Russia on Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. The success of the 184-pound Sputnik sent the space race between the two Cold War superpowers into high-gear, and sparked a concerted American effort to beat Moscow to the Moon.

In hindsight, it’s amusing that Sputnik had “talking heads fuming that the Soviet Union was on the verge of eclipsing the United States,” said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial (free registration). Powerful columnists actually called for federalizing the education system to crank out engineers and scientists so we could catch up with the Soviets. Of course, in the end it was the rocketing U.S. economy that won the race.

Actually, it was petty jealousy and in-fighting that caused Moscow to lose the race to the Moon, said Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita Khrushchev, in the San Francisco Chronicle. Everyone on the team that sent Sputnik aloft wanted a little recognition, but all the glory went to Sergei Korolev, the chief designer. That ruined Korolev’s relationship with the man who designed the program’s rocket engine, and the Soviet space program was never the same.

Sputnik taught Americans all they needed to know about Moscow’s capabilities, said The New York Times in an editorial (free registration). “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.” Like Pearl Harbor before it, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks later, Sputnik provoked a “national response to new dangers.”

“With the Cold War now a fading memory,” said Kevin Chilton in the Los Angeles Times (free registration), “the idea of defending space may seem quaint to many Americans.” But “as a Chinese anti-satellite missile test earlier this year made clear, space-based threats are still very much with us.”

President Bush should remember the lesson of Sputnik as his administration feeds “Russia’s traditional paranoia” with plans to install a missile-defense system in several former Warsaw Pact nations, said Matthew Brzezinski in the Houston Chronicle. It’s a bad idea to “goad the Russian bear.”