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By World War I, a New England physics professor, Robert Goddard, had become interested in the use of rockets for studying meteorology. In 1919, he published a mathematical analysis of a meteorological rocket and pointed out that the same principle could be used to carry a charge of flash powder to the moon, where its ignition would be visible from earth. In 1926, he launched the world's first successful liquid-fuel rocket. It rose all of 184 ft.
Soon, European amateurs and scientists alike were also experimenting with rockets, most of them inspired by The Rocket into Interplanetary Space, a booklet published in 1923 by Rumanian Professor Hermann Oberth. German rocketeers eventually constructed a liquid-fuel rocket strikingly similar to Goddard's. By 1942, under the direction of Walter Dornberger and Wernher Von Braun, it had evolved into the dread V2, the first space-age rocket. After the successful test-firing of the V2, Dornberger turned to Von Braun and shouted exultantly: "Do you realize what we accomplished today? Today the spaceship was born."
The V-2 rocket and its designers eventually helped launch both the U.S. and the Russian missile programs, as well as the moon race that was to follow. Even today's liquid-fuel rockets are simply highly evolved descendants of that original V2.
Although Russia and the U.S. recognized the role that rockets could eventually play in space exploration, both nations were more immediately concerned about arming themselves with the most devastating military weapon: the nuclear-tipped ballistic missile. Because U.S. scientists had already begun to master the art of packing enormous power into small nuclear warheads, the Redstone, Jupiter and Atlas missiles designed to carry them were only of modest size. The Russians, who were behind in nuclear technology, had only more primitive and massive warheads to use; they were forced to build enormous rockets to loft them. But the Soviet's military liability eventually became a prime scientific asset. By 1961, when President Kennedy proclaimed a national goal of landing men on the moon before the end of the decade, the Soviets had already used huge rockets to blast far ahead of the U.S. In September 1959, only two years after they successfully orbited Sputnik 1, the Soviets hit the moon with Luna 2. That was 21 years before the U.S. matched the feat with Ranger 4. One month after Luna 2's flight, Luna 3 passed around the moon to shoot the first pictures of the hidden lunar backside. Not until more than six years later did Lunar Orbiter 1 televise similar shots to the U.S.
The Soviets took an equally big lead in manned flights. Yuri Gagarin orbited in Vostok I more than a month before Kennedy's 1961 speech, and ten months before the U.S. could place John Glenn in orbit in Mercury 6. Russian cosmonauts also compiled an enviable list of other space records: first woman in orbit, first two-man crew, first three-man crew and first space walk.
In the middle '60s, however, a vitalized U.S. space program all but wiped out the Soviet lead in the moon race.