By: Professor Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania
The late 19th century and the early 20th century saw the rise of a new genre of writing—science fiction—with some astonishing work by popular writers, such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. In their novels, they write about their characters undertaking an expedition to the Moon. These fictional speculations led to the discovery of rockets. However, the actual space program grew out of the World War II and the advances made in rocketry during wartime.
H.G. Wells’ Views on War
World War II was fueled by ideology and technology, that became steadily more destructive and all-encompassing. The famous writer H.G. Wells was haunted by this phenomenon. During World War I, it was Wells who coined the well-known phrase that this was going to be the “war to end all wars“, because he felt that it was becoming unsustainable. In 1913, just before World War I broke out, Wells published a book called Little Wars that was a guidebook to war games, using toy soldiers and cannons, which he hoped might become a kind of proxy form of conflict that might replace actual warfare.
Learn more about the American experiment.
V-2 Missiles Developed by the Germans
When the atomic bomb was developed by the U.S. during World War II, it was feared that the Nazis could be working on something similar. However, it was later discovered that they were not as far along as had been initially feared by the allies. In fact, they were focused on developing other superweapons that could help them win the war. In particular, the German engineer Wernher von Braun, earlier a rocket club member in Germany, had been put in charge of a research project into the military uses of rockets to produce the feared V-2 missile. From 1944, V-2 missiles rained down on London and other Allied targets. According to the Nazi regime, these were used to avenge the Allied bombings of Germany. In fact, the name of the missile meant “Vergeltungswaffe” in German or the “Vengeance Weapon.”
The Start of the Space Program
Toward the end of the Second World War, when the defeat of Nazi Germany was imminent, the Allies began to pull apart and started to position themselves for the post-war world. This eventually led to the creation of two powerful groups—the United States and its allies on one hand, and Stalin’s Soviet Union on the other. This could be called the opening stage of the Cold War. Soon, American and Soviet intelligence officials spread out across Germany to grab hold of the German rocket scientists and to exploit their knowledge for their side. Most of the scientists surrendered to the Americans, but others opted to help the Soviet effort. In 1945, the Americans brought Wernher von Braun to the United States, along with his team who had built the V-2 rockets. At White Sands, New Mexico, their missiles were tested.
In the United States, Braun became a very effective spokesman for space exploration. He had style and charisma and managed to infect others with his grand vision. Braun once explained to his audience, “The first man who puts his foot on the Moon or another planet will be in much the same position as Columbus when he discovered the New World. With mankind visiting and exploring other planets, the future history of our world is both unlimited and unpredictable.” On the Soviet side, after using the expertise of some German scientists, the real impetus passed to a Soviet aeronautical engineer, Sergey Korolyov. During the war, Korolyov, arrested in 1937 by the Soviet secret police, was put to work in a prison laboratory. After the war, he became a driving force of the Soviet space effort. However, Korolyov always remained hidden in obscurity because of intense Soviet secrecy.
This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Use of Satellites for Information Gathering
As the Cold War intensified, it became clear that satellites, in orbit around the globe, could be a powerful tool of information gathering. Satellites were able to fly above sovereign territory and peer down into it, at distances that were far safer than those of spy planes. The United States and the Soviets raced to be first to achieve these satellites. The military aspect of this work was important as well. For example, the rockets used to launch satellites could also be used to deliver nuclear warheads in wartime.
Learn more the dawn of the atom.
Soviet Union’s Launch of the Sputnik
On October 4 1957 the Soviet Union took the world by surprise when it launched its satellite, called Sputnik. Sputnik was a small and very basic- looking rocket. It weighed 184 pounds and was a 23-inch-diameter silver sphere with four antennas. As it coursed high overhead in the skies, it emitted a steady “beep…beep…beep” radio signal. The launch of the Sputnik raised an alarm in the United States as this event was viewed as proof of the Soviet Union’s technological advancement, one that the United States could not yet match. Soon, money started pouring into scientific research and science education.
The next month, November 1957, the Soviet Union once again amazed the world by launching the first animal in outer space, a dog named Laika, on Sputnik 2. After American failures with rockets to match the Soviet feat, Braun’s Army team of researchers were given clearance to try, and in January of 1957, they succeeded, with Explorer 1. With this, the space race had truly begun.
Commonly Asked Questions About the Space Race
In 1913, just before the World War I broke out, Wells published a book called Little Wars that was a guidebook to war games, using toy soldiers and cannons, which he hoped might become a kind of proxy form of conflict that might replace actual warfare.
A German engineer Wernher von Braun, who used to be a member of the rocket club in Germany, had been put in charge of a research project into the military uses of rockets to produce the V-2 missile.
During the Cold War, it became clear that satellites, in orbit around the globe, could be a powerful tool of information gathering. Satellites were able to fly above sovereign territory and peer down into it, at distances that were far safer than those of spy planes.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union took the world by surprise when it launched its satellite, called Sputnik.