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Space Race

The Space Race refers to the 20th-century competition between two Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (US), for dominance in spaceflight capability. It had its origins in the missile-based nuclear arms race between the two nations that occurred following World War II, aided by captured German missile technology and personnel from the Aggregat program. The technological superiority required for such dominance was seen as necessary for national security, and symbolic of ideological superiority. The Space Race spawned pioneering efforts to launch artificial satellites, uncrewed space probes of the Moon, Venus, and Mars, and human spaceflight in low Earth orbit and to the Moon.
At war's end, American, British, and Soviet scientific intelligence teams competed to capture Germany's rocket engineers along with the German rockets themselves and the designs on which they were based. Each of the Allies captured a share of the available members of the German rocket team, but the United States benefited the most with Operation Paperclip, recruiting von Braun and most of his engineering team, who later helped develop the American missile and space exploration programs. The United States also acquired a large number of complete V2 rockets.
For its part, the Soviet Union harbored fears of invasion. Having suffered at least 27 million casualties during World War II after being invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941, the Soviet Union was wary of its former ally, the United States, which until late 1949 was the sole possessor of atomic weapons. The United States had used these weapons operationally during World War II, and it could use them again against the Soviet Union, laying waste to its cities and military centers. Since the Americans had a much larger air force than the Soviet Union, and the United States maintained advance air bases near Soviet territory, in 1947 Stalin ordered the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in order to counter the perceived American threat.
Eisenhower ordered project Vanguard to move up its timetable and launch its satellite much sooner than originally planned. The December 6, 1957 Project Vanguard launch failure occurred at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, broadcast live in front of a US television audience. It was a monumental failure, exploding a few seconds after launch, and it became an international joke. The satellite appeared in newspapers under the names Flopnik, Stayputnik, Kaputnik, and Dudnik. In the United Nations, the Soviet delegate offered the US representative aid "under the Soviet program of technical assistance to backwards nations." Only in the wake of this very public failure did von Braun's Redstone team get the go-ahead to launch their Jupiter-C rocket as soon as they could. In Britain, the US's Western Cold War ally, the reaction was mixed: some celebrated the fact that the Soviets had reached space first, while others feared the destructive potential that military uses of spacecraft might bring.
The US Air Force had been developing a program to launch the first man in space, named Man in Space Soonest. This program studied several different types of one-man space vehicles, settling on a ballistic re-entry capsule launched on a derivative Atlas missile, and selecting a group of nine candidate pilots. After NASA's creation, the program was transferred over to the civilian agency and renamed Project Mercury on November 26, 1958. NASA selected a new group of astronaut (from the Greek for "star sailor") candidates from Navy, Air Force and Marine test pilots, and narrowed this down to a group of seven for the program. Capsule design and astronaut training began immediately, working toward preliminary suborbital flights on the Redstone missile, followed by orbital flights on the Atlas. Each flight series would first start uncrewed, then carry a non-human primate, then finally humans.