The Space Race That Wasn’t

The International Geophysical Year


For many Americans, the technological leaps made during the Cold War have become synonymous with the Space Race. It’s logical, and can’t be said to be entirely unexpected; most Americans have been trained to think of mid-century space programs almost exclusively as a battle between two superpowers, the definitive contest of intellectual prowess that defined the era. (Un)Surprisingly, however, the actual story is not quite as simple as that narrative might have you believe. Many nations other than the Soviet Union and the United States contributed to scientific breakthroughs during the Cold War, and other definitive events spurred intellectual inquiry and advancement. The Soviet Union and the United States weren’t even exclusively competitors. An almost forgotten effort called the International Geophysical Year took place in a spirit of joint contribution and involved collaborations among participating parties from around the entire globe. This project spurned the Space Race that now typically eclipses the memory of the event. And more importantly, it was the Soviets pulling out of this agreement that ultimately lead to their losing of the Space Race.

The IGY was an event coordinated by the International Council of Scientific Unions (an organization that has since become the International Council of Science), planning for which started in the months following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. During his time in power, Uncle Joe’s steel fist had stifled the exchange of ideas between the East and West, an exchange that had previously occurred before his rise to power. The original plan for the event had been conceived prior to his death but proved impossible with current geopolitical relations. However, with Stalin out of the way, plans were set in motion to reinvigorate the previously healthy relationships the East and West once shared. Timing was paramount  since the scientists in charge were hoping to align their concentrated efforts with the peak of the current solar cycle. So, naturally, they followed in the spirit of “The International Polar Years,” an international research initiative focused on the arctic, which had last occurred in 1923. After four years of hard work, the eighteen-month period officially kicked off in July of 1957.1

While the US and USSR could indeed be considered important members, it would be remiss not to mention just how large the scope of this endeavor was. Over 65 states participated, spread across all inhabited continents. Scientific collaboration crossed ethnic, religious, and cultural divides. Almost every technologically advanced nation that was able to participate did so, to the betterment of the project. The most notably absent figure, however, was China, which sat out in response to the participation of Taiwan. Space historian David H. Devorkin notes in his retrospective look on the IGY that there was a collective feeling of optimism shared among the many nations, but especially those within the US and USSR.2

UCLA physics professor Joseph Kaplan was elected chairman of the US National Committee for the IGY, and his writing succinctly captures the hopes and goals for the unprecedented scientific effort. In his writings published in the fall before the IGY, during the final stages of its planning, he talks about the previous, smaller-scale efforts and the promise of this new global initiative. Notably, he mentions that one of the greatest outcomes of the Second International Polar Year was increased the knowledge about the ionosphere, which then allowed for the development of long-range radio technology, a technology with  applications including communication and navigation. The list of planned projects and accomplishments was long and ambitious, the most notable involving collaborations across fields and continents. For the first time, researchers would have the ability to effectively study the sun’s radiation, geomagnetism, seismology, and gravity, as well as the ionosphere, upper atmosphere rocketry, and satellite studies. His hopes for progress could be described succinctly as “through the roof.”3

The writings before the IGY cover a broad range of scientific fields, but, unsurprisingly, the texts during and after focus almost exclusively on space. Some significant discoveries and initiatives were made in the span during the IGY. On Earth, scientists were able to discover the Van Allen Belts, the magnetic field surrounding the earth that emanates from the poles. The deep sea trenches that divide the tectonic plates were found, at last confirming the continental drift theory.4 The effects of the auroras were identified, along with the dangers of the cosmic radiation that causes them. For the first time, the world was able to be precision mapped, and accurate coordinates of latitude and longitude were assigned to all relevant places on earth, paving the way for the maps we use today. What could be considered the most practical of the discoveries to the average individual might be the improvement of Doppler technologies for weather forecasting, improving the accuracy of reports worldwide.5

Of course, all of this was overshadowed because of a little event on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into space. Initially announced as part of the IGY early in 1957, both the United States and the Soviet Union had committed to launching satellites in the coming months. In September, scientific leaders from the United States, Soviet Union, Australia, Britain, Canada, France, and Japan had all met and agreed to work towards launching satellites with non-military equipment.6

This agreement was broken, of course, with the launch of Sputnik, one month later. Situated on top of an R-7 ballistic missile, Sputnik was the Soviet Union’s gambit to overpower the United States in nuclear warhead capabilities. But why did the Soviet Union break the agreement and use its military might for a scientific challenge? Quite simply, the Soviets were scared. Their warhead program wasn’t working out, and the United States had announced its intention to launch a satellite early in the coming year. At the time, the Soviet Union simply did not have the capability to match the United States in a military capacity. But they needed a win, one for themselves and not one shared throughout the world. Despite the warhead project’s failure as a system to deliver the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal early in 1956, there was a usable takeaway: The Soviets had designed a massive rocket, the most powerful yet seen on Earth, which could be used to launch non-nuclear payloads into space. Repurposing the missile for a scientific triumph would keep the Soviet Union relevant on the global stage. It was almost the only thing they could do, after backing out of their IGY involvement informally with the launch of Sputnik.7

To many in the United States, it was a shock that the Soviet Union had seemingly overtaken the United States, technologically speaking. In reality, the Soviet Union had passed the United States, but only by a little bit and in a way that was not at all shocking to those in power. An archived Eisenhower document reveals that the United States had been keeping tabs on the Soviet space program since the 1950s, and his administration was very aware of and prepared for the launch in October. To some extent, it was a relief (though a bit of a setback) to the US Government that Soviets had launched their satellite first, as it set a precedent of being uninhibited by national borders back on Earth, as well as one of secrecy wherein states withheld some information from the public and each other for their own benefit.8 As such, the United States would still be able to launch its satellite as part of the IGY, and in doing so, would still serve its own interests in competing with the Soviets.9

In a way, the way both sides entered the Space Race behind the scenes determined exactly how each party would end. Despite the outward appearance of sheer Soviet dominance from the beginning of the Space Race, their space program was mostly a series of rushed projects and deadlines, perceived reactionary measures, and utter failures of oversight. The second Soviet satellite in space, Sputnik II, carried the first living creature, a dog named Laika, into space. However, since it was rushed to launch in time for an anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the proper safety measures were mostly ignored. Despite public reports being that Laika was euthanized by poisoned food after a week in space, in reality, she died from heat exhaustion after a few hours in orbit.10 Yuri Gagarin might have been the first human in space, orbiting the Earth in 1961, but that hardly means he was the first human that the Soviets attempted to put into space. Later reports leaked out that at least four other cosmonauts died in “unofficial” launches to get him there, with Soviets going as far as to airbrush the men who died out of official photos, acting as if they never existed.11 Pushing forward in a manner that could be considered reckless, the Soviet design and engineering faltered to increasingly more pitiful extents, with repeated failed launches eroding Soviet pride and destroying everything the program had symbolized and had striven to achieve. By the time that the United States had landed on the moon, the Soviets were trying to plan three-year missions to Mars, despite having no way to feasibly send men on a journey that long, just to save face internationally. Quite simply, due to the program’s secrecy and a lack of accurate vision at the head, the program became less and less relevant. Some lament that had the Soviet Union been more cooperative on an international scale, they might have kept pace with the United States, and the two nations might have worked jointly on a mission to the moon or Mars.12

Many think the Space Race ended when the US Apollo Program landed on the moon landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, but some suggest the real ending occurred six years later, in July 1975. A joint project, in which a Soviet Soyuz (the Soviet equivalent to the Apollo program) and a US Apollo capsule docked with each other in orbit, represented a successful culmination of the efforts of President Nixon and Secretary Brezhnev. This return to collaboration and spirit of collective progress signalled the end of the aggression and a return to the more cooperative spirits from the era of the IGY.13

Collaboration and cooperation have repeatedly proven themselves throughout history to be more useful to human development than any other mode of work. The myth of conflict driving innovation is always an easy one to fall back on, and while it might seem accurate, humanity benefited more from the outcomes of the various projects under the collaborative IGY umbrella. Instead of a staunch face-off between two superpowers vying for technological superiority, the period instead started and ended with a combined effort of multiple groups, not even exclusively the Soviet Union and the United States. In fact, had the Soviet Union not backed out of previously made agreements, it might have fared better all in all, and fewer lives might have been lost under its space program. Remarkably, the popular narrative of the Space Race barely reflects the missed opportunities after the Soviet Union and United States eschewed collaboration. Instead, the history as it is commonly told encourages the tribalism and seclusion that many characterize the Cold War with today. Personally, I believe the international idealism exemplified during the IGY offers an important model for all of our nations today, as we face increasing amounts of xenophobia and isolationism. The world simply works better when it’s working together.

  1. ATERMan, Alan T.. 1956. “The International Geophysical Year.” American Scientist 44 (2). Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society: 130–33.
  2. Launius, Roger D., James Rodger. Fleming, and David H. DeVorkin. Globalizing Polar Science Reconsidering the International Polar and Geophysical Years. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  3. Kaplan, Joseph. 1956. “The International Geophysical Year.” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 68 (404). University of Chicago Press, Astronomical Society of the Pacific: 381–383.
  4. Fraser, Ronald. (1957). Once Round the Sun: The Story of the International Geophysical Year, 1957-58.  London, England: Hodder and Stroughton Limited
  5. Martin, D. C.. 1958. “The International Geophysical Year”. The Geographical Journal 124 (1). Wiley, Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers): 18–29. doi:10.2307/1790562.
  6. “The Space Race Begins.” NOAA 200th Celebration. July 19, 2012.
  7. Isachenkov, Vladimir. “Secrets of 1957 Sputnik Launch Revealed.” USA Today. October 1, 2007.
  8. Foerstel, Herbert N. Toxic Mix?: A Handbook of Science and Politics. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010. 27-32.
  9. DDE’s Records as President, Official File, Box 625, OF 146-F-2 Outer Space, Earth-Circling Satellites (1); NAID #12060491
  10. John Rhea, Roads to Space: An Oral History of the Soviet Space Program, Aviation Week Group, 1995, ISBN 0076070956
  11. “Oberth Believes Astronauts Lost.” Gadsden Times, December 14, 1959.
  12. “REMEMBERING THE SOVIET SPACE AGE: Myth and Identity in Post-Soviet Culture”. 2015. In Soviet Space Mythologies: Public Images, Private Memories, and the Making of a Cultural Identity, 155–70. University of Pittsburgh Press.
  13. Parry, Dan. Moonshot: The inside Story of Mankind’s Greatest Adventure. London?: Ebury Press, 2009.