Lesson Plan

The Cold War Space Race


This six-minute video explores how the Cold War fueled the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and how early Soviet advances left many fearing that the United States would be left behind. That fear alone wasn’t enough to convince everyone that the monumental cost of the space program was worth it – the dramatic race to the moon was accompanied by an equally successful marketing campaign designed to sell the vision of the U.S. space program to the public. Focusing on the space program’s links to American foreign policy goals in the 1960s, the video contrasts American and Soviet approaches to Cold War public relations. Useful as a way of teaching about the moon landing within the context of the Cold War, the video can be used to introduce a discussion of challenges faced by Cold War leaders and the importance of “soft power” in the nation’s rise to superpower status.

This video was featured in an online class on The Cold War in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s History School and Joe Welch, a 2018 Gilder Lehrman National History Teacher of the Year and Master Teacher.


  • How the Cold War fueled the space race.
  • How the United States and the Soviet Union sought to use victories in their space programs to achieve foreign policy goals.
  • How the public relations approach to the space race used by the United States proved so successful.
  • Social Studies
  • U.S. History
  • Science
  • Earth and Space Science
  • AP U.S. History
  • America as a World Power
  • 1960s America
  • Cold War
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
  • Communism
  • Space Race
  • U.S. Foreign Policy
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

The Cold War set off a race to control space and put the United States on a path to the moon. That outcome was not a given: On April 13, 1961, the Soviets announced that they had put the first man in space, sending the message that the United States was behind in the space race, and possibly the arms race as well.

President John F. Kennedy gave a strong response before Congress on May 25, 1961, announcing a goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth within a decade.

To many, this sounded like science fiction. The president’s initial cost estimate – $7 billion to $9 billion over the next five years – made the project seem like a fantasy.

The job of bringing the idea back to earth as a patriotic engineering challenge fell to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA oversaw development of the Apollo program and created a publicity machine to convince Americans that it was not a boondoggle but a necessary battle to win the Cold War.

To that end, NASA gave the news media unprecedented access to the space program, and surrounded each launch with a flood of background materials designed to attract interest and build an audience.

That approach made phrases like “lunar module” and “Tang” part of everyday conversation, and turned the Apollo astronauts into celebrity heroes, regularly featured on magazine covers.

So it wasn’t surprising that 94 percent of those watching television on July 20, 1969, were tuned in to watch astronaut Neil Armstrong as he became the first person to take “one small step for man” on the moon.

Essential Questions

  • What were the Soviet Union’s initial victories in the space race? Why was the United States “in a panic” over these victories?
  • How was the American approach to public relations different from the Soviet approach?
  • How did Americans come to view the space program differently after the success of the moon landing?
  • What was the impact of the space race and of the moon landing on the trajectory of the Cold War?

Lesson Procedure

  • Imagine you were a citizen of a foreign country during the space race. How do you think news of the moon landing might alter your views of the two countries?
  • How were the American and Soviet space programs (and the public relations efforts accompanying those programs) affected by the contrasting economic and political systems in the United States and the Soviet Union? What aspects of America’s political and economic system gave the United States an advantage? Which left it at a disadvantage in the space race?
  • The space race gave rise to a number of technological breakthroughs, including major innovations in computing and rocketry, as well as minor innovations affecting consumer products like portable vacuum cleaners, wireless headsets, Velcro, scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses and freeze-dried foods. Given this fact, how great a role should governments play in the race toward innovation? Is there a point at which that might become counterproductive?
  • How did Sputnik and early Soviet successes in space affect the national psychology in the United States? Do you think American astronauts would have landed on the moon if not for the Cold War? Based on the public relations advantages of the moon landing, and the technological innovations inspired by the space program, do you think the federal government should commit to spending the hundreds of billions of dollars required to land on Mars? Or should that money be spent on other needs? Would going to Mars be worth the expense? Would you be willing to pay higher taxes to see the United States succeed in sending humans further into space?
  • Political scientists and historians often distinguish between a country’s “soft power” (diplomacy, propaganda, public relations, leadership) and “hard power” (military and economic dominance). Successfully landing humans on the moon could be seen as a “soft power” victory for America’s foreign policy, whereas the Vietnam War (which was occurring during the moon landing) could be seen as a failure to advance foreign policy goals through “hard power.” Based upon your knowledge of the Cold War, do you think the United States relied too much on “hard power” in its battle with the Soviet Union? To what extent do “hard power” approaches to foreign policy conflict with “soft power” approaches? Do you think American foreign policy was more successful in the Cold War when it pursued “soft power” or “hard power” solutions?

Additional Resources

Check out the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s History School Origins of the Cold War classGilder Lehrman 
Transcript for "How the Cold War Arms Race Fueled a Sprint to the Moon"Retro Report 

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.

Skill 3.A: Identify and describe a claim and/or argument in a non-text-based source.

Theme 6: America in the World (WOR).

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