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. Jon Anderson

    A sputnik moment is a lack of an excuse for why the Supercollider was built at CERN and not in Texas. I would have appreciated if Obama had reminded Congress of this fact.

    January 25, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • JoeB

      Most people in America probably are not aware of what CERN is nor why our scientists are watching on the sidelines.

      January 25, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Edward Quinto

    Today as I turned 50, I was witnessed to a strong America of the past and and the America of the present whose global leadership is fading away. American arts and sciences inspired me and made me believed in the ideals of freedom and equality America has fought for. And so, it pains me to see the American economy in shambles and many are suffering. But now after hearing Pres. Obama State of the Union Address, I was so touched and moved inside me for he has charted a course in history that ensures America's continued leadership in the world. He has steered a ship that will bring us all to a new world of peace and prosperity. A strong America makes a strong World. We, in the Free World look up to America for leadership, guidance and protection. But be frugal and minimize overspending and stop the ostentatious display of wealth. I thanked Pres. Obama for his support on Science and Technology from the grade school and high school to the mature level of the university which will surely power innovation and advancement. In closing, I have been inspired and so I dream; I dream and so I can innovate; I can innovate and so I can make a change.

    January 25, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Robert

    Uh..."Sputnik moment"...?

    Sputnik was a single thing/event created by someone else. And we said, "oops, we better get crackin'!" A single impetus, met by a single response by a government and an agency that acted under orders through a single chain of command.

    Our current sitch is almost infinitely complex, involving voluminous unpredictable global trends and a huge number of mistakes on our part, by folks of all stripes over a long period of time. And the remedies (if such things exist) are as numerous and uncertain.

    Comparing our current socioeconomic turmoils to the launch of a beeping ball is, well, over-simplifying things a bit, and not engendering confidence in this corner.

    January 25, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • geogaddi

      did your mom tell you to go sit in that corner...?

      January 26, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  4. OC Driver

    Obama grabbed the Sputnik soundbite from Dr. Steven Chu, head of the Department of Energy, who spoke on Dec. 1 about the need for the U.S. to make incredible things happen in science in technology in response to global challenges and recent history of underachievement. It's a good rallying cry, but it needs a Kennedy-like specific challenge, like being on the moon in a decade. Set the bar high in different areas of scientific achievement. Finance innovation, not more government jobs.

    January 25, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Report abuse |
  5. John Doe

    @john anderson, you don't even have to go as technical as super-computers, isolation, fire alarms wireless appliance, and much more everyday stuff comes from the space programs

    January 25, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Report abuse |
  6. John Doe

    @ john anderson: insulation*

    January 25, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Margot707

    To me, I think the "Sputnik" moment covers when we learned that China is the #1 manufacturer of solar panels after taking the lead, at least in words, on green technology, and has also produced the latest and greatest in computer technology, rather than a US company.

    January 25, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Joe

    Right now all the Right-wingers are saying, "SEE!!! Told you he was a commie!"

    January 25, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Filladare


      January 26, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
  9. trez

    Same, Same and more of the same. We are in sad shape if this is the best they have to offer. What about an American Moment. We have drifted so far off track that our founding fathers would roll over in shock. We are lost in the mess that our elected officals have made. Remember we are in charge and we have the power of the vote to change our leaders and to put us back on track. AMERICA I CAN'T HEAR YOU !!!

    January 25, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Report abuse |
  10. hfjkhsd

    For Science!!!

    January 25, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Glenn N. Smith

    "Sputnik 1, the world's first" so what he meant was this country needs to be "the world's first" in technology, biomedical research, etc.

    January 25, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
  12. eric

    Suck my Sputnik

    January 25, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Report abuse |
  13. eric

    Too bad you weren't on that probe.

    January 25, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Jullou

    Well, maybe it was Obama's Sputnik moment. I find it outrageous that he would glorify the Russian Sputnik versus the U.S. Apollo moon mission.

    January 26, 2011 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Beeker255

      Im pretty sure you missed the point.

      January 26, 2011 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
  15. Steven R Vogel

    All you have to do is have a meaningful conversation with someone that was alive and aware of the world when Sputnik launched. I've spoken with my Mom, Uncle and Grandfather about that day. It created fear(we were already deeply involved in the Cold War), anxiety that we'd lose our pre-eminence in the world, a feeling that they the heavens were no longer safe. That is the Sputnik moment.

    January 26, 2011 at 12:12 am | Report abuse |
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