To understand why the race between the United States and the Soviet Union to get into space was so important during the late 1950s, you have to first look at what was going on in the world at that time. At that time in history the Cold War was at its prime state and America's fear of the Communists was at an all time high. New technologies and also techniques for spying became a top concern for national security. .
After World War II ended, America and the Soviet Union were the two superpowers in the world. It wasn't long after the end of the war that both nations started experimenting with the building of large, liquid-fueled rockets. Another major concern for the United States was that they were no longer alone in the nuclear market because they had learned that the Soviet Union had also created and tested atomic bombs. By the end of the 1950s the U.S.S.R. was working toward combining these two new technologies into the building of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). .
In 1957 the U.S.S.R. was able to create their first ICBM which was almost 100 feet high and created over 880,000 pounds of thrust during liftoff. This new weapon had a range of about 4000 miles, which gave it the true title of being an intercontinental rocket. This new rocket was given the name Semyorka ("number seven"). When they tested Semyorka with a dummy warhead, it was destroyed while entering back into the earth's atmosphere. The U.S.S.R. was plagued with this same problem until 1959 when the R-7 was declared operational. The United States had successfully created their first ICBM in 1958, which was named "Atlas". .
The threat of the deadly new ICBM wasn't the American public's major concern though. On October 4, 1957, the U.S.S.R. put their first satellite into orbit, which was named Sputnik. This was not just a scientific achievement but also a strategic one giving way to the new threat of the soviets being able to put a nuclear missile into orbit that could threaten any U.