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1959

Soviet probe reaches the moon

A Soviet rocket crashes into the moon’s surface, becoming the first man-made object sent from earth to reach the lunar surface. The event gave the Soviets a short-lived advantage in the “space race” and prompted even greater effort by the United States to develop its own space program.

In 1957, the Soviets shocked the United States by becoming the first nation to launch a satellite into orbit around the earth. Sputnik, as it was called, frightened many Americans, who believed that the Soviets would soon develop an entire new class of weapons that could be fired from space. U.S. officials were especially concerned, for the success of Sputnik was a direct rebuke to American claims of technological and scientific superiority over the communist regime in Russia. It was a tremendous propaganda victory for the Soviets, and gave them an edge in attracting less-developed nations into the Soviet orbit with promises of technological aid and assistance.

The United States responded by accelerating its own space program, and just months after Sputnik, an American satellite went into orbit. In September 1959, the Soviets upped the ante considerably with the announcement that a rocket carrying the flag of the Soviet Union had crashed onto the moon’s surface. In Washington, a muted congratulation was sent to the Soviet scientists who managed the feat. At the same time, however, the United States warned the Soviet Union that sending the Russian flag to the moon gave the Soviets no territorial rights over the celestial body. Vice President Richard Nixon expressed some sour grapes by noting that it took the Soviet four tries to hit the moon and reassured Americans that “We are way ahead” in the space race.

Nixon’s reassurances aside, the Soviet success in sending a rocket to the moon provoked even greater effort by the United States to gain an advantage in the space race. In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy made it one of his campaign themes. After winning the election, President Kennedy increased spending for the space program and vowed that America would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. In 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

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