Notice that I didn't say Soviet or US above, because it doesn't really matter. Humans in space is what counts. But everyone of course knows that Sputnik - Russian for "fellow traveler" - set off the space race which we in the US eventually "won" in 1969. Prior to then, Telstar was our only first accomplishment.
And what did that victory get us? A space shuttle, with brave astronauts, some of whom lost their lives. But no one has gotten too far beyond this planet. We've sent robots to Mars, and that's exciting, but robots neither laugh nor cry - they're not human.
And so, as the 50th anniversary of Sputnik approaches, I can only hope that we start doing a little better. Civilization is filled with examples of major inventions that stayed dormant for centuries - even millennia. The Chinese invention of the printing press in 700 or 800 AD, and its failure to be used for a mass print and popular culture, is one of the most vivid examples. (I wrote about this way back in 1977, in my essay, "Toy, Mirror, and Art: The Metamorphosis of Technological Culture" - it was reprinted in my 1995 Learning Cyberspace - and I'll try to post the essay here in the next few weeks.)
Let's not wait 700 more years to really get out into space. The Universe awaits us...
See also Realspace: The Fate of Physical Presence in the Digital Age, On and Off Planet
20-minute podcast: Celebrating Sputnik