- In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik, and the space race was on. The Soviets' triumph jarred the American people and sparked a vigorous response in the federal go vernment to make sure the United States did not fall behind its Communist rival. The Soviets were the first to launch a satellite into space in 1957. Then the U.S. decided to catch up and surpass whatever the Soviets would do. Because the US decided to surpass the Soviet Union, the USA put the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong.