Teaching With Documents, Volume 1


"On Your Mark...Get Set...Go!"—The Space Race

On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union launched the first manned space vehicle into orbit around the earth. With cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin’s 108-minute flight, the Soviets captured another first in the space race. The press release featured here is the text of President John F. Kennedy’s telegram to Nikita Khrushchev congratulating the Soviets on the first successful manned flight.

In October 1957 the Soviet Union had opened the space race by placing a 184-pound satellite, Sputnik I, in orbit around the earth. Sputnik immediately captured the imagination and interest of the public around the world, but its appearance was no surprise to the international scientific community.

The Soviet’s launching of a second satellite within a month nurtured public interest in space exploration. The second satellite weighed over 1,000 pounds and carried Laika, a Husky dog, to measure the effects of weightlessness on a living organism. In January 1958 the U.S. joined the Soviets in space with the successful launching of an 18-pound satellite, Explorer I.

The success of Gagarin’s flight accentuated the disparity between U.S. and Soviet commitments to developing space technology. Since World War II, the Soviets had concentrated their technological efforts on developing massive booster rockets to launch large payloads outside the earth’s atmosphere. The United States, in contrast, did not unify its research and development efforts in space technology until President Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958. In his April 12, 1961, news conference, President Kennedy responded to reporters’ inquiries on the subject of Soviet leadership in the space race in this way:

…a dictatorship enjoys advantages in this kind of competition over a short period by its ability to mobilize its resources for a specific purpose. We have made some exceptional scientific advances in the last decade, and some of them—they are not as spectacular as the man-in-space, or as the first Sputnik, but they are important.*

In less than a year, U.S. astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr., would orbit the earth three times, becoming the first American to do so.

In a special message on national goals delivered to Congress in May 1961, President Kennedy acknowledged the Soviet challenge in space and declared that landing a man on the moon was a national goal to be met by the end of the decade. Astronaut Neil Armstrong would step onto the moon July 20, 1969, five months before President Kennedy’s deadline. At the opening of the 1970s, the space race score between the United States and the Soviet Union appeared even.

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U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cooperation

In his telegram to Khrushchev, President Kennedy referred to cooperation between the two nations. This proposition would become reality in two areas—space law and a joint space mission. In 1966 the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement to protect the free use of outer space by all nations and to prohibit its military use. This accord was the basis for an international treaty approved by the United Nations General Assembly and ratified by 62 nations in 1967. In 1971 the United States and the Soviet Union began a cooperative space project, which resulted in July 1975 in the launching of U.S. and U.S.S.R. space vehicles that docked in outer space. The Apollo-Soyuz mission brought together three U.S. astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts, who conducted joint scientific experiments in space. Eighteen years after opening the space race, the fierce competitors came together as teammates.

The document featured here is from "Space—Man in Space, 1961": Subject Files, 1958-1961; Records of the Office of Science and Technology, Record Group 359.

Teaching Activities

I. Library Scavenger Hunt

Use the document to help students explore the resources of the school or public library. Direct students to find the answers to these questions raised by the document. The answers to most of these questions are available in reference books located in your school or public library.

1. What was the name of the astronaut mentioned in the document?

2. What was the name of his spacecraft?

3. Locate the birthplace of the Russian astronaut on a map of the Soviet Union.

4. How many republics make up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics?

5. Who was the White House Press Secretary in April 1961?

6. How long had N.S. Khrushchev been Chairman of the Council of Ministers when he received this telegram?

7. What other events occurred on April 12, 1961?

8. Who was the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth?

9. How many years before you were born did the first American orbit the earth?

10. In 1961, what was the name of the government agency that directed U.S. space projects?


1. Yuri A. Gagarin; 2. Vostok; 3. Gzhatsk in Smolensk; 4. 15; 5. Pierre Salinger; 6. 4 years; 7. variable answer; 8. John H. Glenn, Jr.; 9. variable answers; 10. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

II. Issues for Discussion

Consider some of these questions with your students.

1. How did the U.S.-U.S.S.R. space race begin and where is the competition today?

2. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. have not worked together to explore outer space. Develop a list of the reasons why not and an alternate list of potential benefits from such cooperation. Does one list seem more compelling than the other? Why?

3. Do you think space exploration is worth its cost to the U.S. economy?

4. Develop a list of the benefits of space technology to your everyday life.

5. In your lifetime, what has been the most exciting event in space exploration to you? Why?

* J. F. Kennedy, Public Papers of the President of the United States, 1961 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), p. 261.


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Chicago: "On Your Mark...Get Set...Go!— The Space Race," Teaching With Documents, Volume 1 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989), 211–213. Original Sources, accessed April 13, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=M3IUT1V5ZYEK8MP.

MLA: . ""On Your Mark..Get Set..Go!"— The Space Race." Teaching With Documents, Volume 1, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Vol. 1, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989, pp. 211–213. Original Sources. 13 Apr. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=M3IUT1V5ZYEK8MP.

Harvard: , '"On Your Mark...Get Set...Go!"— The Space Race' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 1. cited in 1989, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board, Washington, D.C., pp.211–213. Original Sources, retrieved 13 April 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=M3IUT1V5ZYEK8MP.