Our Generation’s Sputnik Moment

By Jeb Sharp

President Obama’s message in the State of the Union address last night was clear. The United States needs to get its act together or risk losing its place in the world.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” said the President.

The president’s rhetoric got us thinking about the original Sputnik moment, and what it unleashed, and whether it’s relevant to today’s challenges.

On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into space. Cathleen Lewis, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, said the spacecraft wasn’t that sophisticated.

“It was simply a hollow sphere with two transmitters on board, and batteries,” Lewis said.

And it while it didn’t surprise Americans involved in the space race, it shocked the public.

“The point of Sputnik was this was the first public awareness this competition was going on,” said Lewis. “And that the Soviet Union had the capability of launching warheads to anywhere in the world.”

That realization took the cold war competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to a whole new level. Von Hardesty, co-author of “Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race”, remembers watching Sputnik move across the sky through binoculars from the roof of his college dorm.

“This was a really traumatic moment,” Hardesty said. “It ran counter to our self-image as a country, that we were always on the cutting edge and the Soviet Union was still something of a technological backwater.”

What followed was a period of national soul-searching that resulted in major increases in spending on scientific education and research. Jim Lewis, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the most important part of the federal response to Sputnik was probably the National Scientific Education Act.

“It created a whole generation of scientists and engineers,” Lewis said. “And we’ve lived off that bulge, that big pile of scientists and engineers that were created through the last few decades. These guys are just hitting retirement now and they’re going out of the work force and we’re not replacing them.”

Lewis says he groaned inwardly when he heard the Sputnik analogy being used once again last night. Not because he doesn’t support the President’s call for investment and innovation, but because the context is different now.

“The problem with the Sputnik analogy is that Americans were afraid when they woke up and realized that the Soviets had this immense new capability that we couldn’t match,” said Lewis.

“If you can orbit a satellite, you can land a warhead anywhere in the planet. That’s what people realized and it scared them. I don’t get that sense of fear, that sense of urgency today.”

Nor is there a specific focus like Sputnik according to Cathleen Lewis of the National Air and Space Museum.

“There’s nothing as discrete as Sputnik,” said Lewis. “There’s no discernible beeping in the sky.”

And there isn’t one overarching goal like the race to put a man on the moon. Instead President Obama spoke of a variety of clean energy Apollo projects, not one dramatic unambiguous finish line. Still, Von Hardesty thinks the President’s analogy works in a broad sense.

“The country has a perceived need to kind of reorganize ourselves,” said Hardesty. “To redeploy our resources, to once again gain a momentum or cutting edge in various spheres of life, including technology.”

Hardesty said in that sense President Obama is echoing some of the same feeling that rose out of the Sputnik area. Feelings are one thing though, action is another. Hardesty wonders out loud whether the United States has the economic and popular will to mount the kind of technological effort it did 50 years ago.

View this story on theworld.org.

Sign Up

Sign-up for WGBH Science updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.




Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor