The Soviets moved more quickly and were the first to understand the political value of space “firsts.” By October 1957 they had launched the first satellite, Sputnik. They sent aloft the first animal, and then in 1961, the first human, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
America moved more slowly. President Eisenhower was nervous that the arms race might spill into a space race, the cost of which, he feared, might ruin the economy. Still, he created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to oversee civilian space projects and manned missions to space. He also pushed the military to develop satellite programs that could monitor nuclear testing, track weather, aid navigation, and photograph the earth.
It was left to John Kennedy to grasp the public value of the space race. Though also uneasy with the price tag, Kennedy understood that the Soviets might be ahead but the finish line was the moon itself; whoever landed a man on the moon would win the race. In 1962 he called for NASA to achieve victory by decade’s end. And when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon in July 1969, it was the only first that mattered.
Throughout the remainder of the Cold War, space never quite recaptured the attention it garnered during its moon phase. The spirit of détente was extended to space during the Nixon and Ford years when an Apollo capsule docked with a Soviet Soyuz vehicle in 1975. But cooperation above the earth chilled under Carter, especially following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.