Defining a 'Sputnik moment'
The launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.
January 25th, 2011
11:44 PM ET

Defining a 'Sputnik moment'

This generation's "Sputnik moment" has arrived, President Barack Obama declared in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, referring to the United States' need to invest in research and development to revive the economy and ensure future stability.

He was talking about investment in areas such as biomedical research and clean energy technology, but what did he mean by "Sputnik moment," exactly?

Precise definitions vary, (as do opinions on whether Americans need to be reminded of the origins of the phrase,) but in general, a "Sputnik moment" refers to the realization, triggered perhaps by a threat or challenge, of a need to do something different, setting a course in a new direction.

The original Sputnik moment came on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world's first Earth-orbiting satellite.

The launch of the 183-pound, beach ball-sized satellite caught the United States off guard while it was preparing to launch its own Earth-orbiting satellite. It took 98 minutes for Sputnik 1 to orbit the Earth, a single event that effectively launched the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as well as the space age, including the creation of NASA in 1958.

Obama referred to the challenges of that era in Tuesday's speech.

"Half a century ago, the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik. We had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't exist.  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.

Tuesday was not the first time Obama evoked the term to describe the United States' need to keep pace with the rapid rate of development around the world. But in 2009, while speaking at the National Academy of Sciences about investment in science research, he took a slightly different tone.

"There will be no single Sputnik moment for this generation's challenge to break our dependence on fossil fuels," he said. "In many ways, this makes the challenge even tougher to solve - and makes it all the more important to keep our eyes fixed on the work ahead."

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Filed under: Barack Obama • Politics
soundoff (141 Responses)
  1. Jason

    The fact that anyone doesn't know what a "Sputnik moment" is suggests serious gaps on U.S. education when it comes to American history. As the saying goes, those who don't know the past are doomed to repeat it.

    January 25, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jon Anderson

      And those who never learned the past (or Math, Biology, Chemistry, etc) were doomed to be taught by a member of the NEA.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Re: Jason

      Anyone born in the last 60 years either wasn't around or wasn't old enough to firmly grasp the significance of the "Sputnik moment." How are we suppose to compare the feeling when most of us weren't around to experience what occurred in 1957?

      January 25, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scot

      I paid attention to history class.

      Of course, just like the Cuban missile crisis, nobody of young age can expect to "fully grasp" the reference, nor grasp any other events such as 9/11 in fourty years, or the revolution over 200 years ago, or the civil war. When I see "bomb shelter" signs on really old public buildings, I understand, but can't fathom.

      I'm 27.

      I paid enough attention in history class to know that Sputnik refers to a critical defeat in a critical lap in scientific progress that slapped America in the face, Sputnik beeping at us and saying "Too Slow Joe".

      January 25, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Simon Phoenix

      When President Obama mentioned the Sputnik moment I knew exactly what he meant by it, and I was nowhere close to being born when it occurred. Granted, I have completed a program for certification in secondary Social Studies, so it is my job to know. Either way to make a short story long I thought it was an appropriate comparison.

      January 25, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gast

      I was not around from a couple of decades after Sputnik, but I know about Sputnik and the importance of the reference. Your comment is right on the money: if Americans don't know about this event, it's a further indication of the deplorable educational system in the US. I was educated outside of the US and am amazed at how much more I know about American history than Americans.

      I appreciated Obama's recognition to the US populace that the US is far behind the rest of the western industrialised countries in terms of education, etc. And that he recognised that there are a lot of non-US citizens who are contributing to this country. The fact is that the US must recognise that they are no longer leaders and the only way to ensure the US doesn't lose its relevance is investing in its people. By the way, hate to say it, but health car is a key component of making this all possible.

      January 25, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Clayton Smalley

      "How are we suppose to compare the feeling when most of us weren't around to experience what occurred in 1957?"

      It's called "History class". I wasn't born until 44 years after Pearl Harbor but I've been able to piece together from information available to me that it wasn't exactly a minor event that society gave a "meh" shrug to. I'm not psychic, I read about it and was told what happened by teachers.

      January 25, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jennifer

      Re: Scot: I too paid attention in history and we never really learned much about Sputnik there.

      I'm 35.

      Most of what I learned about history I didn't learn in any class, which, unfortunately, says a lot about the education system in this country.

      January 25, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • nick

      I have to agree with the original poster. The fact that there is even a question as to what a 'Sputnik" moment is is somewhat alarming. However, for once, I am beginning to like our new president. On the flip side of that coin, I'm not sure how cutting the nasa budget and changing a large part of their mission to "bettering relations with the muslim world" really helps this new game plan.

      January 26, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Re: Jason

      "I'm not psychic, I read about it and was told what happened by teachers."

      Great. You read about it and were told what it was like to experience it from a teacher. You were probably in middle school which puts that in the mid 90's and your teacher was maybe 40 years old? Guess what, they weren't old enough to experience what the "Sputnik moment" felt like either.

      Being born in '84 (about the same time as you) 9/11 which occurred when I was a Junior in High School has a significant meaning to me. I learned about Sputnik and even about the USSR, but in my lifetime, it doesn't stir any hope or inspiration to move forward.

      January 26, 2011 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
    • jackson.polyps

      One of the reasons I believe there are some Americans who do not understand the term "Sputnik Moment" is the education system in the United States places more importance of knowing key dates in history, but not understanding the relevance of that specific event to the U.S. and the rest of the world. I have taken a few history classes recently at college and I had a wonderful teacher who put very little emphasis on dates and great importance on understanding the event. Students in the U.S. education system need to be taught critical thinking skills.

      January 26, 2011 at 12:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Get Real

      I doubt there are many, if any that don't know what Sputnik is. The question that most people have with this "Sputnik moment" statement is “what does he mean by it?". You see, Sputnik was really successful in one particular area, igniting the will and desire of a more capable country (US), while displaying the true limitations of another (Soviets). While I believe B.O.'s intentions were to express the need for America to surge ahead (as we did in reaction to Sputnik), his reference implies that would instead play the role of the Soviets (being first to act simply for the satisfaction of being first to act). As we have seen in the past, that is a path best left untraveled. So, perhaps instead of attempting to make yourselves feel more intelligent then you really are (and believe me, most of you on this board have failed), by questioning the education some have received (in a far to broad manner I might add). Consider that there are those out there that most likely understand the statement, and subsequent questions, far better then you. By simplifying it the degree that you have, you serve as an example of what is truly wrong with American education and make others feel embarrassed for you.

      January 26, 2011 at 1:39 am | Report abuse |
    • WatchDawg196

      Our Sputnik moment will be when we all realize that illegal immigrants are a constant drain on our limited resources. And we should eliminate their reasons for being here (fining business who do not use e-verify.)
      Pres. Obama wants Universal Health care. Should we not trim the fat where we can? Taxpayers are having trouble with their own medical costs. Why are we paying for the health care of "anchor babies".
      Furthermore, our educational system is underfunded and classrooms are overcrowded. Sending illegals home without amnesty will result in smaller classrooms and the lowest curriculum performance base will be reduced(Dept. of Educations declaration, not mine).
      Finally, we have unemployment. Well that speaks for itself. I do not believe in former Pres. Bushes claims that "they are doing jobs that no American will do". If his lips are moving, that man is lying. And we could sure-up the numbers on three of our most pressing problems if we just find a way to make globalism work for us. Secure the borders and send them home by eliminating the reasons for which they take advantage of our compassion and hard won privileges. We can not bail-out the entire third world while we ourselves are drowning in debt.

      January 26, 2011 at 7:21 am | Report abuse |
    • mE

      Isn't Sputnik when the Ruskies put a monkey in space>>>>>>>does anybody but me find some irony in that? heh heh

      January 26, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eternity Cube

      Im 14 and I know all about the Cuban Missle Crisis and Sputnik. You guys need to get out more.

      January 27, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  2. gregg

    My generation's sputnik moment was Obama's election. The challenge is kicking him out of office in 2012.

    January 25, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • LooneyBin

      Petty and provincial. Way to go.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • jax

      your generation wears a paper hat while serving french fries...

      January 25, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Zeb

      Imagine where we would be if someone like bush or palin was in office

      January 25, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Endless

      Seeing the opposing party as the enemy is what leads to destructive, petty politics and contributes to the kind of spite that sparked the tragedy in Tuscon. Washington should not be a battleground.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark, Toronto

      Gregg, you might have thought your being witty, but it just comes across as juvenile at best. Attack the position, not the person – perhaps that ought to be your "Sputnik" moment.

      January 26, 2011 at 1:46 am | Report abuse |
    • douglas


      January 26, 2011 at 2:22 am | Report abuse |
    • will

      I know your not slow, obama being your sputnik moment is just saying your a white guy bent out of hell , not wanting a black american being president.

      January 26, 2011 at 2:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Jon Anderson

      Let's indict the educational system once more. 'Your' is the possessive form of the pronoun 'you'. 'You're' is the contraction for the two words 'You are'. Using these improperly to convey your ideas makes us focus more on your grammar and less on your ideas. It also reinforces our conceptions concerning the current state of America's schools.

      January 26, 2011 at 7:23 am | Report abuse |
  3. SayWhat

    It's a good analogy, but is Washington able to correctly assess and fix the errors that caused this situation in the first place? America is morally bankrupt and I have little faith in an Ivy League law graduate to correctly identify the needs within science or math. I suspect most of our politicians know very little about math, science or morals.

    January 25, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aristocles

      That's exactly what people would have said back then, too. The skeptics didn't stop us from landing men on the moon, and they didn't stop us from inventing the internet.

      January 26, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. SayWhat

    I guess the point I was making is one that points to the blind acceptance or practice of corporate vampires within DC. Politicians seem to be good at math when lining their own pockets, yet none of them were smart enough to avoid a financial "crisis".

    January 25, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Report abuse |
  5. JP

    Mr. President, how about not using NASA's name in vain.

    How about investing in NASA instead. There is a space race right now. Unfortunately, we are not part of it.

    You canceled Constellation; America's next generation rocket to the Moon and Mars. Our glorious 30-year old Space Shuttles are about to be retired... with no replacement plan in sight.

    I only hope when they land on the Moon or Mars we and watch in awe on TV, they translate into English for us Americans. It won't be Americans landing on the Moon or Mars. It will be Chinese, Indian, or Russian.

    Very sad..

    January 25, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • UnSub

      We don't need rocket/space ships, we need the US government to get spending under control, and fix the problem that this government cannot govern against itself with all of the republican vs democratic bouts over the last few decads. The day of reckoning is coming, we have to fix these major issues immediately...and forget about analyzing rocks and stars from outer space.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • jax

      we've wasted enough billions and time on those desolate rocks. how about using that technology to drive alternative fuels research here on earth, you know, where people actually live.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • lxy

      RE Constellation:
      Constellation was a waste and a joke. The mission back to the Moon was just a repeat of Apollo with better electronics. China's man mission is the same. Copy Apollo with better computers. Its easy to follow in one's footsteps and there are numerous textbooks showing you how. Technology in propulsion has not changed since the Saturn V rocket. At least for heavy loads. Constellation project was never fully funded in the first place. The Bush adminstration passed it without the money.

      RE: no need for rockets.
      The whole point is investing in science/tech R&D. Maybe theres no immediate practical need for men to inhabit the Moon. But the computer you typed up on stems from NASA. The microcomputer turned the computer from a massive machine of vacuum tubes into the small boxes we can easily put in our rooms. The plastic materials and robotics gained traction with NASA's missions. In any case, US govt's spending on science and technology is abysmall. You can cut 100% of the spending and you would have gained nothing in defecit.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jon Anderson

      JP is right. Think NASA is useless? Where do you think personal computer technology would be today if is wasn't for the space race. Anybody out there owe their current job to a PC?

      January 25, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Doe you not realize the technology that comes from space exploration?

      January 25, 2011 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • UnSub

      @Jon Anderson: With the Chinese, they own everything anyways. Besides, I guess you didn't hear that quick mention Obama stated that the most powerful computer is now in if I had to guess, we'd be just fine without NASA's computer engineering skills.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tvv

      Well said JP! Thank you!

      January 25, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jon Anderson

      @Unsub: So, you're saying that it makes sense to defund the system that got us so many of the advances we enjoy today? I guess that's why the supercollider is at CERN; because of shortsighted people like yourself. I guess you won't have to worry about a high-tech job after your low-tech job leaves for China. Those will all be in Europe.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • laughing duck

      I can assure you the that no Russians, Chinese or anyone else will be landing people on Mars in your lifetime, unless they ship someone there to die. Who cares anyway? We have technology they haven't even dreamed of, just a sagging economy at the moment keeps us from funding such useless escapades as NASA, who are a bunch of govt. welfare nerds who apparently can't convert metric to imperial units and crashed a probe into Mars instead of landing on it.

      January 25, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      Oh, you people who talk about "the billions" without any sense of perspective. The 2010 Federal budget shows over 900 billion for the DoD and less than 20 for NASA. Ok? If you're looking to cut some fat out of the process, find someone else to pick on. Leave the advancement of science, technology and exploration - or "the rocks" as that one sad fellow said - alone. It's still less than 1% of the budget.

      January 26, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
    • JP

      Investing in NASA has several immediate benefits to our country if it is funded properly. Remember, we went to the moon with slide rules, 4k computers, hand-drawn designs (no CAD) and 1960's technology. Our shuttles were developed in the late 1960's, construction began in the early 1970's, with first launch in 1981. It takes time to engineer these systems.

      If we funded NASA:

      1) Education: NASA would need engineers to develop new technologies. Engineering schools produce engineers, not Wal-Mart employees.

      2) Technology: NASA has the technical expertise to develop new, uncharted technology. Energy systems for long duration spaceflight can easily be adapted for use on earth. Solar, thermal, battery, computer, metallurgy, plastics, and recycling technologies could be spearheaded by NASA. Allow American contractors (GE, GM, Boeing, etc) free access to these technologies to improve technology on earth. This would create jobs, create educated workers, improve technology, and invest in America.

      3) Helium-3: If you don't know what it is, I implore you to Google it. It could be a game changer for worldwide energy. All of our energy technologies we currently have would be obsolete with Helium-3. No need for coal, oil, or traditional nuclear. We could power our planet for millions of years with clean energy. You may not know what it is, but the Russians, Chinese, and Indians are absolutely aware of its potential. This is why they are investing in space. Whoever controls the He3, will control the world's energy supply. Some commenters mentioned rocks on the moon.. yes there are rocks on the moon and they contain Helium-3. Developing this technology may take decades, but our country absolutely could not do it without NASA.

      4) National Pride and military technology: Whoever controls space, will control the earth.

      It amazes me that people are so short sighted and ignorant.

      1961 quote from President Kennedy "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

      We are a weakened country and I cry for our future generations 🙁

      January 26, 2011 at 1:06 am | Report abuse |
    • JP

      But wait.. there's more..

      Who will save our planet should an asteroid be discovered to be on a collision course? All our bickering and politicking will end abruptly. Everything we know as a species will end. You know.. ask the dinosaurs.

      For the first time in human history, do us humans have the potential to alter a catastrophic event like this. NASA is the only organization that has the ability and potential to detect, construct, and intercept a planet killer *if* we funded it.

      If it is never used, all the money invested in it would stay at home paying engineers, technicians, construction workers, educators, and countless others. And all that money would filter down to our everyday economy.

      I really can't believe that people are so narrow minded and blind.

      January 26, 2011 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Bender

      yup, we're pretty much boned.

      January 26, 2011 at 1:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Harry Stamper

      It has happened before.. it will happen again.

      January 26, 2011 at 1:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Mark, Toronto

      Funny how the ones harping about NASA's $20 billion would be the first to defend the Never-Ending-Saga of the $100 billion "missile defence shield" that has yet to work properly. And as for some mystical American technology the rest of the world doesn't have already? really, can you name it? We are ranked 23rd in education, and that slide happened LONG before Obama so dont even bother – and it will take just as long to rebuild.

      January 26, 2011 at 1:52 am | Report abuse |
    • umhauer

      Thanks to remind this point.
      I totally agree, that's sad, it was a good opportunity to go forward for humanity. Maybe he disliked the fact that Bush was the initiator of the program.

      January 26, 2011 at 7:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Doug

      To UnSub & Jax: If previous generations had been as short-sighted as you, we would not have cell phones, computers, GPS, etc. All these products resulted money "wasted" in the space program (after all, it is hard to have satellites without going into space). It has been estimated that every dollar invested in NASA has created at least $5-10 in US economic growth. This is one of the many reasons to invest in basic research – be it NASA or the NIH. We can not anticipate exactly what the next batch of discoveries will be, but history shows that investment in science is one of the best ways to create long-term economic strength.

      January 26, 2011 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  6. SFNative

    gregg, your comment was caddy and juvenile, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

    January 25, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • jax

      he's a product of the public school system, knows how to text and tweet, but doesn't know how many states are in the US.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jennifer

      57 states, right?

      January 26, 2011 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Mark, Toronto

      It was precisely that, just another cheesy and meaningless quip without creativity or context.

      January 26, 2011 at 1:53 am | Report abuse |
  7. Alex

    Whenever I read about "Awwww....s____" moments, I never realized that they were censoring out "putnik"

    January 25, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Nelba

    In the wake of Sputnik (1957) I was one of those students who took all those science and math college courses . Advanced calculus, nuclear physics, vector analysis, etc. By the time I was out of college the Space Race was over and there was no demand in the job market. Never used the stuff.

    January 25, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mel

      Yep, once we had a man on the moon we no longer had any use for math or physics. Science was complete.

      January 25, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark, Toronto

      So because you could not successfully use it, we should just jettison the sciences? No problem, we'll just fire all those people that create, build, design pretty much anything – after all don't we all want to serve fries for minimum wage?

      January 26, 2011 at 1:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Sharn Cook

      Wow! I guest the great ball can become dull at times.

      January 26, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nelba

      Beyond my offhand remark, the point is that we have plenty of science & tech majors who are underemployed due to lack of funding to actually do or apply sciences. I personally know chem & bio majors who cannot find real life work now, except for temping for $25K per year. Last time I looked, funding of the National Science Foundation was 7 Billion, while the FY 2009 Fed budget had 24 Billion for No Child Left Behind. So NCLB costs 3 times as much as real science and produces what? Nothing! Such are our political priorities. I contend that funding for real life science is far more important than producing more underemployed science graduates.

      January 27, 2011 at 1:02 am | Report abuse |
  9. MN Nice

    Big talk. Let's see what happens. The spending needs to stop!

    January 25, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Langley

    This isn't the first time Obama has used the words "Sputnik moment". The last time he used them, sometime in December, he stated the U.S. needs a Sputnik moment, which caused some controversy. Either way, I think it'll be tough to match feats such as putting our first satellite in space, our first man in space, and first man on the Moon while we're trillions of dollars in debt.

    January 25, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
  11. btrask3

    The Master of Illusion is Back !

    January 25, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Alex

    I , President Obama, declare this to be our Sputnik moment. BTW, in case anybody forgot, I recently shut down NASA.

    January 25, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  13. jc

    Sputnik moment is the moment when Americans realize that they are behind in the space race. To use it here means that it is time for Americans to realize that they are behind globally. That Americans must realize that they are no longer number one and it is time for the country to unite and dig in so we can accomplish what the Apollo program did 2 generations ago.

    January 25, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • DT


      January 25, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Concerned

      Exactly! this is what the country needs to realize. People talk about how our healthcare was "the best in the world" while our unemployed die from easily treatable conditions. People talk about our military, or economic strength, while our soldiers waist time and our economy crumbles. And don't even mention education. This country and its citizens need to realize that, like him or not, Obama's administration is the only way things are going to change, and the more people get behind him and support his actions, the more change will occur. Those of you who think we don't need change, go screw yourselves.

      February 8, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
  14. SK

    I agree witn SFNative.Gregg needs help he is living in a world of his on without a clue

    January 25, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
  15. cnnshouldcheckusgs

    "I , President Obama, declare this to be our Sputnik moment. BTW, in case anybody forgot, I recently shut down NASA."

    LOL! Outstanding?

    January 25, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Margot707

      Shutting down NASA was not his choice, but an unfortunate financial necessity. Thousands of jobs were lost as a result.

      January 25, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Margot707

      I take back that last statement . NASA is alive and well. It was only the Mars program that got scuttled.

      January 25, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
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