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Opening Arguments

The race is on

Sputnik totally freaked out this country. The fact that the Soviet Union might be ahead of us led us to question our science education and fueled the space race, which we won by landing on the moon, still the greatest achievement of humankind. And it turns out that Sputnik was a lot of hype and hoax:

MOSCOW (AP) — When Sputnik took off 50 years ago, the world gazed at the heavens in awe and apprehension, watching what seemed like the unveiling of a sustained Soviet effort to conquer space and score a stunning Cold War triumph.

But 50 years later, it emerges that the momentous launch was far from being part of a well-planned strategy to demonstrate communist superiority over the West. Instead, the first artificial satellite in space was a spur-of-the-moment gamble driven by the dream of one scientist, whose team scrounged a rocket, slapped together a satellite and persuaded a dubious Kremlin to open the space age.

And that winking light that crowds around the globe gathered to watch in the night sky? Not Sputnik at all, as it turns out, but just the second stage of its booster rocket, according to Boris Chertok, one of the founders of the Soviet space program.

In a series of interviews in recent days with The Associated Press, Chertok and other veterans told the little-known story of how Sputnik was launched, and what an unlikely achievement it turned out to be.

Should we be angry about how much time, effort and money we spent to meet a threat that wasn't really there? Or should we be glad of what was achieved because of our misperception? One view of history is that it has been a race from one mistake to another -- battles that could have been won, wars that shouldn't have been fought, opportunities that weren't seized, dangers that weren't noticed. May we have more mistakes like this one.