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Is this really a Sputnik Moment?

A few days ago, a column in The Economist noted how the phrase “Sputnik Moment” was creeping into political talk used by the Obama administration to discuss China. Sure enough, during his State of the Union address tonight, President Obama said, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.” Was he talking about China? If not, what was he talking about?

Here’s the context of Obama’s quote, taken from the text of his State of the Union Address:

“Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs – from manufacturing to retail – that have come from those breakthroughs.

“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”

America’s actual Sputnik Moment happened in October 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched the first manmade satellite.

The problem with calling right now a “Sputnik Moment” is nothing like that has happened lately. Not even close. As the The Economist‘s Lexington columnist puts it:

“There has, for a start, been no ‘moment’: China has been rising steadily for years without delivering any single shock. Whereas the Soviet Union and America built separate economic spheres, globalisation has bound the American and Chinese economies intimately together, to mutual advantage.”

There are other differences. Following Sputnik, it was very clear what had to be done to win the space race. “We choose to go to the moon!” declared John F. Kennedy. And America did.

If 2011 is a Sputnik moment, what are we supposed to do? According to Obama, it’s to do all sorts of research in all sorts of fields: biomedical research, information technology, clean energy, high-speed rail, and so forth. It’s also a call to invest in education. Basically: Spend government money on those things.

There are many good reasons we should do that. But there’s no reason that resembles Sputnik. Calling 2011 a “Sputnik Moment” is Cold War nostalgia. Cold War iconography is fun when you’re watching “Mad Men” or making a retro design inspired by 1960s movie posters. It’s not fun at all when you’re talking about government policy. The Cold War was a bad time, when people lived in fear of nuclear war and elected officials made all sorts of stupid decisions.

Of course, the Cold War motivated American to explore space and make advancements in technology that ultimately proved useful for peaceful purposes. That’s why today it behooves politicians to invoke a crisis like Sputnik: It gets people on edge. Keep people scared and they’ll listen to you.

The Sputnik Moment is not a perfect metaphor. But at least it’s a metaphor, which is better than a genuine threat.

Photos: NASA

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Uncategorized


  1. Daryl Lang says:

    Hi! This is a test post.

  2. Daryl Lang says:

    Just another test post.

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