It’s the 21st day of July in 1969, and Neil Armstrong, hampered by his bulky space suit, clambers awkwardly down a short ladder. As he steps off the bottom rung, he is the first human to set foot on the Moon. There is jubilation in the United States. But in the Soviet Union, scientists, politicians and ordinary citizens are wondering why it isn’t a Russian in that spacesuit.
And the Russians had reason to feel that they should have been the first to put a man on the Moon. After all, they had taken an early lead in the Space Race as it was called. That competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had kicked off with a Russian win in October 1957. That was when the Soviets launched the first space satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit around the Earth.
What’s more, the Sputnik 1 success wasn’t the only time the Russians stole a march on the U.S. Their next great triumph came in April 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space aboard a Vostok spaceship. This put the Soviets firmly ahead in the Space Race.