Newly re-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced plans for a series of space missions in the coming years that will place Russia significantly ahead of the United States in terms of space-based capabilities.

Putin’s announcements, which were delivered via a Russian language documentary that was shared on social media leading up to last weekend’s election, include an unmanned Mars mission as early as next year, as well as manned Lunar missions to follow soon thereafter.

“Our specialists will try to make landings on the poles, because there is reason to believe that there can be water there. There, there is progress to be made, studies of other planets, distant space can be started from there,” Putin said of the planned moon missions.

Putin’s new emphasis on space could be seen as a part of an effort to recapture some of the prestige of the former Soviet Union – something that could be said of most of the Russian president’s efforts, but it’s important to remember that the glory days of the Soviet Union’s space enterprises were never based solely on bragging rights… they were born out of the pursuit of tactical supremacy.

On October 4th, 1957, the world’s first ever artificial satellite, a 22 inch long, 184 pound sphere, beeped to life in the cold darkness of space. The Soviet Union had not only accomplished an incredible feat of engineering, they had done something that, until then, had been relegated to the realm of fantasy in most people’s minds: bridging the gap between humanity and the heavens.

In the centuries to come, that fateful day may be remembered as among the long list of early space accomplishments that led to humanity’s eventual expansion throughout the stars – as the banners or flags that these missions were carried out under begin to fade to time, and only the ingenuity, the heroism, and the romance of early space flight remains. Back in 1957, however, Sputnik’s launch was seen as anything but a triumph for mankind… here in the United States, Sputnik was a threat to our future survival.

Sputnik: A simple device with ominous implications. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

From that day, it took the United States only 298 days to stand up its own, federally funded, space agency tasked with recreating and ultimately exceeding Soviet capabilities in orbit. Presented as a civilian-focused endeavor, the U.S. government used a combination of emphasis on science and a concerted public relations effort to create an image of almost friendly competition, as though America’s space based efforts were about capturing prestige … rather than the ultimate high ground.

The prestigious lacquer adorning America’s space program hid an underlying fear of Soviet dominance in the burgeoning battlespace above our heads, as well as the sometimes less than reputable means the American effort utilized to offset the capability gap demonstrated by Sputnik’s launch. Nazi scientists like Wernher von Braun, who developed the V2 rockets that rained down on England during World War II, were officially redesignated and (according to some reports) provided false histories and documentation to allow them to assume senior roles in the fledgling space agency through things like Operation Paperclip.