Decoding the Cold War space race

Published: August 29, 2019 12:52:38 AM

Nobody won the space race; the world benefited

Cold War space, Chandrayaan 2, South Pole, Soviet space programme, US, American space programme, NASA, Sputnik 1The space race was also about the clash of towering individuals.

By Martand Jha

Last month, when India sent the Chandrayaan 2 to the moon’s South Pole, many space experts pointed towards the beginning of a new space race, or the space race 2.0. This brings back the question about what was the space race all about and how did it start in the first place? It was a distinct and unique phenomenon within the phenomenon of the Cold War.

What made it unique and distinct was the time during which it happened. Never before in the history were there two superpowers that were almost equally capable of destroying each other and set up their hegemony globally. Secondly, the global balance of power was seen for the first time. Although great powers always used to exist, but there were no superpowers. There are many takeaways and lessons that can be derived from the space race.

Firstly and most importantly, the space race started as a race to achieve ‘absolute power’ and not ‘relative power’, but as the race turned into rivalry, both the superpowers started striving for ‘relative power’. As international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz puts in the anarchy of international politics, relative gain is more important than absolute gain. Secondly, the space race was also a race between two ideologies, two political systems and two civilisations (East versus West). Thirdly, the space race shows how ideologies take a back seat if profits, gains and supremacy are ensured by overlooking the ideals. This happened when the Americans used Wernher von Braun and his team of engineers to build their space programme, despite knowing about von Braun and his team’s Nazi past.

The Cold War space race was a blessing in disguise in many ways, especially in the field of science and technology. The outer space travel required the invention of many new things. It included things like artificial limbs, water purifier, adjustable smoke detectors, satellite television, freeze dried food, space blankets, etc. The standard of engineering got better during the space race because in a competitive race both the superpowers attached a lot of value to their successes as well as failures. Therefore, the scope of technical errors had to be minimal. This demanded a very high quality of trained individuals who could cater to the extremely precise requirements of rocketry, missile technology and spacecraft. A whole new discipline of engineering bloomed and blossomed during this period.

The space race was also about the clash of towering individuals. While von Braun was the architect of the American space programme, Sergei Korolev took the Soviet space programme to newer heights. But the important lesson learnt during the space race is that the potential of the outer space is huge, which could be utilised for civilian purposes and for the benefit of the mankind at large. To put it simply, the ‘constructive potential’ of the outer space outweighed its ‘destructive potential’.

Another new area that originated and evolved due to the demand of the times was international space laws, which had to be written. These were signed and ratified as treaties by many countries across the world, and were legally binding in nature. The role played by the media to set the agenda for public debate about the space race was crucial. Many times, the media was used as a tool for spreading false information as well as propaganda. The lesson learnt in this case was that either the media is used by powerful governments or the media tries to portray their own agenda as the public agenda. Both of this happened during the space race. While the former was the case in the Soviet Union, the latter was seen in the US.

The space race spanned almost two decades. This was the time when drastic, dramatic and welcome changes were happening across the world in almost every area. Many of these happened in parallel with the space race, while a few impacted it directly. The space race was designed in an extremely realist domain. The struggle for hegemonic supremacy was apparent during this period. The outer space was seen as a potent tool that could be used militarily to inflict pain to the adversaries.

Who won the space race?

This can be debated as both the superpowers saw phases in which they were doing better than the other. If one looks at the early period, it appears the race was heavily tilted towards the Soviet Union when it became the first country to launch an artificial satellite, i.e. the Sputnik 1, in 1957. Then, in 1961, the Soviet Union sent the first man (Yuri Gagarin) to space. The space race titled towards the US when it placed the first man (Neil Armstrong) on the moon in 1969. In the 1970s, when NASA budgets increased, the US outspent the USSR and launched far more satellites than any other country, making the NASA the premier space research agency.

The space race that turned into a space rivalry ended in collaboration between the two superpowers during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. So, the question of winning or losing is not an objective one. The binary of victory and loss are measured in absolute terms. There are clear winners and losers in a competition. But here that was not the case. The intention of being a clear winner was certainly there, which led to the start of the space race, but because both the superpowers ended up gaining a lot from the point they started investing in their space programme, none of them won or lost. However, the US stamped its relative superiority over the USSR by the end of the space race.

The author is a senior research fellow at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

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