In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama declared, “This is our generation’s Sputnik Moment.” Sputnik was the satellite that the Soviets had launched into orbit 54 years earlier, setting off not only a space race (and a missile race to follow) but also a national panic over America’s primacy in the Cold War. Obama went on:
[W]e had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. … 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.
Now, Obama told the nation, it was time to unleash the same sort of wave in biomedicine, clean energy, and information technology—boosting not only the volume of research and development but also the quality of “math and science education,” which “lags behind many other nations.” Hence the “Sputnik Moment.”
But is Sputnik the apt analogy? Has anything happened that could spur the public and Congress to the degree that the Russians’ little satellite did?
It’s hard to remember, even for those who lived through it, what an enormous shock Sputnik was. On Oct. 3, 1957, the Russians were regarded as technological primitives. The next day, they launched Sputnik, and suddenly they were seen as ahead of us. (The United States had tried but failed to launch a much smaller satellite.)
Rep. Clare Booth Luce of Connecticut called the beep on Sputnik’s transponder “an intercontinental outer-space raspberry to a decade of American pretensions that the American way of life was a gilt-edged guarantee of our national superiority.” It wasn’t just politicians who were in a panic. John Rinehart of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory predicted that, “no matter what we do now, the Russians will beat us to the moon” and may get there “within a week.” Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, said on national TV that America had lost “a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor.” Sen. Lyndon Johnson’s aide, George Reedy, wrote, in a memo to his boss, “It is unpleasant to feel that there is something floating around in the air which the Russians can put up and we can’t. … It really doesn’t matter whether the satellite has any military value. The important thing is that the Russians have left the earth, and the race for control of the universe has started.” (Reedy’s emphasis.) (All four quotes are from here.)
There was, of course, potential military value: If a Russian rocket could blast off while carrying a satellite, the next one might carry a nuclear warhead. But this was an esoteric point (and, as it happened, an alarmist one; the Russians took several more years to build an intercontinental ballistic missile). The main worry—reinforced by a slew of magazine articles about American complacency, conformity, and the onset of a recession—was that we were growing weak, that we were behind.
Not quite one year later, on Sept. 2, 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, the first lines of which read:
The Congress hereby finds and declares that the security of the Nation requires the fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women. The present emergency demands that additional and more adequate educational opportunities be made available. The defense of this Nation depends upon the mastery of modern techniques developed from complex scientific principles. It depends as well upon the discovery and development of new principles, new techniques, and new knowledge.