 1960 and in 1967 successfully used a satellite to intercept another in the same orbit. In the late 1950s and early '60s, the United States and the Soviet Union even tested nuclear bombs in space.60

In 1967, the two space superpowers signed the Outer Space Treaty, which bans weapons of mass destruction in space, limits use of the moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and prohibits countries from claiming sovereignty over space or celestial bodies.61

Détente in Space

The tremendous feeling of national triumph following the first moon landings was fleeting,” wrote Logsdon. He said Nixon, who began his first term as president six months before the 1969 moon landing, rejected NASA's ambitious post-Apollo plans. Those plans included a series of large space stations, continued missions to the moon and a mission to Mars in the 1980s.62

“We must think of [space activities] as part of a continuing process and not as a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy,” Nixon said in announcing a new U.S. space policy on March 7, 1970. “Space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities.”63

NASA's resources dropped sharply during the Nixon administration. The agency's budget, which peaked in 1966 at 4.4 percent of federal spending, had fallen to less than 1 percent by the time Nixon left office in 1974, when the agency received $3.3 billion.64

Public support for lunar missions declined after Apollo 14, the third mission to land astronauts on the moon, in part due to a sense that the United States had won the space race, according to Spitzmiller.65

NASA would send three more Apollo missions to the moon, the last one launching on Dec. 7, 1972.66 Earlier that year, despite cutting NASA's budget, Nixon had approved development of a reusable space vehicle — the space shuttle.

“The new system will differ radically from all existing booster systems, in that most of this new system will be recovered and used again and again — up to 100 times,” he said in announcing the project on Jan. 5. “The resulting economies may bring operating costs down as low as one-tenth of those present launch vehicles.”67

However, it took nine years before NASA sent the first shuttle into space. During that time, the agency also turned its attention to building the first space station, called Skylab. Working with constrained budgets, NASA engineers designed the station using the third stage of a Saturn heavy-lift rocket designed to reach the moon, adding adapters that allowed two Apollo spacecraft to dock at the station.68

Skylab's first crew arrived at the station on May 25, 1973. Over the next six years, it would be occupied for only 171 days, with the last crew logging the longest stay, 84 days.69 Skylab delivered valuable information about the long-term effects of space on the human body of living without gravity, according to Spitzmiller. “It was obvious that a flight to Mars was feasible except for the possible problem with bone loss, which continued to plague the crews,” he wrote.70

Space Shuttle Era

NASA's space shuttle program flew 135 missions — delivering and repairing satellites and performing scientific experiments — before ending in 2011 because of ongoing safety concerns.71 It sent the first American woman into space — Sally Ride — helped build the International Space Station and deployed the Hubble Telescope high above the atmosphere to study the universe beyond our solar system.72

“It was the first launch vehicle to lift off like a rocket, orbit the Earth as a spacecraft and then land as a glider,” space historian Robert Pearlman said of the shuttle.73

As the first reusable spacecraft, the shuttles were supposed to provide reliable access to space at a lower cost. However, significant cost reductions did not materialize, according to Steven Dick, a former NASA chief historian.74

As the first shuttle flights transfixed the nation during the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan's administration worked to give private companies a greater role in space beyond that of traditional contractors.

“One of the important objectives of my administration has been, and will continue to be, the encouragement of the private sector in commercial space endeavors,” Reagan said in signing the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act. The law required the government to “encourage private-sector launches, reentries and associated services.”75 That same year, NASA created an Office of Commercial Programs to encourage private-sector involvement in space activities — such as making launch vehicles and satellites — and help commercialize NASA-developed technologies.76

However, progress in the shuttle program stalled after Jan. 28, 1986, when leaks in the rocket boosters attached to the space shuttle Challenger caused it to explode about one minute after launch, killing all seven astronauts, including New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe. The other shuttles remained grounded until September 1988.

“As a result, many questioned the role of NASA as the primary satellite delivery route to space,” the space agency said in a report.77

In addition to the Challenger disaster, Titan rocket launch failures in 1993 caused military satellite launches to be suspended for a year.78

“The period spanning the late 1980s to the early 1990s was a particularly difficult era for spaceflight in the United States,” according to a report by CSIS’ Aerospace Security Project. “The United States needed a new launch vehicle that could provide assured access to space … and stay cost competitive over time.”79

In 1988, Congress required companies involved in space launch activities to buy commercial insurance or demonstrate the ability to cover any third-party losses.80

Congress followed up in 1998 with the Commercial Space Act, which required NASA to encourage commercialization of space services.81

That same year, Russia launched the first module of the International Space Station into orbit. The $100 billion station took more than 10 years and 30 missions to build and was the joint project of five space agencies representing 15 countries, with the United States, Russia, the European Union, Canada and Japan having the greatest involvement.82 Those five agencies — NASA, Russia's Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency — continue to operate the station today.83

By the early 1980s, the U.S. military was becoming increasingly dependent on its satellites for reconnaissance, communications and navigation, and more and more concerned about keeping them safe as the Soviet Union worked to improve its anti-satellite weapons.84

The United States conducted its first anti-satellite test in 1985, when an Air Force F-15 fighter flying at 38,000 feet launched a missile that destroyed a failing U.S. satellite.85

Another space shuttle tragedy occurred on Feb. 1, 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Investigators determined that a piece of insulating foam from the shuttle's external fuel tank had come loose during launch, striking the spacecraft's wing and damaging its heat shield.86

In January 2004, President George W. Bush called for returning astronauts to the moon by 2020 and sending a manned mission to Mars. The result was NASA's Constellation Program.87

New Competition

Two years after taking office in 2008, President Obama canceled the Constellation Program, calling it “over budget, behind schedule and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies.”88

His decision effectively eliminated any chance the United States would send astronauts to the moon during his administration. Instead, Obama called for NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and into orbit around Mars by the mid-2030s. But Congress had other ideas and funded NASA to proceed with a program essentially equivalent to the Constellation Program.89

Meanwhile, private-sector spaceflight companies were working to develop their own launch capabilities. SpaceX's first three launches failed, but its fourth, in 2008, was a success, as was a 2009 launch that sent the company's first commercial payload, a Malaysian satellite, into orbit.90

Zimmerman said SpaceX's fortunes improved from that point on. “SpaceX quickly signed up a large number of customers, even though the company was barely half a decade old,” he wrote. “By 2012 … the company possessed launch contracts with private satellite companies valued at more than $1 billion. SpaceX's biggest new customer, however, was not a private company; it was NASA.”91

Private companies’ role in space also got a boost from NASA's Commercial Crew Program, created to help the space agency build a replacement for the space shuttle.

Previously, NASA had provided private contractors with detailed specifications for the equipment it wanted them to build, and once it was built, NASA owned it. The plan under the Commercial Crew Program was for contractors to develop the spacecraft and other equipment themselves, with full ownership of the final product.92

Congress also acted to boost private-sector activities in space with the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015.

Although the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits countries from claiming sovereignty over space or celestial bodies, the act grants rights to resources extracted by companies from asteroids, the moon and other celestial bodies.93

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[49] Ted Spitzmiller, The History Of Human Space Flight (2017), p. 128.

[50] Ibid., p. 129.

[51] Statement by the President Upon Signing the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, July 29, 1958, The American Presidency Project, University of California, Santa Barbara,

[52] Logsdon, op. cit.

[53] Steven J. Dick, “50 Years of NASA History,” 50th Magazine, NASA, undated,

[54] “Glenn Orbits the Earth,” NASA, Feb. 16, 2012,

[55] Spitzmiller, op. cit., p. 226.

[56] “What Was the Gemini Program?” NASA, March 16, 2011,

[57] Logsdon, op. cit.

[58] Ibid.; William Harwood, “JFK legacy: Setting America on course for the moon,” CBS News, Nov. 21, 2013,

[59] “What Was the Apollo Program?” NASA, July 19, 2017,; Rochelle Oliver and Amisha Padnani, “They Walked on the Moon,” The New York Times, Jan. 17, 2017,

[60] “National Security Space Defense and Protection,” Committee on National Security Space Defense and Protection, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, 2016, p. 9,; Lee Billings, “War in Space May Be Closer Than Ever,” Scientific American, Aug. 10, 2015,

[61] “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” Office for Outer Space Affairs, United Nations, undated,

[62] Logsdon, op. cit.

[63] Ibid.

[64] “Nasa budgets: US spending on space travel since 1958,” DataBlog, The Guardian, undated,

[65] Spitzmiller, op. cit., p. 429.

[66] “What Was the Apollo Program?” op. cit.

[67] “President Nixon's 1972 Announcement on the Space Shuttle,” NASA, undated,

[68] Spitzmiller, op. cit., p. 460.

[69] “The Skylab Crewed Missions,” NASA, May 6, 2013,

[70] Spitzmiller, op. cit., p. 464.

[71] “Why Did NASA End the Space Shuttle Program?” Forbes, Feb. 2, 2017,

[72] “Space Shuttle Era,” NASA, undated,; “First American Woman in Space,” NASA, updated July 31, 2015,; Clara Moskowitz, “Space Shuttle's Lasting Legacy: 30 Years of Historic Feats,”, April 6, 2011,

[73] Moskowitz, op. cit.

[74] Dick, op. cit.

[75] Canis, op. cit., p. 1; President Ronald Reagan, “Statement on Signing the Commercial Space Launch Act,” The American Presidency Project, University of California, Santa Barbara, Oct. 30, 1984,

[76] “Commercial Orbital Transportation Service: A New Era in Space,” NASA, February 2014, p. 10,

[77] Ibid., p. 3.

[78] Tim Weiner, “Titan Lost Payload: Spy-Satellite System Worth $800 Million,” The New York Times, Aug. 4, 1993,

[79] Todd Harrison et al., “Beyond the RD-180,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2017, p. 1,

[80] “H.R. 4399 (100th): Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments of 1988,” govtrack, Nov. 15, 1988,

[81] “Commercial Space Act of 1998, Title II — P.L. 105–303,” Office of the General Counsel, NASA, undated,

[82] “History and Timeline of the ISS,” Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, undated,; Tim Sharp, “International Space Station: Facts, History & Tracking,”, April 5, 2016,

[83] “International Space Station Legal Framework,” European Space Agency, undated,

[84] Anatoly Zak, “The Hidden History of the Soviet Satellite-Killer,” Popular Mechanics, Nov. 1, 2013,

[85] Broder, op. cit.

[86] Karl Tate, “Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster Explained (Infographic),”, Feb. 1, 2013,

[87] “President Bush Offers New Vision For NASA,” NASA, Jan. 14, 2004,

[88] Ker Than, “Obama Scrubs NASA's Manned Moon Missions,” National Geographic News, Feb. 1, 2010,; Clara Moskowitz, “NASA Stuck in Limbo as New Congress Takes Over,”, Jan. 7, 2011,; Zimmerman, op. cit., p. 10.

[89] Zimmerman, op. cit., p. 6.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Ibid., p. 15.

[92] “Commercial Crew Program — The Essentials,” op. cit.

[93] “H.R.2262 — U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act,”, undated,

Document APA Citation
Marshall, P. (2017, August 4). New space race. CQ researcher, 27, 653-676. Retrieved from
Document ID: cqresrre2017080403
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ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Space Exploration
Aug. 04, 2017  New Space Race
Jun. 20, 2014  Search for Life On New Planets
Feb. 24, 2012  Space Program
Aug. 16, 2011  Weapons in Space
Oct. 16, 2009  Human Spaceflight
May 23, 2003  NASA's Future
Jul. 23, 1999  New Challenges in Space
Apr. 25, 1997  Space Program's Future
Dec. 24, 1993  Space Program's Future
Mar. 29, 1991  Uncertain Future for Man in Space
Jul. 31, 1987  Space Race
Feb. 07, 1986  Space Decisions after Challenger
Feb. 18, 1983  American Options in Space
Nov. 10, 1978  Changing U.S. Space Policy
Jul. 04, 1975  Cooperation in Space
Mar. 15, 1972  Space Shuttle Controversy
Oct. 01, 1969  Mission to Mars: Benefits Vs. Costs
Nov. 13, 1968  Goals in Space
Jun. 29, 1966  Future of Space Exploration
May 08, 1963  Moon Race Controversy
Jun. 27, 1962  Peaceful Use of Outer Space
Nov. 01, 1961  Space Exploration
Dec. 09, 1959  National Space Policy
Feb. 19, 1958  Control of Outer Space
Arms Control and Disarmament
Congress Actions
General Defense and National Security
General International Relations
Powers and History of the Presidency
Space Sciences and Exploration
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