Space, the final frontier, played a central role in the post-World War Two era which came to be defined by the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although the grandest of all victories – a manned mission to the Moon – ultimately went to the Americans, one should not overlook or diminish the many impressive achievements of the so-called “evil empire”. Despite a narrative in recent decades regarding American inevitable victory in the Space Race, or indeed in the Cold War at large, the Soviets accomplished many surprising firsts; some of these impressive milestone years, even, ahead of their counterparts in the United States.
Here are 20 important firsts achieved by the Soviet Space Program that you should know about:
20. The R-7 Semyorka became the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile when it was successfully launched on August 21, 1957
The R-7, nicknamed the “Semyorka”, was developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War as the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. Originally designed in 1953 after a request for a two-stage missile with a range of 8,000 kilometers, a maximum speed of 20 mach, and a carrying capacity of 3,000 kilograms, the project took until May 1, 1957, to produce a viable test-ready prototype fulfilling these requirements. Launched two weeks later on May 15, this prototype caught fire soon after launch and crashed 400 kilometers away. A second test, conducted on June 11, equally ended in failure due to an electrical short.
Finally, on August 21, the Soviets accomplished a successful test flight of 6,000 kilometers from the Baikonur Cosmodrome into the Pacific Ocean. Announcing their success five days later, the rocket continued to face experimental issues precluding operational deployment until February 9, 1959. Thereafter, the missile system, limited to no more than ten nuclear-armed missiles at any one time, remained actively deployed until being phased out in 1968. It would take the United States until November 28, 1958, to replicate the success of their greatest rivals with their own “Atlas” intercontinental ballistic missile.