The Space Race: A Giant Leap for Mankind

By Jack Ripley | March 22, 2024

Neil Armstrong stands in front of the X-15 rocket plane in 1959

After World War II, tensions rose between the US and the Soviet Union, which led to a nuclear arms race. This led to the two superpowers investing a lot of time and energy into the development of rocket technology, and this led to the Space Race, which began when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. This satellite was launched in 1957, and it sent a radio signal back to Earth that could be detected around the world. The United States launched Explorer 1 approximately a year after the launch of Sputnik, making shockwaves as well as important contributions to science.

Before the world knew what hit it, the two nations engaged in a race to put a man in space. The Space Race ultimately led to the US sending a man to the moon, and there were several manned missions to the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. These missions to the cosmos allowed humanity to learn a tremendous amount about outer space and our nearest celestial neighbor, the moon. Strap in as we take a look at how the Space Race paved the way for the world we live in today.


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NASA on The Commons/Flickr

Neil Armstrong was one of the first Americans to fly an experimental aircraft known as the X-15, which was designed to reach the boundary of space. This aircraft was created through a collaboration between the Air Force and NASA. In fact, this early rocket-powered aircraft could reach altitudes that exceed the lower boundary of space (approximately 62 miles). This test aircraft was capable of reaching speeds of more than Mach 5 or more than 5 times the speed of sound. Pilots that exceeded an altitude of 50 miles with the aircraft received astronaut wings.

These early test flights provided important data about the physics of spaceflight, which played a critical role in ensuring that astronauts were able to safely travel to a high enough altitude to achieve an orbit. The first X-15 flight to reach the boundary of outer space was on May 12, 1960. Neil Armstrong flew several X-15 flights, including one where he reached an altitude of approximately 140,000 feet.

Before exploring space, NASA pilots prepared for the experience by flying high-altitude aircrafts

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NASA on The Commons/Flickr

NASA began to prepare for spaceflight by flying aircraft to high altitudes, such as the B-52. These flights would simulate some of the conditions that pilots would encounter during spaceflight, such as strong G-forces. However, the altitudes that these planes flew at were still well within Earth's atmosphere.

In addition, pilots often had to carry supplemental oxygen on these extraordinary test flights. Some examples of aircraft that were used for these test flights were B-52s, the X-15, SR-71s and the XB-70 Valkyrie.