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Why did both the USA and the USSR decide to put a person on the Moon and then 'end' the space race, having 'won'? Why didn't the space race go on infinitely: who would fly the first astronauts to another planet, to a near-Earth asteroid, to the asteroid belt and so on?

I know there was the proposal of an Apollo Venus flyby, but this was a later option that was irrelevant to the space race, and it wasn't realized, America didn't put effort into further goals nor did it fly to the Moon after Apollo 17 anymore because they've "won" the space race. When and how was it decided that the space race ends on the Moon, and why?

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    $\begingroup$ I see your proposed edit to the space-race tag. Some definitions of the space-race include the use of space for weapons like ICBMs and countermeasures, spy satellites etc. rather than just the race to be the best in the peaceful exploration of space, and that it was used as an economic weapon, and some partially attribute the events of 1991 to that military-economic warfare waged in the space arena. So I'm not sure that changing the ending date to 1975 would be widely seen as correct. $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 10 at 7:15
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh The ASTP was a kind of reconciliation between America and the Soviet Union concerning the space race, and both nations didn't bother to continue the space race beyond the Moon. Actually, both countries abandoned plans to even go beyond LEO. ICBMs with warheads have little to do with space exploration, it's just a matter of whose military is stronger and better. $\endgroup$ – Giovanni May 10 at 8:59
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh I also added the fact that the competition between private firms is called a space race, so even if you don't agree with the other part, please let this part. $\endgroup$ – Giovanni May 10 at 9:02
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    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting question, I don't think there's a comprehensive answer as it's very broad and open to opinion. You could write a book on it. $\endgroup$ – GdD May 10 at 10:51
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    $\begingroup$ We all know what the answer is, Money. $\endgroup$ – James Ervin May 11 at 21:06
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To be completely honest, I don't think saying that one side "won" the Space Race is entirely correct. More to the point of the question: it did not "end" at Moon per se, but just slowly ramped down.

The support that NASA had in the initial stages of the space race was there because of the political reasoning - USSR put the first satellite in space, and this presented the US with a possibility of an orbital strike - nothing to laugh about. So more and more money was poured into NASA. Don't forget that the Space Race itself is very closely tied to the military in both countries. Space exploration was initially a secondary goal.

The Soviets developed their own rocket, the N-1, to go to the moon. However, that project was really not successful - early launch failures destroyed the N-1 launch pad, and after some more failures the project was eventually cancelled without ever having a successful test flight.

Don't forget that space is expensive. The Soviet Union was always hemorrhaging money and that only got worse during the years. On the US side, political support for Apollo died down after it had achieved the landing and funds were allocated for a more exciting project (from the perspective of the politicians), the STS. On the Soviet side, the effort was dedicated to building orbital station, which resulted in the Salyut (which was launched before Skylab) and Mir (the first modular space station!).

So, there wasn't really a meeting where it was decided that the space race was won. It's commonly considered that the US prevailed since putting men on the moon is really no easy task and requires a lot of new technologies to be developed. I personally think that the end of the Space Race is really the Souyz-Apollo joint mission, where the groundwork for the partnership between USA and USSR/Russia was laid. As with many things in history, the answer is not always clear-cut :)

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    $\begingroup$ How on Moon can you find STS a "more exciting project" than Apollo? $\endgroup$ – Giovanni May 10 at 11:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Giovanni I meant it in a sense that the politicians found it to be more interesting. Since they determine where the money goes, this played a large role in ending the Apollo project. More funds for a project that was considered to have served its purpose (which was putting people on the moon) were unlikely to be dedicated. So they pitched STS, and got funding for that. $\endgroup$ – Mu3 May 10 at 11:34
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    $\begingroup$ Then you might add "from the politicians' perspective" in brackets or something. $\endgroup$ – Giovanni May 10 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ BTW, the entire premise of the show For All Mankind is that the N-1 didn't fail, the Soviets beat Apollo 11 to the Moon by 4 weeks, and the space race never ended. The Sea Dragon program was pushed through instead of canceled, there were lots of shuttles built, there are permanent settlements on the Moon by both the US and the USSR by the late 1970s and boots on the Mars in the early 1990s. $\endgroup$ – Jörg W Mittag May 10 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ Neither American nor Soviet space programs ended with the race to the Moon, rather priorities changed (on both sides) and it was no longer a race. What mattered to the U.S. is that the Apollo program successes restored American pride in space achievement and closed the apparent missile gap. What mattered to the Soviet Union is that a man on the Moon was no longer a worthwhile goal so it could refocus on other things. $\endgroup$ – Anthony X May 11 at 22:43
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  1. Continuing to Mars was actually considered. Before the first moon landing, President Nixon ordered a study of the U.S. space program. It recommended sending men to Mars and the other planets:

    Early in 1969 the new President appointed a Space Task Group to study the space program, calling for a report in six months on alternatives for the post-Apollo period. Predictably, the group's report, submitted on September 15, recommended a balanced program of manned and unmanned space activity. Its most radical suggestion was that NASA should adopt a new long-range goal, comparable to the Apollo goal that had sustained space exploration for eight years, to provide the impetus for new developments. For that goal they suggested manned exploration of the planets, specifically a manned landing on Mars by the end of the 20th century. Three options were proposed: an all-out effort, including a 50-man earth-orbiting space station and a lunar base, culminating with the Mars landing in the mid-1980s; a less ambitious program providing for evaluation of an unmanned Mars landing before setting a date for the manned mission; and a minimum program that would develop a space station and a shuttle vehicle but would defer the Mars landing to some unspecified time before the end of the century.

    Where No Man Has Gone Before, NASA SP-4214 ch. 11.6

  2. But Mars costs even more than Apollo. The Apollo program ended up costing about \$25.4 billion. A Mars landing was estimated to cost two to three times the cost of the entire Apollo program:

    Perhaps the thumbs-down reaction to a Mars flight was to be expected, given the projected cost of such a program, which the Space Task Group estimated at \$54 billion to \$78.2 billion during the 1970-1980 decade.

    ibid

  3. Scientists saw a Mars landing as a gimmick that would take money away from "real science":

    A point of view shared by many scientists was expressed at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in December by Gordon J. F. MacDonald, who characterized it as "the utmost folly." Retiring AAAS president Waiter Orr Roberts said that the United States should not set a goal of sending men to Mars "now or ever."

    ibid

  4. NASA already was planning their next projects, which were limited to low Earth orbit. These would become Skylab and the Space Shuttle.

    Paine noted that they did provide for a start on the next project, development of a reusable spacecraft to shuttle crews and payloads between earth and a space station in earth orbit.

    ibid

  5. Nixon was looking for ways to cut the federal budget, and NASA was one target. Where No Man Has Gone Before claims he did it to cut the budget deficit, but many other sources attribute it to the escalating costs of the Vietnam War.

    By mid-1970 NASA was operating on its lowest budget since fiscal 1965, under an administration determined to reduce the federal deficit, while trying to get started on a new generation of spacecraft and programs toward which administration budget officers were less than enthusiastically committed.

    ibid, ch. 12.2

  6. NASA had some support in the House, but little support in the Senate.

    In mid-September 1970, 39 scientists who had long been associated with Apollo's science program formally protested the cutbacks in a letter to the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Representative George P. Miller. [...] In reply, Miller called the scientists' attention to his committee's long record of support for Apollo, pointing out that the committee had tried to get $220 million more for lunar exploration into the authorization bills for fiscal 1970 and 1971. "However, the [Nixon] Administration, in realigning national priorities, has relegated the space program to a lesser role."

    ibid, ch. 12.2

    Apollo still had supporters in Congress, however, and they tried their best to add \$130.5 million to the administration's budget for lunar exploration in fiscal 1971. But the Senate would not go along, and after a vigorous debate, the conference committee reported an authorization bill containing an increase of only \$38 million for Apollo.

    ibid, ch. 11.6

  7. NASA had a bad track record of cost overruns:

    Complicating the problem of living within a restricted budget, NASA's record in holding program costs to preprogram estimates was not good, a fact often brought up in congressional budget hearings. (That had very nearly cost the agency the Mars landing project, Viking, at the end of 1969.

    ibid, ch. 11.6

  8. An alignment of the outer planets was soon to occur, and would not happen again for another 175 years. This would enable one or two spacecraft to accomplish a "grand tour" of the outer solar system. Thus, funding was urgent to produce and launch such spacecraft, which became Voyager 1 and 2.

  9. The public was looking for more immediate ways to solve their own problems. The Apollo program (and particularly its images of a fragile Earth) was a major inspiration to the environmental movement of the 1970s. As a result, satellites for weather, environmental monitoring, and land mapping were launched in greater numbers during the 1970s.

    Public and congressional support for purely scientific missions, no matter how spectacular or important, had begun to erode before Apollo 11. Whatever the fact may say about the nation's commitment to the space program, NASA now lived or died by the perceptions of Congress and the administration of the short-term value of its projects. Political pressure on the space program was shifting in the direction of using space to solve earth's problems.

    ibid

So the combination of less overall funding, demand for programs closer to Earth (Skylab, satellites, Shuttle), and cost overruns meant that something had to be cut. And that ended up being continuing the space race to Mars.

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  • $\begingroup$ 8. is very important. If the space race would have been continuated, we never got the Voyagers. Neptune was visited only by Voyager 2. The missions Galileo, Cassini, New Horizons and Juno were based on experiences from the Voyagers $\endgroup$ – Uwe May 11 at 8:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Uwe Uranus too. It's a pity there weren't any probes sent to the ice giants since Voyager 2. $\endgroup$ – Giovanni May 11 at 8:52
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Western propaganda simply painted the race as over.

The soviets went on to launch space station after space station throughout the 70s and 80s, gaining thousands of man-hours of low earth orbit experience while the US barely got skylab to work. By the time the joint construction of ISS started in the 90s, the soviets/russians had spent 6336 days manning space stations, compared to the US spending 171. US performance was so abysmal that of course western media were no longer calling it a race.

It was not until the soviet system collapsed and economic hardship stopped their progress that the US caught up, essentially purchasing lessons on space stations on Mir and then moving on with building the ISS, in a collaboration, ending much of the race feeling. The russians were still clear winners in equipment, metalurgy and experience at that point, but much greater economic strength kept the US advancing. The soviet budgets for space activities were nothing like US ones, and that is rarely considered when calculating 'winners" to the races.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't get why the Soviets launched so many Salyut stations. The American SkyLab was a success, and America set up the longest crewed spaceflight record with SkyLab 4 lasting 80+ days in orbit. It is still the record for the longest spaceflight by a single spacecraft with the same crew, other than some ISS expeditions I think. They decided to no longer let the station in orbit till the first Space Shuttle flight, but deorbited it before. $\endgroup$ – Giovanni May 11 at 4:59
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    $\begingroup$ @giovanni oh really, 80+ days? Polyakov spent 473 consecutive days on Mir, and the station itself was continuously manned for 3644 days. So I think you need to research your longest spaceflight facts a little more. Plus "they deorbited it" sounds like they had a choice in the matter. It fell down. $\endgroup$ – Innovine May 11 at 18:57
  • $\begingroup$ +1 there was a proposed edit to the space-race tag that changed the "ending date" from 1991 back to 1975, which I think was rejected. Now I'm not sure it even makes sense to have an ending date there. $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 11 at 23:48
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The US demonstrated their technically superior abilities over the USSR with the Moon landings, which is what they were all about in the first place. Once that had happened there was no longer any need to go to the Moon. The final nail in the coffin was the ramping up of the Vietnam war which was very expensive.

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    $\begingroup$ -1 for "The US demonstrated their technically superior abilities..." There are many factors that determine the rates of progress and final outcomes of massive projects, especially when they are closely coupled to political institutions and their various funding and public relations machinations. Several substantial books are written about this period in space, it's a fascinating and often dramatic story, and simply can not be summarized in a one-liner. See this answer for example. $\endgroup$ – uhoh May 11 at 23:44

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