When the United States dropped their atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (bombs named Fat Man and Little Boy respectively) to end the Second World War, they displayed to the world the destructive power of nuclear weapons. The United States also used this event as a sort of intimidation tactic; since the United States was the only country with this technology, they had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. Both of these points were put into play in the Berlin Airlift, which made Josef Stalin kind of jealous, but only until 1949; the Rosenbergs had passed information about the atomic bombs in the United States to the Soviet Union, allowing the Soviet Union to test its first atomic bomb, RDS-1, in 1949.
In 1953, the United States tested its first hydrogen bomb, code-named Ivy Mike; countered by the Soviet Union in 1953, when they tested their first hydrogen bomb (called RDS-6s). This began the nuclear arms race that would climax at the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
As the nuclear arms race progressed, better and better weapons were being produced; the only way for either side to overpower the other would be to be able to launch an unmanned device from deep inside one's own country, that could travel to anywhere in the other country and release the explosive cargo. This sort of transport device (missile) was developed; called an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, it could reach any point on the Earth, from any point. Before the Soviets had any ICBMs, though, Sputnik was born.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first man-made satellite into space, and were able to keep it in orbit. This device was called Sputnik 1; it was around the size of a basketball and weighed 183 pounds. The United States was horrified. With this Soviet contraption flying aound in space, who knows what could be attached to it; cameras, listening devices, or even nuclear weapons. Sputnik was a great blow to the American security, and ego, but it woulnd't stop there; a month later, the Soviet Union successfull launched a dog into space (aboard Sputnik 2, but there was no way for it to return, so the dog died). Even after the United States conducted its first successful space launch, the Soviet Union was still lightyears ahead.
In 1960, the Soviets successfully launched and retrieved two dogs into space (along with forty mice, two rats, a rabbit, and a number of flies) aboard Sputnik 5. The best was yet to come.
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space. When he returned to Earth, Nikita Krushchev rushed him to Moscow to partake in a parade in Gagarin's honour; Gagarin became an instant celebrity, travelling to Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada to promote the success of the Soviet Union. He praised the Communist Party (of the Soviet Union), and Krushchev used this as an oppourtunity to prove he was right in spending so much Soviet money on the arms race, which led further to his downfall in 1964.
Although this was used by the Soviet Union as a way of showing off their nuclear "superiority", American U-2s flying over the Soviet Union proved that the United States was indeed superior in the arms race at the moment. Since the United States had ICBMs, and the Soviet Union had quite meagre nuclear stockpiles, the Soviet Union resorted to strategic placement of their missiles; an idea that could have turned horrible.
This event increased the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.
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