Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What's a "Sputnik Moment"?

In last night's State of the Union speech, President Obama referred to the current economic climate as "our generation's Sputnik moment."

Last December 6, in a speech at Forsyth Technical Community College at Winston-Salem, North Carolina, President Barack Obama used the phrase "Sputnik moment" to describe his vision for unleashing a new period of innovation in the American economy.

The Winston-Salem Journal reported:

The heart of the speech focused on how America can reshape itself to meet the needs of a new economy, much as it did in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the Earth-orbiting satellite known as Sputnik.

The Soviets’ innovation was a surprise, and ultimately served as a wakeup call that galvanized the nation. The result was a pioneering space program that put the first man on the moon.

“So 50 years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment,” said Obama, standing in front of blue backdrop before a gymnasium crammed with students and faculty from Forsyth Tech. “If the recession has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot go back to an economy that’s driven by way too much spending, too much borrowing, running up credit cards, taking out a lot of home equity loans.… We’ve got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth.”

Obama repeated the theme in last night's State of the Union speech:

Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our 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 these 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 would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t 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. And 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.

I wrote a blog on December 7 suggesting that a "Sputnik moment" is really more of a myth than an historical fact.

The press reacts to the launch of Sputnik I. Photo source:

The United States hysterically overreacted to the Soviet Union launching Sputnik I into orbit on October 4, 1957. Many believed the Soviets now had the ability to nuke the country into obliteration, or at the very least they were spying on America from space.

I just finished reading Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, an excellent book by Paul Dickson. I'll write a review in a few days. Dickson's book is a thoroughly compelling read, not just for its detailed description of the events in 1957, but also places Sputnik in historical perspective.

I understand what the President means by his "Sputnik moment" phrase, but I cringe because to me it means, "A moment where everyone panics, overreacts, succumbs to hysteria and totally misses the point."

For those who were actually paying attention, the Sputnik I launch should have been no surprise. Both the U.S. and USSR agreed to launch satellites as part of the International Geophysical Year. The White House chose a Navy proposal called Project Vanguard, essentially building a new rocket from scratch rather than using an existing military weapon such as the Army's Jupiter rocket. The Russians weren't squeamish about such things, so when Sputnik I launched it was atop a Soviet R-7 Semyorka intercontinental ballistic missile.

Neither the White House or the Vanguard scientists viewed IGY as a "Space Race." The program objective was to launch a research satellite by the spring of 1958. In fact, it was directed that Vanguard would have to take a back seat to military missile development programs already underway at Cape Canaveral.

Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, launches on January 31, 1958 atop a modified Jupiter-C rocket.

Did the United States have a rocket capable of putting a satellite into orbit? Absolutely. Dr. Wernher von Braun claimed his Jupiter rocket, a descendant of the Nazi V-2, could have launched a satellite in 1956. But launching a satellite wasn't a national priority. Delivering bombs was.

For the more sober, Sputnik suggested the Russians could strike the U.S. with an ICBM. The absence of an American satellite implied it could not retaliate. That was totally false, but the Eisenhower administration was reluctant to expose military secrets to respond to what they viewed as an overreaction.

If anything, the administration missed the propaganda value behind Sputnik until it was too late, until after the Soviets launched Sputnik II with a dog aboard. In May 1958, the USSR launched Sputnik III, which weighed over 1,300 kg (nearly 3,000 pounds); although the U.S. had launched satellites by then, none were even close in weight to the Sputnik III payload.

A cynic might conclude that this "Space Race" was more about phallic symbolism than anything else. The American standard of living was undoubtedly superior to that of the Soviet Union, and the Western world had contained the Soviet military threat. A Cold War waged, but it was for the hearts and minds of the Third World, and perhaps Sputnik was one small battle won in that conflict.

So what is a "Sputnik moment"?

Obama means it in the sense that its mythology teaches us. Like Pearl Harbor or perhaps 9/11, Americans don't like to be caught with their guard down. Few saw the Great Recession coming — although there were some economists and others who warned about the consequences of the real estate bubble and unsecured debt. They knew the bubble was about to burst, just as those paying attention in 1957 knew the Russians were going to launch a satellite.

Should the United States strive to be a global leader in innovation? Absolutely. Should we invest in the future, reduce the national debt and be more responsible with our personal finances? Certainly. I just don't think calling this a "Sputnik moment" is the proper metaphor.

Meanwhile, little Forsyth Tech basks this morning in the national spotlight. Today's Winston-Salem Journal reports that Obama invited a Forsyth student, Kathy Proctor, to sit with Michelle Obama last night during the speech.

Obama met Proctor while visiting Forsyth Tech in early December. On that visit, Obama delivered an optimistic speech that called for a new "Sputnik moment" that would unleash a wave of innovation.

That speech previewed much of what Obama said last night. He again called for a Sputnik moment, a reference to the way the United States shaped itself into a global leader in space exploration after the Soviet Union launched the earth-orbiting satellite Sputnik in 1957.

Dr. Gary Green, the president of Forsyth Tech, said Obama was impressed with the way Proctor had reinvented herself. She and other students seemed to embody the type of transformation the country needs to make in the changing global economy.

For those of us here in Brevard County, we should pay close attention to the details of Obama's FY 2012 budget proposal when it is released next month. Obama spoke last April about converting central Florida into the Silicon Valley of space. His FY 2011 budget proposal, and subsequent grants targeting the Space Coast, intended to upgrade Kennedy Space Center and retrain area workers for 21st Century technologies.

Obama noted in last night's speech that "NASA didn't exist" when Sputnik launched, implying this might have been one cause for the "Sputnik moment." We might infer from his remarks that more investment in Brevard County will be coming our way in the FY 2012 budget proposal.

But it's important to remember that no President's budget proposal has the force of law. Congress determines the budget, not the President, who can only sign or veto it. So the members of Congress can gleefully discard whatever a President proposes and do what they feel like. It should be noted that although the FY 2011 budget cycle began last October 1, Congress has yet to appropriate the money for that budget, so NASA and all other federal agencies cruise along in neutral, and the President can do nothing about it.

Kentucky Republican senator and self-described Tea Partier Rand Paul wants to cut NASA's budget by 25%, according to Space Politics. Apparently not everyone in Congress cares about this "Sputnik moment."

1 comment:

  1. Sputnik moment is when you realize you suck.