Tales from the Trail

Obama has his “Sputnik moment,” will it succeed like JFK’s?

December 6, 2010

Trying to get the U.S. economy back on track may sometimes seem a bit like reaching for the stars. Well, President Barack Obama today declared that America is facing a “Sputnik moment.”  

Speaking at a community college in North Carolina, Obama said innovation, training and education were vital to economic recovery, giving clean energy technology as an example of a promising area for job creation. “If this is truly going to be our Sputnik moment we need a commitment to innovation that we haven’t seen since President Kennedy challenged us to go to the Moon.” SPACE SPUTNIK

Obama, who was not born at the time of Sputnik, was trying to make the point that the country needs the same drive to tackle its economy that was used when it responded to the Soviet Union winning early challenges in the space age.

A “Sputnik moment” is generally used to describe a point when it’s time to wake up, catch up, and excel. It is derived from one of the milestones of flight when on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, beating the United States into space.

Sputnik prompted the United States to redouble its efforts in science, and as one colleague recalls it seemed like almost the next day every elementary school in the country was pushing science education.

President John F. Kennedy had his “Sputnik moment” on May 25, 1961, when he declared before a special joint session of Congress that an  American would go to the Moon. That was again in response to the Soviet Union which had again trumped the United States by sending a human into space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961.

Kennedy’s “Sputnik moment” led to a successful mission to the Moon. Will Obama’s also lead to success?

“We will meet that Sputnik moment, but we’re going to all have to do it together,” Obama said.

Photo credit: Reuters/William Philpott (Societ Sputnik 1 at Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum)

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