How the Cold War Arms Race Fueled a Sprint to the Moon

After the Soviet Union sent the first human safely into orbit, the U.S. government doubled down on its effort to win the race to the moon.

A U.S.-Soviet competition in science and engineering took off in 1957 with the launch of Russia’s Sputnik satellite, and culminated in 1969 with the U.S. landing the first humans on the Moon in the Apollo 11 mission.

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For teachers
  • Producer: Joshua Fisher
  • Sr. Producer: Kit R. Roane
  • Editor: Cullen Golden
  • Editor: Kimberly Mayhorn

For Educators


This six-minute video explores how the Cold War fueled the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and how early Soviet advances left many fearing that the United States would be left behind. That fear alone wasn’t enough to convince everyone that the monumental cost of the space program was worth it – the dramatic race to the moon was accompanied by an equally successful marketing campaign designed to sell the vision of the U.S. space program to the public. Focusing on the space program’s links to American foreign policy goals in the 1960s, the video contrasts American and Soviet approaches to Cold War public relations. Useful as a way of teaching about the moon landing within the context of the Cold War, the video can be used to introduce a discussion of challenges faced by Cold War leaders and the importance of “soft power” in the nation’s rise to superpower status.

This video was featured in an online class on The Cold War in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s History School and Joe Welch, a 2018 Gilder Lehrman National History Teacher of the Year and Master Teacher.

Background reading

The Cold War set off a race to control space and put the United States on a path to the moon. That outcome was not a given: On April 13, 1961, the Soviets announced that they had put the first man in space, sending the message that the United States was behind in the space race, and possibly the arms race as well.

President John F. Kennedy gave a strong response before Congress on May 25, 1961, announcing a goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth within a decade.

To many, this sounded like science fiction. The president’s initial cost estimate – $7 billion to $9 billion over the next five years – made the project seem like a fantasy.

The job of bringing the idea back to earth as a patriotic engineering challenge fell to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA oversaw development of the Apollo program and created a publicity machine to convince Americans that it was not a boondoggle but a necessary battle to win the Cold War.

To that end, NASA gave the news media unprecedented access to the space program, and surrounded each launch with a flood of background materials designed to attract interest and build an audience.

That approach made phrases like “lunar module” and “Tang” part of everyday conversation, and turned the Apollo astronauts into celebrity heroes, regularly featured on magazine covers.

So it wasn’t surprising that 94 percent of those watching television on July 20, 1969, were tuned in to watch astronaut Neil Armstrong as he became the first person to take “one small step for man” on the moon.

Lesson Plan 1: The Cold War Space Race

Students will learn how the United States space program was fueled by Cold War rivalry, and how the U.S. government leveraged the program’s success in its public relations battle with the Soviet Union.

  • How the Cold War fueled the space race.
  • How the United States and the Soviet Union sought to use victories in their space programs to achieve foreign policy goals.
  • How the public relations approach to the space race used by the United States proved so successful.
Essential questions
  • What were the Soviet Union’s initial victories in the space race? Why was the United States “in a panic” over these victories?
  • How was the American approach to public relations different from the Soviet approach?
  • How did Americans come to view the space program differently after the success of the moon landing?
  • What was the impact of the space race and of the moon landing on the trajectory of the Cold War?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Period 8: 1945-1980
    • Topic 8.2: The Cold War from 1945 to 1980

      Skill 3.A: Identify and describe a claim and/or argument in a non-text-based source.

      Theme 6: America in the World (WOR).