History of Space Faring Nations – US & Russia

History of Space

Even as the number of countries with space programs has increased rapidly, US & Russia remain the space frontiers. With their hot and cold relations on earth, how far have they come in this race and how long do they go back?

Crux of the Matter

The First Race
The official space competition started between the US and USSR (Soviet Union) during the cold war period (1947 -1991) when the technological advantage was seen as necessary for national security. Mixed with the patriotism, efforts began from both sides to achieve spaceflight milestones

My rockets work perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet.

Wernher von Braun, German Scientist

Reports suggest that Wernher von Braun, the student of the rocketing pioneer Hermann Oberth, was the public face and chief architect of the American space program, helping launch their first space satellite Explorer 1. This detached him from the consequences of his earlier work on the V-2 missile for Hitler and his continued interest in space travel. Till date his liquid-fueled engines are used as the basis for modern space travel via LOX (Liquid Oxygen).

The Vostok 1 Capsule that toured Yuri with one full orbit of Earth

During the International Geophysical Year that marked the scientific exchange between East and West, Soviet Union achieved a successful launch of the first artificial satellite in the world, with the orbiting of Sputnik 1 in 1957.

Followed by cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova becoming the first man and woman in space. Not wanting to be left behind in the race, the US made Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon with Apollo 11. Thus the US chose the moon’s orbit to excel in while the Soviet concentrated on Earth orbitals.

The Apollo 11 marked the lunar success of NASA’s Apollo program

Efforts To Collaborate With Apollo – Soyuz
In 1962, a period of détente, which is easing of strained relations, started when POTUS John F. Kennedy and Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev exchanged letters about working together on simple space matters like weather satellites. The US and Russia agreed that an international space project would be a political win-win. According to historians, this idea got further highlighted with the release of Marooned, the film in which Soviet cosmonauts rescue stranded American astronauts.

Apollo-Soyuz was the first international mission, carried out jointly by the Americans and Russians in July 1975. As US Apollo module docked with a Soviet Soyuz capsule, millions of people worldwide watched on T.V, the test project wherein two nations worked together with their own spacecrafts.

Mir for Russia and Skylab for USA
was the first space station operated by the United States from 1973-1979. It spent six years orbiting Earth until its decaying orbit caused it to re-enter the atmosphere. The station had a workshop, a solar observatory, a multiple docking adapter, and systems to allow three crews to spend up to 84 days in space comfortably. It’s major operations included acting as an orbital workshop, a solar observatory, and Earth observational arena.

NASA’s Skylab

The Space Station Mir served as a microgravity research laboratory in which crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, and astronomy. It endured 15 years in orbit from 1986 to 2001, three times its planned lifetime. It outlasted the Soviet Union and was later handled by Russia.

US got concerned that with the fall of the Union, funds might get short for the Russian Space Program, and thus the Shuttle-Mir program was started. It flew several American astronauts to Mir between 1995 and 1998 and laid the groundwork for the ISS collaboration.


Formation Of Global Space Station – ISS
After an MoU between the US and Russia, the modular space station ISS was formed in 1998 with an intent to proceed with worldwide cooperation for space exploration. It was divided into two sections : Russian Orbital Segment (ROS), operated by Russian ROSCOSMOS and the United States Orbital Segment (USOS), shared by NASA (US) and other nations including JAXA(Japan), CSA(Canada) and ESA (Europe).

ISS Space-environment research laboratory

Good-bye Shuttle, Hello Again Soyuz & Dragon
NASA’s Space Shuttle program was launched in 1972 with the vision of a reusable space shuttle system. True to its mission, the Shuttle became the only winged reusable shuttle to achieve orbit and landing with a crew that made multiple flights into an orbit. Russian shuttle Buran was similar in design and capabilities but it could make only one uncrewed space flight before it got scrapped.

The Space Shuttle Program, composed of an orbiter with two reusable solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank

However after spiralling costs to manage the shuttle beyond it’s envisioned 15 year span, and arising safety issues due to criticism faced for the two major disasters – Challenger and the Columbia vehicles, US retired its Space Shuttle fleet after 135 missions in 2011.

The Soyuz spacecraft was launched on a Soyuz rocket, still known for being one of the most reliable launch vehicles in space

This made Russian Soyuz rockets the only way to shuttle crew and cargo to and from the ISS, which in turn led to NASA paying ROSCOSMOS $2.5 billion+ for its space services ever since. Though in 2014, the condemnatory international reaction of the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, made the US rethink about their space cooperation with them. Later in a meeting, NASA reaffirmed its commitment to extend the station use from 2020 to at least 2024.

Finally Elon Musk’s SpaceX became a game changer for NASA in May this year, as astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley travelled to the ISS in their Dragon 2 crew spacecraft, making it the first public-corporate space collaboration to launch humans into orbit. Under this Commercial Crew Program, a NASA audit found out that the cost per seat for each astronaut was significantly lower than Soyuz, Apollo and other space programs in 60 years.

What Next?
Currently, the two nations’ have a differing role in space, where the US is helping private companies like SpaceX and Boeing to fuel the next generation of space exploration with flashy new technologies, Russia is investing in stable provision of decades-old yet reliable designs and equipment, busy finding replacements for the Soyuz program. Hopefully, the next goal for both would be Mission Mars!

  • Before humans went into space in the 1960s, several other animals were launched into space, including numerous other primates, so that scientists could investigate the biological effects of space travel. The first primate astronaut was Albert, a rhesus macaque, who on June 11, 1948, rode to over 63 km on a V-2 rocket. Albert died of suffocation during the flight.
  • The Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex (OPSEK) was a 2009–2017 Russian proposed third-generation modular space station for Low Earth orbit. In early plans, the station was to consist initially of several modules from the Russian Orbital Segment of the International Space Station (ISS). However, in September 2017, the head of Roscosmos Igor Komarov said that the technical feasibility of separating the station to form OPSEK had been studied and there were now “no plans to separate the Russian segment from the ISS”.
  • Gravity is a 2013 science fiction thriller film starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as American astronauts who are stranded in space after the mid-orbit destruction of their Space Shuttle and attempt to return to Earth. Upon its release, Gravity was met with widespread critical acclaim, including its direction and visuals. Visual effects company Framestore spent more than three years creating most of the film’s visual effects, which make up over 80 of its 91 minutes.