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The Soviet Space Program Role in the Cold War Essay


Space travel became a reality in the twentieth century because of the independent efforts of the Soviet Union and the United States. As the two world super powers, these nations engaged in a fierce competition for space supremacy during the cold war era. The rivalry between the two powers was fuelled by the perceived political and military benefit that space supremacy would bestow on the pioneering nation. Strickland (1965) asserted that the American and Soviet space programs were a scientific and technological competition that would possibly determine the balance of power between in the world. From the mid 1950s, the Soviet Union embarked on ambitious space programs. The political impact of success in space ventures made the space program a priority with top Soviet leaders. The ability of the Soviets to concentrate human and material resources on priority objectives led to visible outcomes from the projects and this presented a challenge to the United States. This paper will argue that the Soviet space program played a significant role in the development of the communist state during the Cold War Era.

The paper will begin by providing an overview of the Cold War in order to highlight the conditions that led to the space race between the US and the USSR. It will then give details of how the space race competition took form and outline some of the objectives the Soviet Union had for its space program. A review of the short term and long-term consequences of investing in the space program will be provided.

Over View of the Cold War

The end of World War II in 1945 led to the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two world superpowers. While the two nations had fought as allies in the war the years after saw an emergence of great political and military rivalry between the two. The rivalry between the two was mostly driven by the ideological difference that existed on the two sides (Watson 2002). Each side wanted to prove the supremacy of its ideology with the Soviet Union favouring communism while the United States supported capitalism. This Ideological conflict led to increasing antagonism between the two super powers. A military confrontation between them was not possible since they both had arsenals of nuclear weapons and direct combat could escalate to mutual nuclear destruction.

The antagonism therefore resulted in a cold war which was characterized by proxy wars, arms races and a spread of propaganda. The cold war also led to an antagonistic relationship between the USSR and the West leading to the conception of an “iron curtain” that divided the East of Europe from the West (Zinn 2002). Countries on the East side of the Iron Curtain were under Soviet influence and they had a poor relationship with the West. Both nations tried to increase their spheres of influence in the world by spreading their ideologies. To aid in the expansion of sphere of influence, the two rivals sought to prove their dominance over each other from a political, economic, and military perspective. One of the spheres where the two superpowers sought dominion was in space travel.

Formation of the Competition

The Cold War competition between the US and the USSR was the single most important factor in the development of the Soviet space program. Since missile and space capabilities were deemed integral for each superpower, space programs enjoyed the unwavering support of the Supreme Soviet leadership (Tarasenko 1994).The competition between the Soviet and the United States space program was a direct result of the major technologies developed after the end of World War II. Hans (1985) documents that within 10 years of the Second World War ending, the United States had been able to build and successfully deploy an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).

The Soviets also endeavoured to come up with rockets that had the same intercontinental capabilities. However, the rockets designed by the Soviets had to be larger in order to accommodate the heavier and less efficient nuclear warheads that the Soviets had in their arsenal. This development of rockets capable of carrying heavy warheads halfway around the world paved the way for space exploration since the same rockets could be used to launch artificial satellites into earth orbit with little modification. The development of the ICBM was therefore the catalyst to space exploration by the Soviets and the United States (Goldman 1966).

October 4, 1957 is a significant date in world history since it is the day that the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik 1: the world’s first artificial satellite. With the launch of this satellite, the race into space was on and space operations gained great political and symbolic importance for the two super powers (Goldman 1966). Historians agree that the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite by the USSR in 1957 officially marked the start of a space race that would continue for the subsequent three decades. Sputnik 1 succeeded in moving the US-USSR power confrontation into space.

The renowned American fiction writer Arthur Clarke asserted a few days after the launch of the Sputnik 1 that “the United States became a second-rate power” (McQuaid 2007, p.373). The Eisenhower administration’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared that the Soviet satellite success had dealt a severe blow to America’s world standing and shifting global balance against the US (Killian 1977). This perception that the Soviet satellite had shifted the balance of political and diplomatic power from Washington to Moscow led to the channelling of significant financial resources to the United State’s space program to enable it to compete with the Soviet efforts.

How the Space Program was to Serve the State

The Space Program was supposed to be of use to the State in a number of significant ways. To begin with, the program was supposed to be a tangible demonstration of the competence of the government. Hans (1985) reveals that from the early 1960s, the visible achievements in space technology became a widely accepted measure of national competence. A speech to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics by the NASA Chief Glennan Keith asserted that Space had become “the primary symbol of capability in all aspects of science and technology” (McQuaid 2007, p.386). Advance in space technology were therefore demonstrations of the competence of the Soviet rulers.

In the early days, the program was to act as a potent propaganda tool by the communist regime. The Soviets and the US were in constant competition and each success was used to signify the dominance of the Soviet regime. The initial success of the program, especially in the face of failure by the Americans initial attempt to launch a satellite, was pointed to as tangible proof of the technological and political superiority of socialism (Shelton 1967). An important feature of the Soviet space program is that it did not present any instances of space failure. The state sought to erase any memory of failure and instead present a space history that was flawless. Gerovitch (2011) highlights that the Soviet narrative consisted of perfect cosmonauts engaging in flawless missions with the aid of the unfailing Soviet technology. This was in contrast to the American space program that was open to public scrutiny making failures apparent to the general public and the world. The Soviets were able to present their program as superior therefore underscoring the superiority of socialism over capitalism.

The Soviet space program was to serve as an expression of the technological utopianism that the communist leadership hoped to foster among its citizenry. The communism government claimed to be working towards the realization of a utopian society for its people. The program demonstrated the aspirations of the Soviets to both transform and dominate nature from earth up to the boundless realm of outer space. The domination undertones in the Soviet space program are evident from the fact that the soviet equivalence for the American phrase “space exploration” was “conquering and mastering of space” Gerovitch 2011). Each advance in the program was to be analogous to the creation of the communist utopian society.

Did the Space Program Serve its Purpose?

The Soviet space program was able to fulfil some of the objectives that the government had intended for it. It helped in the erasure of the memory of the oppressive Stalin era. During his leadership as Communist Party Secretary, Nikita Khrushchev embarked on elaborate steps to de-Stalinize Soviet society. A major goal of the communist leaders was to bring back the original revolutionary aspirations for a communist utopia and dismantle the cultural memory of Stalinist terror. The successful space program was used to symbolize a leap from the dreadful Stalin era and the move to a futuristic utopia where the Soviets experienced total liberation. The Soviet leap into space was presented by the leaders as a leap into an era of freedom (Gerovitch 2011).

The program succeeded in highlighting Russia’s technological might and forcing the US and the rest of the world to acknowledge this. Before the space program, there was no hard evidence that the Soviets had technology that could compete favourably with the United States (Zinn 2002). The military capability of the US exceeded that of the Soviets since they had better delivery systems for their nuclear warheads. However, advances made by the Soviet space program forced the US to reconsider this perception and the Central Intelligence Agency started to give special focus on the missile capabilities of the Soviets. The United States was forced to divert significant funds to its own space program because of the Soviet success (Gibney & George 1965). The landing of Apollo 11 on the moon was in directed response to the perceived challenge from the Soviet Union. The Soviets had already proved their technological supremacy by orbiting a man around the earth and engaging carrying out a robotic moon flight (Launius 2001).

A model of the ideal Soviet state and its citizens was projected through the program. The Communism ideals of patriotism, collectivism, and endurance were personalized in the form of the Soviet cosmonauts. Following the historic spaceflight by the Soviet cosmonaut Gagarin Yuri in 1961, the Secretary of the Communist party Nikita Khrushchev declared that “hero-cosmonauts are people who embody the wonderful traits of the member of the communist society… their deeds are driven by the love for Motherland, sense of public duty, and noble ideals of communism” (Chernenko 1963, p.92). The Communist party was therefore able to encourage conformity and obedience to authority by the citizens through the space program.

Short-Term Gains from the Program

The space program served as an overt display of soviet technological power. Even before the end of World War II, the Unite State’s intelligence community had been cautious about growing Soviet technological capabilities. The success of the Soviet space program proved to the US that Soviet technology had indeed grown to rival its own. The Soviet space program achieved its purpose of presenting the state as a worthy opponent to the US. The Soviets engaged in intelligence work to find out what the US space project was trying to achieve. They would then proceed to do it before therefore gaining great prestige in the international sphere. Siddiqi (2003) documents that the Soviets took to the habit of besting America effort in space projects. For example, the Soviets made it their mission to fly the first man on the moon and put the first woman in space. The Soviet government devoted enormous resources to the publicizing of the USSR’s space achievements both to a domestic and foreign audience (Andrews & Asif 2011).

The deterrent effects of the space program cannot be understated. By publicly displaying the dramatic space results, the Soviet Union was able to highlight its military capability. Continental US was no longer safe from the large arsenal of weapons in Soviet possession. The Soviet space program served the crucial role of demonstrating the supposed capability of the USSR to defend its people against any aggression by any external force. Prados (1982) reveals that space technologies by their nature were tied to a host of military concerns. Advances in space technology therefore signified increases in military capabilities of the country.

In addition to the increase in military capability provided by the space program, the project provided the illusion of protection. The first cosmonauts were young fighter pilots and they inherited the rhetoric of war. The Soviet leaders asserted that these young worriers were storming into space for the sake of the motherland. Gerovitch (2011) reveals that in spite of the cosmonauts being presented as peacetime heroes, they wore military uniforms thereby sending a double message. While the astronauts were never engaged in any battle, they were made to evoke the imagery of warriors in combat. The Space rush between the US and the Soviet Union occurred hardly a decade after the end of the Second World War. At this time, the memories of this devastating war were fresh in people’s minds.

The space program served the crucial purpose of legitimizing the power of soviet leaders. Soviet leaders presented the success of the space missions as a demonstration of their proficiency as political leaders. This is best elaborated by the staged events of welcoming cosmonauts who were photographed nest to the current party leader and the iconic images disseminated to the public through television, newspapers, and postcards. Soviet leaders used the space program to provide public spectacle during important occasions. For example, the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite was scheduled to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution (Launius 2001). This success of the Sputnik 1 was hailed as a success of the communist system and its current leadership. The space program was therefore able to boost the morale of the regime and the Soviet public. Gerovitch (2011) reports that a segment of the Soviet public responded to news of the regime’s space triumphs with wild enthusiasm.

After the Second World War, the Soviet Union was undergoing a reconstruction to rehabilitate the country both physically and politically. The nationalistic fervour of the nation had suffered major blows because of Stalin’s suppressive regime and the devastating war that had led to the loss of up to 24 Soviet citizens. The Khrushchev regime used the aeronautical and cosmonautic feats to stir nationalistic sentiments. NASA (2009) documents that these efforts were successful and the dawn of Sputnik 1 in 1957 led to a return to the nationalistic fervour, that had all but disappeared in previous years. With a rise in nationalistic sentiments, the Communist government was able to easily get the people to abide by state policies for the sake of the motherland.

The Soviet space program gave the Soviet leadership a huge psychological advantage in the Cold War. In the years immediately following the launch of Sputnik 1, Soviet leaders were keen to point to the lack of progress in space exploration by the United States. Even the US administration acknowledged the psychological gains made by the USSR and advisors to the Eisenhower administration asserted that a successful US space program would be necessary to minimize the psychological advantages which the USSR had acquired because of its space accomplishments (NASA 2009).

The Soviet Union used its space program to underscore the policy of detente with the US. The two superpowers had already acknowledged that a military confrontation between them would be catastrophic. Starting from the 1970s, the Soviet and the US embarked on a policy aimed at easing tensions between them (Hoffmann & Fleron 1980). Because the space operations had popular appeal, the two nations used them to underscore their sincerity in easing of tensions. Hans (1985) documents that in 1975; three American astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts met in space and shook hands. This highly symbolic project was a success and the two superpowers were able to demonstrate their commitment to better relations in the future.

The space program also served as a tool for foreign affairs. The Soviet space program was used with great effectiveness to support the conduct of foreign affairs by the Soviet leadership (Turkevich 1966). While the Soviet space program was started in great secrecy, the program gradually changed to accommodate international scientists who could use the Soviet facilities to perform research in space. The program therefore provided an atmosphere in which foreign policy could be conducted among rival nations.

An important function carried out by the satellites launched by the Soviets was monitoring arms movement within the US. By the early 1970s, the two world powers were beginning to have misgivings concerning the policies of arms proliferation that they had previously engaged in. The US and the Soviet Union therefore made a number of arms control agreements to limit the weapons on both sides (Abrams 2006) Soviet observation satellites were used to verify that the US was abiding by the terms of the agreement. Without the use of these satellites, the agreements would have been of little use since there would be no means to independently verify that the terms were being followed by the US.

Long -Term Consequences of the Space Race

The Soviet authorities invested enormous resources in their space program to maintain their lead on the Americans. These huge investments had a number of noteworthy long-term implications on the Soviet nation.

State Context

A major outcome of the space race is that the Soviet Union as able to establish itself as a leader in space exploration. The Communist state was able to achieve supremacy in space operations due to its investment in the space program. The Cold War era witnessed the greatest advancement in space technology as the two superpowers raced to outdo each other in space-based technology. The Soviet Union gained a wealth of experience in space travel because of its early expose to rocket technology. The nation became the authority in space operations and even though the US achieved greater success in running manned space crafts, the Soviets held the leadership in operation of space stations and were able to establish a near-permanent presence in space (Kay 1995).

The space program aided in the development of versatile research and development facilitates in the Soviet States. Before the space race, the USSR suffered from a lack of modernized facilities for technological research. The drive for space supremacy necessitated the establishment of modern facilities to aid in the development of space technology. Tarasenko (1994) notes that because of the support from the Soviet leadership, financial resources were dedicated for the building of infrastructure to support missile testing and space operations. The infrastructure established during the space race continues to be used for space exploration by the Russian government.

The Soviet space program helped guarantee the safety of the state from an American attack all through the Cold War era. Soviet security was guaranteed by the success of its space program. From the onset, the military had a stake in the development of the space program (Hardesty & Gene 2007). As the program progressed, the Soviet missiles capabilities also grew with it. The US was no longer protected from a Soviet nuclear attack due to its geographical isolation since the Soviets had proved that they had the capability to launch missiles for distances exceeding halfway around the world.

In the long term, the Soviet space program did not act as a unifying factor for the Soviet people. From the 1970s, the space program received a lot of criticism from the general public and the media. Kay (1995) records that ordinary citizens expressed deep resentment over the cost and secrecy of the space program. The state imposed great restrictions on the information that made its way to the public domain. The people of the Soviet Union felt that the secrecy surrounding the program was characteristic of communist rule. The citizens also objected to the glorification of spaceflight in the Soviet Union.

Military Context

While the early development of space programs by the US and the USSR were seen as a matter of national prestige, space-based systems started playing crucial roles in the security implementations of the two competing superpowers. The military significance of the Soviet space program can be deduced from the lack of separation of military and civilian space activity. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created by the United States to focus on the national civilian space effort and accentuate the division between the military and the civilian scope of the Unite State’s space program (Clowse 1981). While the US space program had a clear civilian mandate and a distinctive military component, the USSR placed all its space activities under the Ministry of General Machine-Building, which was a military industrial ministry (Tarasenko 1994).

The Soviets often used innovative space technology for military purposes. For example, the Soviet Vostok spacecraft that was designed and used to carry the first cosmonaut into space was modified and used as a reconnaissance spacecraft by the Soviet government (Levine 1994). The Soviet Air Defence Forces (VPVO) made use of the space technology to enhance the security of the Soviet States. Specifically, this branch of the military made use of the early warning satellite systems to monitor any imminent missile threat against the USSR. The military also developed an intricate anti-satellite system that was meant to destroy enemy satellites in the event of a full-scale war between the two super powers.

The Soviet space program greatly enhanced the ability of the nation to spy on other nations. The huge advances in space based imaging technologies are a direct result of the space rate. In the first decade of the Cold War, the two superpowers engaged in spying missions against each other. Airborne sensing was the most popular means of reconnaissance and the US used high altitude planes for reconnaissance on Soviet territory. McDougall (1985) reveals that during the 1950s, the Soviet Union and the US used high altitude reconnaissance aircraft to collect images of intelligence value helping them to formulate missile-targeting options and monitor the development of each other’s military.

However, use of planes for reconnaissance was limiting since it required a violation of the airspace of the other nation. The aircrafts were also vulnerable to missile attacks as was demonstration by the shooting down of the US spy plane, the U-S, over Soviet air in 1960 (Steinberge 1998). The Space program provided an opportunity to develop technologies that could greatly increase the spying capabilities of the Soviets. Soviet scientists developed satellites equipped with high resolution cameras capable of collecting intelligence data over foreign territories. Over the duration of the cold way, Soviet satellites took thousands of images of strategic importance especially on US territory (Steinberg 1998).

Economic Context

Soviet investment in the competition in the space race contributed to the technological advancement in the country. By the late 1960s, the Soviet space program had expanded into an entire spectrum of space research geared towards the development of applications for commercial, scientific, and military use (Tarasenko 1994). The Soviet Space program stimulated technological development that led to the attainment of scientific knowledge that improved the efficiency of machines. NASA (2009) declares that space programs were able to act as catalysts for the development of new technology. Space engineering required components to have great precision and reliability in order to avoid catastrophic failures. Developments in the Soviet space program therefore stimulated the development of reliable technologies that had both high precision and extreme reliability. The scientific knowledge obtain from this was transferred to the mainstream industries. Improved manufacturing procedures were therefore developed because of the technical knowledge obtained from the space program.

The Soviet investment in space led to the formation of new companies that sought to provide specialized services to the sector or exploit the technical know-how developed by the space program. Tarasenko (1994) states that some of the equipment used by the space program was procured from local companies. The growth and development of the space industry therefore fuelled the development of these complementary companies. These companies enhanced the economy of the nation by providing goods and services for the local and international markets.

One direct economic benefit of the Soviet space program is that it created employment opportunities for the professionals who worked in the sector. As the space program expanded, more skilled workers and scientists were employed by the Soviet state. Considering the scale of the Soviet space programs, the annual payroll was over 4 billion dollars by the mid 1960s Kay (1995). This money went back into the national economy as employees spent their income on goods and services in the USSR.

The Soviets had little economic motivation for embarking on their space programs. Even so, the space program had some economic impacts on the nation. The first impact what that these project led to the diversion of enormous resources to fund space technology and missions. Strickland (1965) states that the Soviets did not spare resources in developing their space programs and money for the program was provided directly from the top Soviet leadership. Significant financial costs were incurred by the Soviet space program. While the public showed little concern for these huge costs in light of the success of the program during the late 1950s, the public perception begun to change from the 1960s. As the USSR suffered from an economic downturn that resulted in food shortages and inflation, the public became dissatisfied with the exorbitant cost of the space program.


The importance of the Soviet space program for the development of the communist state can be deduced from the huge investment that the top Soviet leaders made to the program. This program was able to run with the full support of the government up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The space engineers and scientists were highly regarded members of the society and their work was a matter of national pride. The nationalistic sentiments continued to be a major component of Soviet space innovation. The end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union marked the end of the Soviet space program. While the program continued to exist in some form as the Russian space program, the lack of funding and severe budget cuts reduced the program to a shadow of its previous status.


The paper set out to show that the Soviet space program played a major role in the Soviet Union’s development in the Cold War Era. It began by highlighting how the Cold War came into existence and analysing how the competition between the two superpowers took form. The paper has revealed that the space race was caused by initial success by the Soviet government in space exploration. Soviet leaders used the space program as a potent tool of propaganda. Individual leaders exploited the success of the space program for their own political ends with most of the Communist Leaders manipulating the symbolic significance of the program to achieve their own goals.

The paper has demonstrated how the Soviet military benefited from military technology and acted as a major end user of operation space systems. The State was able to use the technical knowledge acquired from the space program for earthbound technology thereby fostering technological advancement in the USSR. The paper has outlined the various short term and long term consequences of the space race between the US and the USSR. From the discussions presented in this paper, it is evident that while the space race resulted in military and scientific benefits for the Soviets, the communist Leaders reaped the greatest benefits through their use of the program for propaganda purposes.


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