Only If Winner Takes All

American crew insignia for the Apollo/Soyuz mission

By Taylor Rathe

The first man landed on the moon in 1969. This was an historic moment for the United States and the world—the U.S. had done the unimaginable and, by the rule of winner takes all, had officially “won” the space race. Or so we thought. But the record reflects that the Soviets sent the first satellite into space, the first animal into space, and the first human into space. On April 6, 2020, Dr. Andrew Jenks, Professor of History at California State, Long Beach, spoke at the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies’s Colloquium on “Russia and the World.” He challenged first our ideas about the winner of the space race and then our perception of the race altogether. In his talk “Securitization and Secrecy in the Late Cold War,” Dr. Jenks suggests that there was more to the battle of the Cosmos than we originally thought.

            Looking beyond the golden era portrayed in movies, a driving force behind the space race was the advancement of military intelligence and technology. Many of the rockets that launched people into space were the same ones that could launch nuclear weapons. During the early years of the Space Race, this technology particularly helped Russia achieve equality with the U.S. on a nuclear level. Later on, the CIA presented a video to President Ronald Reagan explaining how much of the Soviet space technology in the 1970s had militaristic purposes, such as photo reconnaissance or geosynchronous communication network. Without this competition between ideological opposing governments, perhaps we wouldn’t have the GPS or weather technology that we have today.

            From these technological advancements, there came an opportunity for a joint relationship in space exploration. Through French diplomacy, Americans and Soviets began to work on a project during the height of the Cold War. This Apollo-Soyuz project used science and technology as a non-ideological bridge between the USSR and the U.S.A. It not only involved problem solving on the food Americans and Soviets would eat, or how to make an androgynous docking mechanism, it most importantly involved friendships and those would last a long time.

The historic handshake between Stafford and Leonov

In 1975, U.S. astronaut Tom Stafford and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov shook hands in space, signaling neutrality and cooperation. A seemingly unthinkable task only years before, this historic moment cemented a feeling that both sides had put aside their differences in space. From this act, the two superpowers were able to build the International Space Station and continue to explore the universe along with scientists from around the globe. The momentous picture of Americans and Soviets shaking hands in space may have achieved rapprochement on a technologic stance, but was soon forgotten in subsequent Cold War events.

            Today, both the United States and Russia have remembered their own victories in the space race, not the cooperation. We are entering an era where space exploration is being militarized once again, especially with the privatization of space flight. Amidst the rise of new competition in space and colder relations between the United States and Russia, it’s important to be reminded of the collaboration of our achievement. History is exceedingly more than victories; in fact, our differences, hardships, and battles have all brought us to do things that human-kind never thought possible. 

Official emblem of Apollo-Soyuz chosen by NASA and the Soviet Academy of Sciences

Taylor Rathe is a junior majoring in Diplomacy and Global Politics and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

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