The Space Race facts

Another myth we can lay to rest: Apollo wasn’t the only project that had any hope of reaching the moon. Russia could have beaten America by sending a lone cosmonaut around the moon, just weeks before Apollo 11’s touchdown. Even if that cosmonaut couldn’t ever have landed, it would have taken the wind right out of NASA’s sails, and would have been another “first” for the great Korolev. Sadly, he died in 1966, in his late fifties: ill from his time in the Gulags and worn out from his rocket work. What might have happened if he had lived just another few years? Sadly, his successors were not such good managers, and America won the race to the moon. But they did manage to send an empty Soyuz around the moon and bring it home to earth. That’s why NASA very suddenly decided to send Apollo 8 to the moon, even though the lander module wasn’t ready. NASA genuinely was scared that Russia might beat them.

Space history is full of stories we think we know about. Then you look at them a little more closely, and the truth gets more subtle, more interesting . . .

Piers Bizony, space writer and historian

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