'Sputnik moment': It's 1957 all over again

Obama uses Soviet satellite launch to call for focus on education, innovation

Is the United States facing a new "Sputnik moment?”

President Barack Obama seems to think so. So does Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.). And Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

As though sharing speech notes, all three have publicly referred to now as being “our Sputnik moment” within the last two weeks. Is the White House revisiting Sputnik to save technology?


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“In 1957, just before this college opened, the Soviet Union beat us into space by launching a satellite known as Sputnik,” Obama said in a speech at Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina on Dec. 6. “And that was a wake-up call that caused the United States to boost our investment in innovation and education -– particularly in math and science.”  

“So 50 years later," he continued, "our generation’s Sputnik moment is back.”

The year 1957 saw taller tail fins on new cars with more powerful engines. Singer Little Richard might have been blaring from the radio. As you drove down the street you may have seen children playing with slinkys and Hula Hoops, according to The People History website. "Twelve Angry Men" was the hot flick and the TV show "Maverick" aired for the first time. But what does 1957 have to do with 2010 and beyond?

Research and development continue to play a prominent role in the national discussion about restoring America’s economic prosperity,” wrote Richard M. Jones of the American Institute of Physics in response to President Obama’s speech.

President Obama’s goal is “to increase education and science spending to 3 percent the size of the economy, a significant increase from current levels,” according to the New York Times' The Caucus.

Sen. Kerry continued the message this past weekend on "Meet the Press." “We need to kick America into gear,” he said, according to an NBC news release. “This is our Sputnik moment. We’ve sort of seen Sputnik going across the sky, but we’ve done nothing similar to what we did in the 1960s to respond to it.”

One of Energy Secretary Chu's slides from a speech he gave last week displayed the Oct.4, 1957 newspaper headline on the Sputnik launch and President Dwight Eisenhower’s ominous response, reported NetworkWorld.

According to The People History, this is what was happening globally in technology in 1957:

  • Ultrasound scanning is pioneered in Scotland.
  • First Nuclear Reactor plant opens for production of electricity in Pennsylvania.
  • The Soviet Union launches Sputnik I, on Oct. 4, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. (It weighed 184 pounds, measured 22 inches in diameter, and circled the Earth every 1 hour, 36 minutes.)
  • Soviets test the H Bomb.
  • Great Britain tests first hydrogen bomb.
  • The Soviet Union launches Sputnik 2. On board is the first animal to enter space - a dog named Laika.

About the Author

Alysha Sideman is the online content producer for Washington Technology.

Reader Comments

Fri, Dec 17, 2010 Ana DC

The Sputnik moment is realizing we live in an information-based society. We need to stop trying to bring back industrial-based manufacturing jobs. That age is over. Now it's about information and knowledge. We need to revamp jobs. Stop outsourcing IT to India and China and keep those jobs here. We need to educate our kids so they can do those information and knowledge based jobs.

Fri, Dec 17, 2010 Matt

Jim is right! Thanks for the laugh!

Thu, Dec 16, 2010 Reese

Walter: Yes, you have hit on one of the critical aspects of this. The broader context of this is simple. The U.S. is falling behind badly in general science and math literacy. Some quarters of American culture (on both the left and the right) in fact are promoting, even celebrating the dumbing down of America. So, yes, it's not exactly a "moment." At least not yet. Something will happen sooner or later to create the "moment."

Wed, Dec 15, 2010 jim

The Sputnik Moment is that collective sudden realization that our leadership is clueless.

Tue, Dec 14, 2010 Keith

I echo Emma's question, "What IS the Sputnik moment...?" WikiLeaks? Nah. I don't think there is one. It's just a catchy phrase coming off of slick politicians lips to justify more federal encroachment into areas they don't belong.

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