During World War II, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had been allies, both members of the Allied Powers. But this was a marriage of convenience. When the war ended, tensions brewing between the democratic and capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union crystallized into the Cold War. From the late 1940s through the 1980s, the conflict between these two superpowers shaped global politics and determined the priorities of each nation state. Space exploration became a central means through which the United States and the Soviet Union sought to demonstrate national strength and superiority. As was true of the nuclear arms race, technological advances central to the space race – such as rockets, satellites, space stations, and space transportation systems – were considered military assets that contributed to national security. In the early years of the space race, the Soviet Union was soundly out front, with early victories such as the 1957 launch of the satellite Sputnik 1 and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbit of the earth in 1961. In response to Sputnik, the U.S. government established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to advance the American space program. Sputnik also compelled Congress – with strong encouragement from President Eisenhower – to pass the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which provided student loans for the study of math, science, and languages in college, and marked the first time the federal government directly funded higher education.
In the 1960s, NASA’s Mercury, Saturn, Gemini, and Apollo programs culminated in the United States landing the first man on the moon in 1969 – a decisive Cold War victory. Following the moon landing, NASA began developing the space shuttle program, an initiative organized around reusable space transportation vehicles that could carry people and cargo into space. During the same period, the Soviet Union became increasingly handicapped as a contestant in the space race because the cost of space exploration and the arms race was crippling to the Soviet economy. Ultimately, in 1991, the United States won the space race by default, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. However, the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia space shuttle disasters, which killed 14 astronauts, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe, and resulted in the loss of billions of dollars, led the American public to question the value of NASA and space exploration.