Fifty years ago, the Soviet Union launched a small sphere into space that could do little more than beep-beep-beep as it circled the Earth. Sputnik 1 was the first artificial satellite ever placed in orbit and a stunning propaganda achievement. Sputnik brought home that the Russians weren’t quite the backward oafs Americans had thought. They had a satellite that could look down on our homeland and — far more scary — a powerful rocket that could presumably carry a nuclear warhead over our borders.

It is hard to exaggerate the impact the first Sputnik had on an America enmeshed in the cold war. Sputnik has been likened to Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 terrorist attacks — events provoking a national response to new dangers. But its legacy has been mixed, and its lessons for today seem limited.

Now there are wistful calls for another Sputnik-like event to goad a re-invigoration of American education and technology. Some hope that China’s emerging space programme will serve as a catalyst, but it is hard to believe that much fear or awe will be generated if China retraces the steps we took decades ago. Future space exploration, involving extremely costly missions to Mars and the asteroids, will likely require close cooperation with other nations, not fearful reaction against their achievements. — The New York Times