The Space Race was a fight between the Soviet Union and the US to maintain dominance in spaceflight.
The Space Race was not only a significant part of the Cold War, but it was also a key event in the fight for women’s rights and racial equality. It pushed technological advances in space exploration, opened up STEM subjects to women, and further exposed the racial and gender inequality in the US, especially in the years after. The technological advances made during the Space Race were monumental. The developing technology provided both the Soviet Union and the US chances to gain advantages in the Cold War. When the Space Race first started with the launch of the Soviet satellite, Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, the US began to worry that the Soviets had surpassed them in technological abilities.
The panic was significant enough that a year after the launch in October 1957, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, was formed. It’s main goal was to launch a manned vehicle into Earth’s orbit. Years later, Soviets launched Luna I and Luna II, and eventually Luna III, which captured the first shots of the far side of the moon.
As these events unfolded, spy satellites were also being constantly developed. Secret US spy satellites Coronas were being built, sparking the Soviet’s to continue furthering the capabilities of their own, Zenits. Along with the establishment of a national program, numerous artificial satellites and eventually multiple manned satellites in space, the Space Race also resulted in the development of science and math based school programs in the US. Technology had advanced from both the Soviets and the US, and the space race was a motivating factor to fund aeronautics and the sciences. The Space Race was also heavily female-influenced.
Women began expanding into STEM subjects and male-dominated fields, such as programmers and engineers. In the early days of NASA, when mechanical computers weren’t as widespread and commonly used as they are now, there needed to be people to do the mathematics, and those people were women. The computers winded up being an entirely female group, as the supervisor, Macie Roberts, though hiring men would be too difficult. Many of these women went from being computers to working in higher positions, and yet history seems to have hidden them away. The equations that controlled the trajectory of the Friendship 7 mission, one that launched John Glenn into space as the first American to orbit the Earth, were run past Katherine Johnson, an African American computer at NASA. The mission was a success, and while the success heavily laid on the shoulders of Johnson, she got little to no recognition.
Women who established long careers at JPL and those who broke through into engineering and programming positions were erased by society, largely forgotten in favour of the men who reaped the rewards of their work. While women’s’ efforts are largely ignored, the Space Race provided females with the opportunities to work outside of the home, and encouraged the continual education and employment of women in STEM subjects. Whilst the Space Race did positively affect many women, it also exposed the sexism and racism that women and people of colour faced in America at the time. Even at JPL, women of colour faced segregation in the workplace, and they were often barred from meetings.
African Americans often weren’t able to obtain the education needed to acquire positions that were quickly becoming available. Many universities and colleges refused to admit students of colour, and students were subject to racism and discrimination from peers. In the event that a job was available, many people of colour were hesitant to take it, especially when it involved moving to the highly segregated south. However, NASA began to integrate, though slowly. They partnered with a historically Black university, and offered a few scholarships. Efforts began to be taken to provide people of colour with more opportunities in the workplace and education.
The discrimination that African Americans and women faced in the newly created space industry became more and more predominant as time went on. Recently, the movie Hidden Figures was released. The film follows the story of Katherine Johnson and two of her black, female colleagues, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, and the contributions they and their female counterparts made to NASA during the Space Race, more specifically, the Friendship 7 mission. Out of the 536 people that have been in space, only 59 of them have been women, displaying the lack of strive for gender equality in international and national space programs.
In the past few decades, issues surrounding gender inequality have risen to the surface. Wage gaps, sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as gender based discrimination have all become hot topics as people continue to speak out about the injustices. As women continue to expand into male-dominated fields, the barriers between what is past and what is present are changing. The Space Race was a monumental event that not only impacted the Cold War and advances in technology, but also changed the way women and African Americans fit into the workforce.
The development of computers, satellites, manned spacecraft and technologically advanced systems paved the way for the high-end tech we have today. And the women who were so often behind the screens, doing the work no one saw, created a base for women and girls alike to be able to pursue their passions and excel in them. The Space Race, regarded as one of the most important parts of the Cold War, shaped society and the way women play a part in it.