Sputnik and the Beginning of the Space Race

On October 5, 1957, the very first human-made satellite was launched into space. The USSR’s Sputnik 1 orbited the earth. While its signal was nothing more than a simple, regular beep, it echoed like thunder. How did this happen? What were the wider ramifications of this technological breakthrough? And if you feel the itch to conquer space yourself, which board games can you turn to?

Into Space

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that war is the father of all things. For Sputnik, that is undoubtedly true. The first rocket powerful enough to carry a major load were the V2 („Vergeltungswaffe 2“, or „vengeance weapon 2“) that Nazi Germany rained on London and Antwerp during the last months of World War 2 in a desperate attempt to halt its imminent doom. After the war had ended, both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to get their hands on as many scientists from the German rocket program as possible to start their own programs. While the USA snatched the biggest prize, lead engineer Wernher von Braun, the USSR got their fair share of scientists and engineers as well.

Captured Nazi Scientist

Card “Captured Nazi Scientist” (Twilight Struggle, image © GMT Games). The image depicts Wernher von Braun and his first employers, the Nazi military.

The always mistrustful Soviets made sure to extract all the knowledge from their prisoners and then exclude them from further research, whereas the United States was – after initial security clearings – rather forthcoming to the Germans.[1]
Both superpowers realized the importance of rockets as weapons of war – not with conventional payloads like the V2, but armed with a nuclear warhead.

However, the Truman administration did not prioritize the development of rockets. So when the United States announced at the beginning of the International Geophysical Year in July 1955 that they planned to launch a satellite, the Soviet Union realized they had a chance to beat the Americans to it. While the Americans saw the satellite as a means of scientific exploration, the Soviets had understood already its immense potential for PR. Therefore, they aimed for the simplest satellite possible. Speed was everything. In other words: The Soviets had just started the Space Race.

Indeed, the Soviet program managed to get its satellite up a few days before they expected the Americans to start theirs. It made the Soviet coup complete that the following American attempts to launch a satellite failed and it took until February 1958 until their Explorer 1 successfully went into space. It didn’t hurt that Sputnik 1 was a publicity stunt that did not bring any scientific benefit.[2] The Space Race was just as much about public relations as about technological breakthroughs.

Sputnik’s Shadow

Sputnik’s positive effect on the Soviet Union’s reputation can hardly be overstated. The country had apparently advanced from an agrarian and somewhat backwards state to the most technologically advanced nation in the world in a mere few decades. Nothing could be more alluring to the leaders of the many newly independent states in Africa and Asia who were eager to replicate the Soviet success story by adopting the parts of the Soviet system they saw as essential to this progress. Similarly, the social cohesion of the USSR itself reached an all-time high with the Soviet population dreaming together the dream of space. The following space successes further increased this feeling of Soviet post-war optimism and popular belief that their nation was on the right side of history. When Yuri Gagarin was the first man to go to space on April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union reached its zenith.

Conversely, Sputnik came as a nasty shock to the United States. The country had taken its technological edge for granted, relying on the assumed superiority of free scientific inquiry over a dirigistic model of research and development.[3] As a result, the United States turned to a stronger role of the state in scientific matters as well. In addition to providing more funding to and exacting more control over research, the US also set out to bring more young people into a STEM career.[4]

The perceived loss of technological leadership was not by itself the reason for this American anxiety. The Soviet breakthrough carried with it a very tangible feeling of existential threat. Before Sputnik, the nuclear balance had tilted reliably in the United States’s favor. The US was protected by thousands of miles of oceans (to the east and west) and ice (to the north) from any Soviet bomber, whereas the American bases in Europe had the very heartland of the Soviet Union in striking distance. Nuclear warheads on missiles, however, could level this playing field.[5]
Fear and rhetoric of lagging behind in the nuclear arms race were updated from a „bomber gap“ to a „missile gap“. John F. Kennedy in particular was fond of the phrase and based both his Senate campaign of 1958 and his presidential campaign of 1960 on the claim that he wouldn’t be as „weak“ on defense as his Republican counterparts. At least in 1960 Kennedy was already aware that the „missile gap“ was nothing but a fiction. The sitting Republican administration under Eisenhower, however, could not rebuke Kennedy’s claim lest they gave away the extent of their intelligence about the Soviet nuclear forces.

The Soviets certainly were ebullient after their success and very much aware of how they had altered the strategic picture with a bold stroke. Khrushchev felt he had achieved a position of strength and meant to keep it, bragging about how the Soviet Union mass-produced missiles „like sausages“ when he actually only had a handful of them at his disposal. In any case, the newly found confidence in his own strength made the him change his diplomatic posture considerably. Gone was the „thaw“ that had characterized the years after Stalin’s death. In the end, there was only a very short window of opportunity for an early détente. Opened by Khrushchev’s idea of „peaceful coexistence“ of the two systems from 1955, the window and been slammed shut already by the row over the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and finally blocked completely by a pile of missiles a year later. A new era of superpower conflict had begun.

The Space Race in Board Games

The Space Race is an iconic part of the Cold War. Rich in theme and highly competitive, it is a popular choice for board games as well. It is so central to the Cold War that is one of only two fields of confrontation for the superpowers in Twilight Squabble (the other being the „Balance of Power“). Being ahead in the Space Race does not only give certain goodies, but also breaks ties in final scoring. Sometimes even more important: Pouring resources into the Space Race only gives advantages, whereas the Balance of Power is riddled with the risk of starting a nuclear war and losing the game.

Sputnik Launched1

Card “Sputnik Launched” from Twilight Squabble, image © Alderac Entertainment Group

Unsurprisingly, the Space Race is also an important subsystem in the father of all modern Cold War games, Twilight Struggle. Once every turn a card can be „sent to space“ with a die roll checking for success. The event printed on the card does not take place if a card is sent to space. Space successes bring both advantages in the game (like being able to send two cards per turn to space or seeing the opponent’s „headline card“ before selecting one’s own) and victory points, thus capturing the dual nature of the Space Race as genuine scientific-technological competition and a means to score propaganda victories. Mostly, however, the Space Race is a safety valve to get rid of opponent events without triggering their event text. This often has humorous side-effects – imagine being the Soviets and playing Pope John Paul II for your space program! How does his mitre even fit into the space suit?

Kennedy in Space

JFK-Dawg becomes the first animal in space (Twilight Struggle).

Spacing opponent events, however, is no panacea. You cannot do anything else with your action round, the cards are not out of the game and may do more damage in the hands of your opponent once they are dealt again. Most dangerously, the more cards you send to space, the more operation points a card must have for being sent to space (two in the beginning, four in the very end), so you might find yourself unable to send a card to space in the end if you have spaced too liberally in the beginning. For these reasons, experienced players try to limit their use of the space race and the game often ends with neither superpower having progressed even over the middle of the Space Race track.

How fast could you conquer space in Twilight Struggle, if you diverted all your resources to it? Let’s look for the most extreme of cases (and the best of luck to succeed on all die rolls). You space a card on the first turn, play Captured Nazi Scientist for the event to progress another step to „Animal in Space“ which allows you to space a second card per turn. Of course you will do that. So at the end of turn one you have proceeded three steps. You add another two steps in turn two and three respectively (this assumes that your opponent never reaches Animal in Space herself, so that your bonus of spacing two cards per turn is not cancelled). Then, with your first action round of turn four, you reach Space Station, the last step on the Space Race. By the time scale for Twilight Struggle that Volko Ruhnke has used for the Late War scenario, this would be in 1957 – just in time for Sputnik in real history.

Space Race Track

Space Race Track (Twilight Struggle)

If you are looking for more of the thrills of running a space agency and furthering the limits of human knowledge, the board game world has you covered as well. Space Race: The Card Game and 1969 deal exclusively with the Space Race (although the former recognizes propaganda as a major factor of the Space Race and the latter allows you to plant spies at your opponents’ agencies – both very thematic for the Cold War). Their scope is very different from each other, however: Space Race – The Card Game deals with 70 years of space technology and pioneers, including recent ones (for example, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk features on a card). The gameplay is therefore rather abstract. 1969 focuses only on the few years in from 1963 to 1969 and goes into greater detail of the nuts and bolts of running a space agency – securing funds, hiring scientists, conducting research, and fulfilling missions.

Anybody around here who can share a Sputnik story from their parents – or even from their own memory? What is the highest step on the Twilight Struggle Space Race track you have ever reached? Let me know in the comments!

Board games mentioned in this article

Twilight Squabble (Alderac Entertainment Group, David J. Mortimer)

Twilight Struggle (GMT Games, Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews)

Space Race: The Card Game (Boardcubator, Marek Loskot/Jan Soukal)

1969 (Cranio Creations, Aureliano Buonfino/Andrea Crespi/Lorenzo Silva/Lorenzo Tucci Sorrentino)

Further reading

If you want to know more about the „Sputnik crisis“ and its effect on the US space program, see Bulkeley, Rip: The Sputniks Crisis and Early United States Space Policy. A Critique of the Historiography of Space, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN 1992.

The authoritative biography on Wernher von Braun is Neufeld, Michael J.: Von Braun. Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, Random House, New York City, NY 2008.

For more information on the military-scientific complex in the United States during the Cold War, see Friedberg, Aaron: The United States and the Cold War Arms Race, in: Westad, Odd Arne (Hg.): Reviewing the Cold War. Approaches, Interpretations, Theory, Frank Cass, London/Portland, OR 2000, p. 207—231.

The Soviet society’s excitement for aviation and space flight is treated (in German) in Kluge, Robert: Der sowjetische Traum vom Fliegen. Analyseversuch eines gesellschaftlichen Phänomens, Otto Sagner, München 1997, online here: http://repository.kubon-sagner.de/data/temp/tyugerkt/sb345_9783954790791.pdf.


1. Wernher von Braun himself was up for an illustrious career in the American space program and eventually became the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
2. Except, of course, being the proof that a satellite could be launched into a stable earth orbit by a rocket.
3. That belief should have been disproven already by the resourcefulness of the Soviet scientists and engineers who had made breakthroughs during World War 2 (like, in early rocketry, the Katyusha launcher) while working under conditions that can only be described as forced intellectual labor camps.
4. The American response was by no means the only possible one, as Travis Hallen has shown in his article on Australia here: https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2016/10/4/responding-to-a-sputnik-moment.
5. Another way, of course, would have been to acquire bases closer to the United States. The Soviet Union set out to do precisely that in Cuba five years later, resulting in the Cuban missile crisis.


2 thoughts on “Sputnik and the Beginning of the Space Race

  1. Pingback: Decolonization in the Cold War (Decolonization, #3) | Clio's Board Games

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s