Today I visited again the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, a space flight history museum, and noticed for the first time the claim that part of John F. Kennedy's motivation for pushing for a manned moon-landing by 1970 was an attempt to get Russia (and perhaps the U.S. as well?) to focus research and financial energies on a peaceful space race rather than a potentially devastating nuclear arms race.

To what extent is it possible to know how successful this objective was?

Clearly the cold war never got hot (ignoring the proxy wars that were fought), but would the outcome have likely been different sans-space-race?

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    Perhaps he was distracting not Russians but the American military and aerospace companies that wanted state contracts anyway, but could equally well be satisfied with military as well as space spendings?
    – Anixx
    May 4, 2012 at 3:29
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    The USSR did have a lunar landing program: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_manned_lunar_programs It ended in catastrophic failures that the Soviets covered up for decades.
    – jfrankcarr
    May 4, 2012 at 11:18
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    USA was very visibly behind in the short run, so they looked for a way to turn it into a marathon. Jul 2, 2019 at 8:19
  • @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen: Sure, but that doesn't address the question.
    – Flimzy
    Jul 2, 2019 at 9:36

4 Answers 4


The outcome of the Cold War would likely not have been different if the "Space Race" did not occur. To answer your question, the space race played a small role in the outcome of the Cold War.

The result of the Cold War was largely due to the inability of the USSR economy to ever takeoff. The failure of the Five Year Plans, the constant need to try and bridge the "Missile Gap" between the USSR and the US (the US always had the lead), and ultimately the corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy that permeated the USSR.

It seems reasonable to conclude that the goal of using the space race to win the Cold War was not very successful, because there were other more immediate factors hampering the USSR.

  • Interesting, and concise analysis. Thank you.
    – Flimzy
    Jun 27, 2012 at 4:08
  • Your claims regarding the Soviet economy need revision. They're inaccurate regarding quantitative output capacities, the chief goals of the earlier five year plans. You could improve your answer by looking at the problem of the transition to quality. Sep 12, 2012 at 21:46
  • @SamuelRussell can you suggest any sources?
    – ihtkwot
    Sep 18, 2012 at 0:15
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… cites Filtzer, Donald (1992). Soviet Workers and de-Stalinization. which gives the standard labour productivity argument, also found in Miklos Haraszti's A worker in a worker's state. Any serious analysis of the 1950s and 1960s economic crises in the Soviet Bloc will suffice here. The Soviet economies were fine at growing while there was latent and untapped labour capacity, but faced resistance to work intensification, and high degrees of resistance to job redesign and reduction of rejected product rates. Sep 18, 2012 at 1:07
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    The only one playing the "missile gap" were the US who always were behind in numbers, though until the end ahead in technology (now of course, they're behind in both numbers and technology, with the USSR/Russia deploying dozens of new missiles of new designs every year where the US is decommissioning their now 40 year old missiles which are no longer reliable).
    – jwenting
    Aug 16, 2013 at 5:14

Personally I think that's a rather backwards way of looking at things.

One of the main points about the big multistage missiles required to launch things into space is that you need pretty much the same capability to be able to launch things at another country tens of thousands of miles away. So a large part of the space race was always showing the other side that you could destroy them, but doing it in a way that isn't overtly bellicose and can't really be complained about publicly.

This is part of why NASA has been hemoraging support (and funding) ever since the Cold War ended. It just doesn't seem to have a point anymore. Clinton tried in the 90's to redirect NASA's mission to promoting international cooperation and understanding instead, but that's a tougher sell for funding.

However, you can still see this phenomnon today in the little mini space race that China and India appear to be engaged in. Again, its just a proxy for saying "we now have ICBMs that can reach your major cities".

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    That argument makes sense for space craft that orbit Earth, but beyond that, the things necessary for a moon landing (dockable spacecraft, space walks, life support systems, and all that is necessary to land and take off from the moon) have nothing to do with ICBMs. I think the point the museum was making was that JFK was trying to push these other goals, that have no (direct) military application.
    – Flimzy
    May 4, 2012 at 16:25
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    If moon landing was relevant to ICBM technology, then the Russians wouldn't have abandoned their moon landing effort once the U.S. accomplished it, but would have re-doubled their efforts to prove catch up on the military front.
    – Flimzy
    May 4, 2012 at 16:30
  • @Flimzy - Yours is a good point. The museum's I think not so much.
    – T.E.D.
    May 4, 2012 at 17:49
  • the Soviets accomplished all the technical goals for a moon landing, only thing they couldn't get to work was the N1 rocket to put it all up into orbit, a rocket too big for military use. They did however gain important knowledge that was later used to build entire new generations of ICBMs and SLBMs far surpassing what the USA has (especially since the cancellation of Peacekeeper and Midgetman).
    – jwenting
    Aug 16, 2013 at 5:17

Manned exploration of the Moon has an aspect that is now seldom remembered, but was pretty obvious at the time. Both sides prospected for a permanent Moon presence, soon followed by a populous, self-sufficient Moon colony. Repeating the "New World" scenario.

I don't think such colony would remain non-military (i.e. civilian), but surely expansion into an empty territory is a less destructive (hence more peaceful) goal than destruction of entire life on all its territories (mutual assured destruction). Every penny spent on X means one less penny to spend on Y.

As of now, the Moon race failed to achieve the objective (permanent Moon presence), so there are no practical gains for U.S., or for human race as a whole. These efforts did not paid off... yet. The only things we've earned is some knowledge and some technology that would come handy when we re-attempt space colonization. Well, we can go into how the present use of this bit of technology distributes between "peaceful" and "destructive", but anyway the practical impact is a very small side-effect.

Again, as of now, the effort put into Moon race is nearly useless for our civilization (in practice), but it would be of enormous benefit if we'd finally decide to go and colonize the space.

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    You need to supply a citation supporting the statement that the purpose of manned exploration of the moon was colonization; to my knowledge there was no such stated purpose, although certainly many visionaries wished it were so.
    – Bryce
    Sep 15, 2012 at 1:16
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    Also, the statement that the effort put into the Moon race was useless for our civilization is arguable. Satellite communications was an offshoot of the space program which has had undeniable effects on civilization the past 50 years.
    – Bryce
    Sep 15, 2012 at 1:19
  • I see some sources re. US prospects on Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonization_of_the_Moon, but no sources for Soviet prospects.
    – kubanczyk
    Oct 3, 2012 at 13:39
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    the only reason for the US government to go to the moon was political, the science was an excuse to get more budget. Which is sad as had science and economics been the reason we'd still be there.
    – jwenting
    Aug 16, 2013 at 5:15

I believe others have greatly underestimated the extent to which the Arms Race, and the Space Race, bankrupted the USSR by forcing it to spend an ever greater proportion of its scarce GDP on military technology.

Then the Afghan War revealed that the emperor had no clothes, while simultaneously Reagan's Star Wars threat pumped up the pressure again. I believe the USSR, underachieving economy and all, could have limped along much longer without that both of these events happened at the same time.

P.S. Don't get me wrong; I have problems with many of Reagan's policies, and I firmly believe that he ventured Star Wars actually believing it might work, and with only a partial notion of it's economic effect on the Soviets. None-the-less, the effect, at least when combined with the Afghan War, was catastrophic. Unrest at home and in the Eastern European colonies became overwhelming, and the Wall tumbled down. In this sense, one must concede that Star Wars was a great success.

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