The launch of the artificial satellite Sputnik 1 into orbit on 4 October 1957 propelled with it the conquest of space to the top of the agenda of the world’s major powers, where it assumed a place alongside the traditional areas of strategic competition: land, sea and air. And while driven in part by the human desire to go beyond the frontiers of the known, the space race must above all be understood as a central element in the struggle for planetary hegemony among a handful of global powers.
While other state actors attempted to stake out territory for themselves in the waning years of the Cold War, the confrontation essentially always boiled down to two players: the United States and the Soviet Union. The US saw itself as the world’s most advanced technological centre, with the self-appointed role of leading humanity. It thus came as a shock and a major blow to its prestige when its rival in Moscow, which was not believed to have that level of development in space and missile technology, overtook it with the aforementioned launch of Sputnik 1. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, and with the USSR already having conducted its first nuclear test in 1949, the thinking in Washington was that if Moscow could place a satellite into orbit it could also launch the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles it had just tested that same year with the very powerful R-7 Semyorka rocket.