At the end of World War II, the US Government's Operation Paperclip plucked rocket scientists from Germany and brought them to the U.S. to work on military weapons. Most famous among these scientists was Wernher von Braun.

Given this, why did Russia get the first artificial earth satellite (Sputnik), the first animals to successful orbit the earth (Belka and Strelka), the first probe to reach the moon (Luna 2, September 14, 1959), the first photographs of the far side of the moon (Luna 3), the first soft landing on the moon (Luna 9, 1966), the first unmanned craft to return soil samples from the moon (Luna 16, 1970).

(I only discovered the Luna accomplishments in writing this, as they were surprisingly absent from my US education. These facts come from this article on history.com.)

Given that the U.S. was ahead of the initial space race with the experiments of Goddard at Roswell, and given that the U.S. picked up talent from Germany, how is it that the Soviet Union was able to out-pace the US in all of these major space-race accomplishments? Did the US squander its lead?

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    The Russians likewise "plucked rocket scientists from Germany and brought them [home] to work on military weapons." Once Kennedy made the space program a priority, the U.S. quickly surpassed the Soviet achievements. So what "squandering"? – Pieter Geerkens Feb 27 at 14:14
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    After the war, the US had an overwhelming lead in bombers, as well as bases close to Russia, so had no immediate need for rockets as a nuclear weapon delivery system. The Soviets, on the other hand, needed to develop ICBMs if they wanted the ability to strike the American homeland. Once they achieved that ability, the Americans rapidly followed suit. – John Coleman Feb 27 at 17:46
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    Command economies are always able to direct resources towards a goal more effectively than capitalist economies. (Capitalist economies make more efficient use of resources and generate higher returns, but are less effective at directing resources towards a controlled goal). – Mark C. Wallace Feb 27 at 18:24
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    I like how you mention Sputnik, Belka and Strelka, and Luna 2, but not Yuri Gagarin! I think sending Gagarin into orbit was the biggest achievement in the Soviet space program, was it not? – Aleksei Petrenko Feb 28 at 14:56
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    'It shows that our German scientists are better than their German scientists': Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86, Control. – user207421 Mar 1 at 4:11

It did so, but only initially. Over the long term, it fell behind in most areas, and once the USA was first on the Moon the space race was over with the USA the victor.

Rewind back to the beginning of the 1950s. The Cold War had just started, both the USA and USSR had lots of nukes, but the USA had a massive advantage because its bases in Europe allowed its bombers to deliver those nukes directly to the USSR. In contrast, the USSR could not hit the USA in any way shape or form - so if nuclear war came, the USA would be completely safe.

This gross imbalance in the power dynamic spurred the USSR to order their scientists to focus on technologies to project power, which led to the successful deployment of the R-7 ICBM by 1957. That same year, Sputnik was launched into space on an R-7; the first human spaceflight took place via a Vostok rocket which was a derivative of R-7; and indeed today's Soyuz launch vehicle is itself a heavily modified derivative of the R-7. The Soviets benefited from the advantages of a command economy, as well as a completely centralized and controlled program: there was only one rocket project, and all focus was placed on making it into something highly capable, which translated into both military and civilian use.

The USA, being on the "good" end of the power projection imbalance, had little or no incentive to invest in rocket technology; they instead poured R&D into their Air Force's traditional fighters and bombers. This changed once the USSR demonstrated their own hydrogen bomb, but the USA was behind the USSR, and their first operational ICBM was only available in 1959. This was primarily due to infighting, poor allocation of resources, and duplication of work within the highly fragmented and territorial branches of the US armed forces; there was no unified goal of a single capable rocket, just various very experimental programs, most of which were inherently unsuitable for human spaceflight.

Essentially, by 1957 the USSR had a functioning, powerful human-capable launch vehicle and a single unified vision of what to do with it and how it could be used, while the USA was still trying to figure out who should be responsible for rockets and what capabilities they should have. This culminated with the USSR's successful, and unexpected (by the West) launch of Sputnik in 1957, while the USA's first attempt to launch a satellite that same year (the Vanguard program) exploded on liftoff.

But in 1958, two important things changed for the USA:

  • The public, and hence politicians, made it clear that spaceflight was something that should be focused on. Equally, it was recognized that the military had little interest in this area, and that leaving spaceflight up to them was unlikely to provide the desired results. The result was the founding of NASA, which was essentially handed a blank cheque to outpace the USSR.
  • Werner von Braun (you may know him) and his team finalised work on the first version of a heavy-lift rocket designed to get people into space - the incredibly successful Saturn series.

This singular focus on human spaceflight, combined with a powerful, reliable, and extensible human-capable rocket, now laid the groundwork for the USA to surpass the USSR. Mercury brought both nations to rough parity in terms of human spaceflight, its successor Gemini pushed the USA slightly ahead while pioneering technologies that would be required by the program to put humans on the moon, and finally that program - Apollo - succeeded in its goal.

It was now the Soviets' turn to fall behind. The R-7 was capable of putting humans in Earth orbit, but lacked the payload capability for a moon landing. A new rocket was required, the infamous N1, which had an incredibly lengthy and troubled development that included personality clashes between the top rocket scientists in the USSR, as well as the death of the man primarily responsible for its development. By the time the USA succeeded in putting humans on the moon in 1969, the N1 had not had a successful launch after 2 attempts, and was ultimately cancelled in 1974.

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    Good analysis, clearly expressed; would be stronger with supporting references, but thank you and welcome to the site. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 2 at 15:21
  • Really good. Great answer! – vy32 Mar 2 at 15:36
  • Equally, it was recognized that the military had little interest in this area, and that leaving spaceflight up to them was unlikely to provide the desired results. The result was the founding of NASA This isn't true. The US Army and US Navy actually fought each other for priority in rockets. US Army already had their Redstone program (of which von Braun was a designer and advocate) and US Navy already had their vanguard program. Idk why Eisenhower (former Army General) gave more priority to the Navy's Vanguard, but it failed so that let the Redstone thing go ahead. – DrZ214 Mar 2 at 15:55
  • (continued) NASA was in fact founded as a civilian entity because the military would continue fighting. Eisenhower was big on civilian control. Remember his farewell address warning about the MIC? Also, sorry i dont have direct sources yet for all of this. Ive read many books about space history, including Assif Siddiqi's 2 volume work Challenge to Apollo. I really wanna write my own answer to the OP but it will take time to do it right. Btw here's one piece of trivia u might find interesting: How many launch failures did US have before Explorer 1? The answer is...1, only 1: Vanguard TV-3. – DrZ214 Mar 2 at 15:58
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    As another small correction, R7 was never operationally deployed. The first soviet ICBM on operational service was R-7A in 1959, after Atlas was operationally deployed. (And even then R-7A were really more of "proof of concept" given its response time.) So, SU never really had any advantage in the deployed ICBM. – Kostya_I Mar 2 at 17:47

It was more of a back-and-forth.

You can build a narrative of one side out-pacing the other if you cherry-pick firsts, but their capabilities were very close. The timeline of first achievements is interleaved. Firsts grab headlines and demonstrate national priorities, but they don't show capability well.

The other side would often accomplish something similar only months later showing only very narrow capability gaps. For example, R-7 was the first successful ICBM and basis for the Soviet space program, the US had success with Atlas A less than a year later. Vostok-1, first human space flight and (just barely) first orbit, was followed a month later by Freedom 7 (first pilot controlled flight) and a year later by Friendship 7. Luna 9, first soft landing on the Moon, was followed a few months later by Surveyor 1.

They also both had very high failure rates. The Luna program had five failures (not made public at the time) before its first unmitigated success (Luna-2), meanwhile the US was losing Pioneer probes. The Luna program had a 35% success rate compared to 60% for equivalent US programs (the exact numbers depend on exactly how you count success).

Several of these firsts had close-calls which could have turned them into another failure. Vostok-1 had a partial separation failure on reentry. Gus Grisson almost drowned. Voskhod 2, the first spacewalk, had a suit malfunction.

However some areas did show a clear edge, for example imaging was dominated by the US because they wanted spy satellites. And one thing is clear, the US consistently made more orbital and deep space launches with a greater diversity of launch vehicles.

The civilian space race started when both the US and Soviets in 1955 announced they would launch satellites to celebrate the International Geophysical Year in 1958.

Prior to the start of the civilian space race in 1955, both nations were working on ICBMs. The Soviets built their successful R-7. They would focus their efforts on the R-7 eventually creating Molniya, and the wildly successful Vostok and Soyuz rocket families. This allowed the Soviets to focus their efforts, but also put most of their eggs into one basket.

In the US, rocket development became a turf war between the Army and the new Air Force (formerly the Army Air Force) with the Army focusing on tactical rockets, the Air Force on strategic rockets, and both sniping at each other to get funding.

The US was concerned with the optics of using a military rocket to launch civilian satellites, and that adding a civilian program to a top-priority military rocket might slow down its development. Military involvement would heighten then unresolved legal issues about overlying another country with a satellite.

The result was several families of launch vehicles being developed simultaneously by several different organizations. Slower to get started, but more robust. The Army's Redstone and variants Jupiter and Juno. The Air Force's Atlas. The Navy Research Laboratory's Viking sounding rocket was turned into the orbital launch vehicle Vanguard. Plus Thor which became Delta.

While the Soviets captured early firsts, the US was not particularly behind. Sputnik 1 was launched in October 1957, an 84 kg sphere that beeped, the simplest satellite. Sputnik 2 launched in November 1957 and was significantly more capable featuring telemetry, a Geiger counter, spectrophotometers, a dog life support (which unfortunately failed), and a TV camera. Meanwhile in the US Vanguard 1A failed in December 1957.

1958 would see the US rapidly catching up. 1958 saw 5 orbital launch attempts by the Soviets all with the R-7, and only one success: Sputnik 3 carrying numerous instruments.

The US had 23 launches across 6 rocket types with 5 successes and 2 partial failures.

  • Explorer 1 put the first US satellite in orbit to catch up with the Soviets.
  • Vanguard 1 was the first to use solar power.
  • Explorer 3, same as Explorer 1.
  • Explorer 4 studied the radiation belts.
  • Pioneer 1 was an attempt to orbit the Moon, but failed to achieve lunar orbit. It had multiple instruments and was used to test communication relays.
  • Pioneer 3 was intended to reach the Moon and then go into solar orbit, but it failed to reach the Moon instead being used to study the radiation belts.
  • SCORE tested satellite communication relay broadcasting a recorded Christmas message go beyond Sputnik's beeps.

1959 would see just two Soviet orbital and deep space successes and one partial with Luna 1, 2, and 3 all with an R-7 derivative. The US had successful/partial Vanguard, Discoverer/Corona, Explorer, and Pioneer launches.

1960 would see just three Soviet orbital successes, all Vostok test flights. The US had 16 successful orbital and deep space flights.

The space race would go on like this with the US outpacing the Soviets in number of orbital launch attempts and successes, and with a larger diversity of launch vehicles.

To be clear, I'm not saying the US was "ahead". I'm rejecting the view of 1955-1970 as a linear race to put a person on the Moon measured only by cherry-picked firsts and offering a broader view. If there's a US tilt to this answer its because I'm more familiar with the US space program.

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    This answer essentially just shuffles around goalposts to make Americans look better without actually explaining why did the US lag behind on achievements that Soviets achieved first. It's reiterating propaganda, not answering the question and ignores the whole timeline where US space program languished into obscurity while Soyuz continued to be the space delivery vehicle of choice. – Mavrik Feb 28 at 14:58
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    @Mavrik As in the answer, the Soviets focused on a single launch vehicle while the US had numerous vehicles developed by numerous agencies. The OP is cherry picking events, people tend to focus on the Moon race and firsts rather than building capability; the timeline of firsts is much more interleaved and the capability gaps are narrow. For example, the US focused on imaging. As for post-shuttle era Soyuz, that's 21st century and focused on manned flight. – Schwern Feb 28 at 18:34
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    @Mavrik To be clear, I'm rejecting the ahead/behind dichotomy in the question. I'm not moving the goalposts, I'm pointing out one can choose many goalposts. We don't have to look at the space race through the lens of the 60s cold war anymore. – Schwern Feb 28 at 18:40
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    @Mavrik The post-shuttle era is a good example. If you focus on manned flight it seems like the US was falling behind, but their robotic spaceflight program was doing great. The US decided robots were more efficient and left manned space flight to private industry. Meanwhile, they could purchase manned flights to the ISS from the Russians who were doing it just fine. It's not a race anymore, it's a collaboration. – Schwern Feb 28 at 19:39
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    I think that it's useful that @Schwern put the question in context, and I agree that progress shouldn't be measured on a linear scale. But it certainly seems like "first to orbit" is a major accomplishment, as was "first person in space and successfully returned." – vy32 Feb 28 at 23:40

I think the premise of the question - that the US ought to have a technological superiority over the USSR, as it did in other areas - is quite sensible here, so I will address the Soviet side of the story.

  • for some context, Soviet Russia happened to have it own vast talent in STEM (as witnessed e. g. by Nobel prizes to Tamm-Frank-Cherenkov and Landau), and an ability to concentrate this talent on things that were deemed important, sometimes taking extreme forms. The reasons for that is in part the legacy of old Russia, which was preserved and fostered in the early Soviet years. For example, Landau, then a young theoretical physicists, got funded research visits to Copenhagen and Cambridge when traveling abroad was our of bounds for most citizens. Later, STEM careers attracted a lot of talent, since business/finance/law alternatives promised much less than in the West, and also STEM elites were much less affected by Stalin's purges compared to other elites (although Landau and future space program head Korolev served prison time).
  • in rocket propulsion, Russia had its own early pioneers, including theoreticians like Tsiolkovsky and Zander. Also, Korolev himself started experiments with rockets in 1932, approximately at the same time as von Braun, and worked on it until his arrest in 1938, at some point heading a research institute dedicated to this topic.
  • one should not overestimate the value of von Braun and the V-2. First, it was a rocket based on the 1944 technology, and 1957 was ages apart relative to the speed of technological development at the time; new breakthroughs often require new people. Soviet Union also got hand on samples of V-2 and captured some scientists, and successfully replicated V-2 by 1950. One could compare the history of the atomic project; the first Soviet nuclear bomb was made in 1949 by copying Fat Boy's design obtained by intelligence, but by that time, the Soviets were already working on their own know-how, and in 1955, they actually were the first to test a combat-ready megaton hydrogen bomb. A similar story happened with strategic bombers, with B-29 replicated by 1947, but a much superior Tu-95 has seen the first flight in 1952 and entered mass production in 1956, it was so good that it's still in service.
  • the amount of state effort concentrated on both the atomic and the missile projects in the Soviet Union was ridiculous. As one measure, while the Manhattan project was overseen by major general Leslie Groves, in the Soviet atomic project a similar role is attributed to Beria, the most powerful person in the USSR after Stalin. The head of Soviet army artillery marechal Nedelin personally oversaw many nuclear and missile tests and actually died in a missile test failure. BTW, contrary to the belief that R-7 of Korolev and its derivatives was the only Russian ICBR/space launcher project, that one was R-16 of Mihail Yangel, a simultameous, parallel and competing project. So, the budget and resources were really unlimited.
  • just to reiterate, the ability of the atomic and missile projects to attract talent was enormous. Those in leading roles would be made academicians, the main accolade for a scientist in USSR involving lifetime salary and a lot of privileges, would get Lenin prize, the highest decoration of the state - the star of Hero of Socialist Labor and all in all would be about as rich and privileged as one could be in the Soviet Union, oftentimes a part of Nomeklatura.
  • the reason the rocket project was deemed so important was, of course, already indicated - before Tu-95 that was the only viable way of striking the continental US with nuclear weapons, and thus achieving nuclear parity. It was a requirement to be able to carry the above-mentioned megaton charges, hence the effort was concentrated on quite heavy rockets from the start.
  • This is interesting. Thank you for contributing it! I really enjoyed reading it. – vy32 Mar 2 at 2:00

Your question is based on a misconception, which is that there was any sort of "space race" before the Soviets launched Sputnik. The US had some fairly low budget research programs, such as Project Vanguard: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Vanguard Unlike the Soviet programs, they were regarded as purely scientific*, and so did not use ICBMs as launch vehicles.

*There were also separate secret military programs to develop spy satellites, under the aegis of the military.

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    You can see targets of hyperlinks by hovering the links and looking at browser's status bar. This works in Chromium and Firefox; I suppose other browsers also have this feature. Not on mobile though (where you can't simply hover). – Ruslan Feb 28 at 20:32
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    @Ruslan: On mobile (FF at least, didn't check others), you can long-tap on a link to get a menu which includes the link target itself in the header. – Heinzi Mar 1 at 11:36
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    @jamesqf Also because of the markup used even if you see a URL here what you see is not necessarily what you go to (I agree that it is a bad design) e.g. http://www.google.com takes you back here – mmmmmm Mar 1 at 15:19
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    Well, that's way the Internet works: lots of hyperlinks everywhere (not only SE, not only via Markdown). It's just a good habit to look where a link leads to before actually clicking it. – Ruslan Mar 1 at 17:03
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    @jamesqf - Allow them to do as they did before. This is how links are supposed to work on the web, from day one. There's no need to change it after so many decades, it has been working just fine. – Gábor Mar 1 at 21:27

Here is something from a New York Times article January 13, 1920

That professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution [from which Goddard held a grant to research rocket flight], does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” (secondary citation)

That article started a trend which caused no end of long term trouble for Goddard's research. It wasn't the bad science of the article which caused the most damage. It was that a major reputable news source so ridiculed the research. Other newspapers joined in citing complaints of safety, noise, or that a person's body could not function in space. Rocket research became something of fiction to be laughed at in real life.

That turned around during World War Two when German rockets got a lot of attention. German scientists were brought to America where they tested captured V2 rockets. They became a political hot potato when one of those rockets went off course and hit a cemetery in Mexico. The Soviet Union seeing that American bombers were so far ahead of them saw American weakness in missiles and took the next step big time.

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    We have another question here somewhere about this quote. It turns out that at the time there were a rather lot of people (generally non-experts) who were quite certain that rockets can't thrust in space, and quite vocal (and condescending) about it. Experts in rocketry and space knew better, but there are far fewer such people, and they generally aren't media experts as well. Its a phenomena we here in the COVID era are sadly rather familiar with. – T.E.D. Feb 27 at 20:46
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    @T.E.D. This question is probably what you're thinking of: space.stackexchange.com/questions/38022/… – user3153372 Feb 28 at 10:11
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    Doesn't clearly answer the question, although the V2 hit in Mexico was something I had never heard about. It is amazing how much force was in the impact even without a warhead (elpasotimes.com/story/news/history/blogs/tales-from-the-morgue/…). – John Coleman Feb 28 at 21:46
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    I don't know why people downvoted this; I found it really interesting. – vy32 Feb 28 at 23:28

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