If space exploration was really a race, then Sputnik I gave the Russians a good head start and left the Americans looking a little flat-footed. Prior to Sputnik's takeoff in October 1957, no country had yet successfully launched an object on a controlled path (orbit) into space. So in the middle of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, Sputnik I was a clear Soviet success.
The satellite reached space aboard a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile that was designed to carry nuclear warheads. With the arms race in full swing at that time, the USSR needed a strong ICBM program to reach North America. The United States, however, had allied countries (and missile sites) closer to communist borders, so it had not developed the same level of long-range rocket technology by that time. Since ICBMs can easily be converted to launch satellites, putting hardware like Sputnik I into space was a much easier task for the Soviets [source: AF Space Command]. They stunned the world with their level of engineering and opened up a new frontier for the two nations to compete.
The fact that Soviet machinery was orbiting overhead generated a lot of concern for the American public and its government, inspiring the creation of America's own space program. Before Sputnik, space exploration had been seen as unachievable and too expensive. After Sputnik, it was considered a necessity by many. For American students of that era, it also created shift in curriculum. Greater emphasis was placed on math and sciences as the country tried to create the next generation of engineers and scientists [source: NPR].
A month later, Sputnik II was launched with Laika the dog onboard. By the following January, the U.S. launched its own satellite -- Explorer -- into orbit, and the race was officially on.
The Soviet Union reached the Moon with its Luna III satellite, which took pictures of the Moon. The satellite was also fitted with a robotic arm so it could take samples from the Moon's surface. Although the Luna III satellite's lunar launch happened prior to the United States manned Apollo 11 mission, the Luna III got stuck in the moon's orbit and was circling the moon when Apollo 11 made its lunar landing.
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