When the Soviets put a satellite into orbit on this date in 1957, few languages had a word to describe it. In parts of Asia, it was billed as the "hanging of an artificial star." Today, with cell phones, the Internet and other forms of communication, even peasants in Asian rice paddies avail themselves of satellites, putting them to work in a variety of ways.

If an apparatus could be called a pioneer, then Sputnik would be the Christopher Columbus of devices.

For the older set, memories abound of the mid-20th century "space race" and the wonder of that new Russian orbiter. Bubble gum machines soon began carrying sparkling blue gumballs called "Sputniks." Ham radio operators tuned into the stars. Families searched the heavens for this new "moving planet."

A little more than three months later, the United States had Explorer I in the air. It quickly discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belts and showed that space was, indeed, a true, new frontier. NASA was created. In short, Sputnik triggered a movement that carries on today — in forms many of those original engineers could not have anticipated.

Because the Soviet empire eventually would implode, many of the "firsts" achieved in Moscow are simply trivia questions for parties now — the first dog in space, the first man. The Soviets had the know-how; they simply didn't have the economic system to get the job done. And that, perhaps more than anything else, remains the most sobering lesson of Sputnik and should give pause to repressive regimes looking to press ahead with grand adventures. The track record for success in totalitarian societies is abysmal. That's not opinion. It's history.

As for Sputnik, it not only changed the cosmos, but changed individual lives. Many kids decided on rocket science as a career. Politicians had to change their tunes to meet America's new interest in space exploration. Everyone wanted to become an astronaut.

The launching of Sputnik was indeed a small step for human beings, but a large leap for humanity. Among the events of the 1950s, Sputnik may have done the most to change the world.