Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obama's "Sputnik Moment"

“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,” President Obama said last night. “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.”

In what was perhaps the most memorable line in his speech, the president went on to call 2011 “our generation's Sputnik moment.”  As a citizen, I like the point he was trying to make. But as a speechwriter and a student of American history, I find Obama’s use of the term “Sputnik moment” questionable for two reasons.

First, being a history geek, I know what Sputnik was. In 1957 the Soviets achieved the early lead in the space race by launching the world’s first man-made satellite into orbit. But, I’m not entirely sure that “Sputnik” is a term which resonates with most citizens, especially younger people who voted so overwhelmingly for Obama.

If you were alive in 1957, you remember the sense of panic and national hand-wringing which accompanied news of Sputnik’s launch. Otherwise, the meaning, and the context of the point Obama was trying to make, is lost.

Second, the term “Sputnik moment” implies failure and national defeat, reminding us of the first of many moments that the Soviets beat us in the space race. People forget that, in the early part of the space race, the Russians were the first to have “firsts.” They launched the first animal, man, and woman into space. Their cosmonauts had orbited the earth repeatedly years before John Glenn did. America did not begin to achieve real parity with the Soviets until the Gemini phase of NASA’s space program launched in the mid-1960s.

Invoking Sputnik as Obama did is like thinking of the Revolutionary War as the outcome of our “Boston Massacre moment,” or victory in World War II as starting with our “Pearl Harbor moment.”  

President Obama’s point – striving for one national goal triggers a wave of innovation that can take us into directions we did not even imagine – is valid.  I just think that asking Americans to strive for another “Apollo 11 moment” would have made that point in a cleaner, crisper, more resonant, and more inspirational way. 

Reminder the American people of the dark place where a long journey began is far less motivational than invoking the victorious manner in which it ended.

1 comment:

  1. Well, speaking as a young person (who didn't vote for Obama, but still), I have to say that Sputnik resonates with me much more than Apollo 11 would have. Who can keep track of all the Apollo missions? The only one I know is 13, and that is from the movie.

    On the other hand, I did not have the historical perspective on the Sputnik project that you do, being younger. I don't associate it with failure or fear -- it is almost just like being behind in the first quarter of a football game to me.

    So perhaps it wasn't such an ineffective talking point after all -- but mainly because we Americans are generally poor students of history.