Our Real Sputnik Moment

In President Barack Obama’s (D) State of the Union address last week, he declared, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.” It was a lovely, if typical, rhetorical flourish from our president. He was trying to rouse the American people to major investments in research, science, and technology in response to the great strides made by China and other countries in these and other fields.

Sputnik 1 was the first man-made object to orbit the Earth. It was launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, much to the surprise of American observers who almost universally expected the U.S. space program to reach orbit first. The Soviets followed with Sputnik 2 on November 3 of the same year. Our own first satellite was Explorer 1, which launched on January 31, 1958—almost four months later. This national embarrassment in the midst of the Cold War was a wake-up call for Americans. We weren’t doing enough. The Soviet Union was a serious threat to our security, and it was ahead of us in a key area of scientific development.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin flew into space and orbited the Earth on Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, becoming the first human in space. U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard flew into space on Freedom 7 only three weeks later, but we were not able to get a human into orbit until John Glenn flew on Friendship 7 on February 2, 1962. We were still, arguably, far behind the Soviets. The ‘space race’ between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was on, and would become a national obsession for years to come. We seemingly put everything we had into development of space technology, and the effort to beat the Soviets culminated with the Apollo program, where we successfully landed human beings on the moon.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower (R) didn’t declare a ‘Sputnik moment;’ the Sputnik moment just happened. The Soviet Union shot an artificial satellite into space, and we collectively saw it for what it was: a threat. We knew that we needed to rise to the challenge posed by the Soviet Union and overcome it, and eventually we did.

Eisenhower, and his successor President John F. Kennedy (D), embraced the Sputnik moment and ran with it, ultimately leading to incredible scientific and moral triumph for the United States, but they couldn’t have created that moment if they wanted to. National awakenings don’t happen when presidents declare them; they happen when they happen. They happen when the American people see a threat and intuitively know that the threat needs to be addressed and, more importantly, how to address it.

President George W. Bush (R) tried declaring a Sputnik moment once before. He didn’t call it that, but he did call for a renewed space program that would send us to Mars in an effort to rebuild American technological superiority. It was reminiscent of Kennedy’s space speeches, but it fell on deaf ears and Bush’s plan ultimately went nowhere. Why? Because the American people weren’t motivated by a real threat to invest in space exploration. Most of us, even those of us (like me) who love the space program and want to see more investment in science and technology, wondered what possible relevance a trip to Mars could have in fighting the biggest real problem that faced the country at the time: radical Islamic terrorism.

You see, the scientific development during the ‘space race’ had a real, concrete, serious impact against the most serious issue facing the country then: the Soviet Union. They were building missiles to kill us, so we were developing the technology to kill them too. The doctrine of ‘mutually assured destruction,’ made possible by the developments during the space race, is what kept the peace (relatively speaking) for forty years. The majority of Americans understood that, and thus were on-board with the massive investments the space race required. The expense was justified in response to the threat.

Obama’s curious declaration of a Sputnik moment will find itself falling of deaf ears just like Bush’s did, because we are faced with a real threat to the future of our country that massive additional federal spending will do nothing to solve. During the Cold War, America’s future was threatened by the Soviet Union. During the first six years of Bush’s presidency, America’s future was threatened by radical Islamic terrorism. Today, America’s future is threatened by our own government—and most of us know (or should know) that massive new federal spending, even on worthy causes like science and technology, is the last thing we need.

As of January 31, 2011, the U.S. national debt is $14,131,051,056,010.84. It is increasing at the highest rate in history. We are, quite literally, spending dollars faster than they can be printed, and if this continues it will inevitably lead to the collapse of the dollar. It is possible—more so than most are willing to admit—that a catastrophic collapse of our monetary system will take our entire constitutional republic with it. Mr. President, this is our Sputnik moment. This is the threat to our future that should scare us out of our wits and motivate drastic action to counter it.

Fighting this threat will take painful sacrifices. There will absolutely need to be reductions in government services. We should freeze infrastructure spending and direct defense spending (narrowly defined) at their current levels, and reduce spending in all other areas until the federal budget is balanced. This is not something we should do over a period of a decade based on fictional projections, this is something we should do immediately. We have let the federal deficits and debts grow too big for too long, and there is no more time for gentle, easy solutions. We are in a fiscal crisis, and we must address it like we’re in a crisis . . . before it is too late.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.