It must have been quite a shock to those people in the United States who happened to tune their ham radios to the steady "… beep … beep … beep …" of Sputnik 1.
The launch of this Soviet satellite 50 years ago is widely seen as the start of the Space Race.
The Soviet Union got off to a flyer. Sputnik was the world's first artificial satellite and the Soviets built on that milestone by sending the first animal into space later that same year, and then the first human in 1961.
Playing second fiddle was a huge blow to US national pride. In the wake of Sputnik, one US headline hysterically proclaimed "US Must Catch Up with Reds or We're Dead".
But the Space Race was not a sprint, it was a marathon - and the US, with all its resources and human capital, is nigh on impossible to beat when it gets up to full speed.
Galvanised into action, by the end of the 60's the US had pulled off the one achievement to rule them all - landing humans on the Moon and returning them safely.
The rest, as they say, is history and ever since, the United States has been the pre-eminent space power.
Now, “pre-eminent” is a relative term because those heady days of the Space Race are long gone. The end of the Cold War has seen space research and development subject to hard-nosed economic pragmatism and competing demands on national budgets.
This is particularly the case in Australia. During the Apollo era, Australia played a pivotal role as a communications hub for NASA. And Woomera in South Australia was a major testing ground for aerospace technology, at one stage with a population of about 6,000.
That Woomera now has a population of 200 indicates the extent to which Australia has removed itself from international efforts to research and develop space.
In 1996 the Howard Government sent a signal of its antipathy to space research by closing the Australian Space Office. It also shut down Australia's Near-Earth Object Survey effort, one of the few operating in the Southern Hemisphere, with former Science Minister Peter McGauran rather savagely describing it as a "… fruitless, unnecessary, self-indulgent exercise".
In 2004, the Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems lost its bid for continued funding.
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