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. Davey Jones

    The public is asleep, and wired into the matrix. As we see, most of them are so invested in it, that they will actually fight to preserve to lie.

    January 26, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
  2. 2 2=5

    I dont belong to the democrat or republican party, but i think the president is right in saying we need to put aside our differences and unite to move America forward. If we, as a nation, stay where we are with all the partisan bickering and "me against you" mentality, we won't be a relevant nation in the world. I'd much rather be a part of a strong, intelligent, affluent and united country than be where we've been the last 5 years. We need to unite and move forward to a promising future.

    January 26, 2011 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  3. Mike Johnson

    Financial aid administrators have a slightly different view of a Sputnik moment - the original one resulted in the creation of the National Defense Student Loan (initially to fund students studying science and technology so they could help win the space race). It later became the National Direct Student Loan (for any eligible student), and finally the Federal Perkins Loan. Hopefully our new "Sputnik moment" will again result in initiatives that will help to increase access and choice in higher education.

    January 26, 2011 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  4. peggy

    I'm 60. I know what happened long before I was born. I know what happened during my lifetime and also pay attention to what is going on now. Hell I'm posting on the internet. Spend time talking to parents, grandparents and elders to get your history!

    January 26, 2011 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
  5. Mark Evans

    My Sputnik moment was the first evening we were advised that if you were to look up at the northern sky you would be able to track, what appeared to be a star, across the horizon. This was the beginning of the space age. Russia, who we feared, was in space and America had to play catch up. Thankfully many of us had invested, or were thing of investing, in underground 'fall out' shelters that were available for sale in our local Sears parking lots. That was my Sputnik moment!

    January 26, 2011 at 12:41 am | Report abuse |
  6. conoclast

    That Obama, in the face of hard times, would speak to long-term issues is what captures us; hope is a MUCH better driving force than the alternative! This is what a leader looks like folks; tell your kids!

    January 26, 2011 at 12:43 am | Report abuse |
  7. John

    We should have realized that we had a vast problem with basic education in this country when people started buying homes they couldn't possibly affort using adjustable rate mortgages...

    January 26, 2011 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |
  8. Lincoln Crowder

    He's not just talking about the space race. He's not just talking about the fact that America is no longer the world leader in technology. He's talking about the fact that when Americans heard the beeps of Sputnik 1, they were terrified. This terror, which we'll call motivation from here on, didn't just start a spark under the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This motivated the entire nation to unite. The entire country worked as best they could to do whatever they felt was best for America. It was an incredibly patriotic time. Teachers across the country all of a sudden were being held more accountable for their math and science curriculae. Students were far more interested in math and science. They were doing better. Sputnik 1 propelled America into the future faster than anything else in our history ever has.

    Listen to the entire speech again. It's all about our "Sputnik moment." We need to been shaken back up. His speech is so much more complex that it first appears. He doesn't use simple terms, or make current references because he wants the speech itself to be better for the nation. If a child doesn't know what Sputnik was or its significance, they'll ask their parents. If their parents don't know, the child will move on to look it up themselves. Any adult who doesn't understand the reference will also look it up. If he were to give a speech that the lowest denominator could repeat and understand backwards, it would be meaningless. We have to raise expectations. Lowering them is simply not an option. He's stating that our "Sputnik moment" needs to be about ALL education and innovation. We all need to work harder, not just our teachers and students.

    January 26, 2011 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
  9. plafayette

    To the people who give a negative view of the speech, et al, say one positive thing about the Dems... IF you can

    January 26, 2011 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      By and large, dems aren't racist bigots who hide behind the bible to justify hate speech...and they usually are capable of presenting a rational argument about the issues... Health care... They tend to be people of higher education - of course, for some reason, 'eduated snobs' have become the enemy out in the red states (talk about not promoting education in this country)... They aren't perfect...they have many faults... But I would challenge anyone to come up with anything at all positive that Republicans have been responsible for in the past ten years. Sure, they gave tax cuts and helped out big corporations, but what good did it do when it ultimately crashed the entire economy?

      January 26, 2011 at 1:03 am | Report abuse |
  10. Tom Rendall

    What a puke statement.

    He otta be raked over the coals for having demonstrated such obsequiousness to his predecessors and especially to another county which was and remains evermoreso a record wreck and failure.

    I don't think he's capable of something that even sniffs an original thought.

    I'm to the left of Obama. He's a punk.

    January 26, 2011 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
  11. Srsly

    People who don't know what a Sputnik moment is are already on They're not reading this article.

    January 26, 2011 at 1:11 am | Report abuse |
  12. Bofa

    Sputnik monenet, wow I don't believe the united states come back or recovery should be considered a Sputnik moment. Whatever, but it is about time money is being invested in our schools and American stability. Will see what happens, hopefully not another epic fail (stimulus package). I honestly love America but sometimes we can be the smartest- most idiotic people.

    January 26, 2011 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
  13. whatnot

    Example: election 2008 was a "Sputnik moment" for the U.S. We will regain our self-respect in election 2012 by defeating Mr. Obama.

    January 26, 2011 at 1:33 am | Report abuse |
  14. Michael

    The more important question is, what's a Reince Priebus?

    January 26, 2011 at 1:45 am | Report abuse |
  15. Joe citizen abroad

    He really missed an opportunity here to set a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal), like reaching the moon. Instead, he talked about a lot of goals, none of which captured anyone's imagination. How about, "Oil free by 2023"? Kinda has a nice ring to it.

    January 26, 2011 at 1:49 am | Report abuse |
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