24 May 2018

Revisiting the U.S.-Soviet Space Race: Comparing Two Systems in Their Competition to Land a Man on the Moon

Andrew S. Erickson, “Revisiting the U.S.-Soviet Space Race: Comparing Two Systems in Their Competition to Land a Man on the Moon,” Acta Astronautica 148 (July 2018): 376-84.

U.S. Naval War College, United States

John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University, United States

Received 31 March 2018, Accepted 29 April 2018, Available online 2 May 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.

Article outline


  1. Overall Dynamics

1.1. Political System Shapes Technology Development

1.2. Comparative Space Development: Critical Cold War Test

1.3. Contest for the Highest High Ground

  1. Explaining the Results

2.1. Khrushchev Himself Acknowledges “Organizational Defect”

2.2. Secrecy Subverted Success

2.3. Ruinous Suspicion And Rivalry

2.4. Unaffordable Program Overlaps, Cancellations, and Disorder

2.5. “One-Man NASA” Becomes Soviet Casualty

  1. Conclusion: Soviet System Could Not Defy Gravity

68th International Astronautical Congress, Adelaide, Australia. Copyright ©2018 by Andrew S. Erickson. All rights reserved. 

© 2018 Published by Elsevier Ltd on behalf of IAA.