Revisiting the U.S.-Soviet space race: Comparing two systems in their competition to land a man on the moon - by CWP Alumni Andrew Erickson

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Cold War space competition between the U.S. and the USSR, centered on their race to the moon, offers both an important historical case and larger implications for space and technology development and policy. In the late 1950s, under Premier Nikita Khrushchev's direction and Chief Designer Sergei Korolev's determined implementation, Moscow's capabilities appeared to eclipse Washington's. This called the international system's very nature into question and prompted President John F. Kennedy to declare a race to the moon. Despite impressive goals and talented engineers, in the centralized but under-institutionalized, resource-limited Soviet Union feuding chief designers playing bureaucratic politics promoted a cacophony of overambitious, overlapping, often uncompleted projects. The USSR suffered from inadequate standardization and quality control at outlying factories and failed to sustain its lead. In marked contrast, American private corporations, under NASA's well-coordinated guidance and adjudication, helped the United States overtake from behind to meet Kennedy's deadline in 1969. In critical respects, Washington's lunar landing stemmed from an effective systems management program, while Moscow's moonshot succumbed to the Soviet system, which proved unequal to the task. In less than a decade, Soviet space efforts shifted from one-upping, to keeping up, to covering up. This article reconsiders this historic competition and suggests larger conclusions.

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