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. D-NICE

    Those who do not know what sputnik is don't need to worry about advancing innovation in this country because you obviously didn't pay any attention in school and won't be too much help advancing the country. My advice to those people is to practice the phrase, "do you want fries with that" and leave the innovation to the adults.

    January 26, 2011 at 2:00 am | Report abuse |
  2. 4irw4y

    Make sputniks, not missiles.

    January 26, 2011 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
  3. ramos

    I believe obama and l trust him all my good feel's to him go go l believe and love

    January 26, 2011 at 2:52 am | Report abuse |
  4. Dave254

    "Sputnik moment"? Great, just what we needed; another stupid phrase that will be hugely overused by Chris Matthews.

    January 26, 2011 at 3:21 am | Report abuse |
  5. Jeronimo

    It is great to see how people land in common ground in spite of the differences that the political issues that has been put americans apart from each other. It is obvious that the american people realize that there is a great challenge to overcome and that is to take the victories and acomplishments back and make it present history. This nation was founded by immigrants, by warriors, by colonizers, natives, blacks, mexicans, and it is the same people that have the responsabilty and honor to take our situation to greatness where america keeps its integrity, its beauty UNITED. Dont let the ethnocentricity, the instigation among one another to ruin this country.

    January 26, 2011 at 3:46 am | Report abuse |
  6. Tyhouston

    Nice job jumping and protecting Obama from saying something foolish. But sorry the moment is a failure in russian history? He failed to learn what he was saying before he said it. Come now Bush, Regan, Clinton have all said something ignorant and totally silly?

    Why protect him with such a lame cover up story?

    January 26, 2011 at 4:11 am | Report abuse |
  7. Cesar

    Sputnik sounds German, not Russian.

    January 26, 2011 at 4:39 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      and that response makes you sound completely ignorant. It is a Russian satellite.

      I am not a fan of Obama and his concept of spend more when in debt (how ignorant does he think most of us are?), but the reference is perfectly acceptable.

      What should be the topic is how he mentions some window-dressing spending freezes and but then mentions ALOT more spending but calls them "investments".

      STOP!!!! Let the private market invest and get government the heck out of th way

      January 26, 2011 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
  8. linda hardge

    Not too many people get what Pres. Obama was trying to get across to Congress, me, and you. In order for America to once again we must set aside our old way of doing business and invest in programs and new innovations that will make America number one instead of number two behind China. a nation that owns over half of America. While we are arguing, the Chinese are preparing to launch another invention and can,t even think outside the box. Why do you think they are so advanced in areas that we are not. They talk and walk at the same. We just talk loud and do nothing. The SPUTNIK moment is now. Think ahead, get ahead, and we will stay ahead. Our President realize this. Do you?

    January 26, 2011 at 4:41 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      Yes, I believe that whole heartedly. The way to do it is slash spending, cut capital gains taxes, get rid of the BS death tax, and slash all the over regulation on so many of our businesses. Do this and business will start thriving again. people will hire, more taxes will be generated due to more employment. Companies will invest in research and innovation will happen.

      This is how we have done it generation after generation and have created the greates economic power the world has ever seen. In doing so, we have lifted the standard of living for the entire world over the last 120+ years. All because of the free market and LIMITED government.

      We have slowly gotten away from that and Obama has done nothing to fix that.

      January 26, 2011 at 11:00 am | Report abuse |
  9. pipe

    Obama 2012! Who's gona beat him? NOBODY!

    January 26, 2011 at 6:03 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      Bury that head in the sand.

      You have a president up there claiming how they "fixed the economy". ARE YOU SERIOUS????
      -Unemployment is extremely high.
      -Due to his health care BS premiums are on steady climb to being 40% higher.
      -Companies are doing NOTHING to invest because of the instability, which stems from leadership
      -We currently have the highest tax rates in the world on business
      -Most people have not had a raise in 4 years
      -He has added 3+ trillion to the deficit in 2 years
      -Pelosi has overseen 5 trillion added to the deficit, currently at 14 trillion

      as a nation we have 30 trillion LESS in assets than we do in liabilities...

      I'll tell you who will beat him: darn near anyone with half a brain on economics

      January 26, 2011 at 11:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Concerned


      Sorry, but that kind of thinking is not going to fly. I think you should take a closer look at an economics textbook. Maybe take a college course. The lesson I am hoping you will learn is that basically, nothing Obama could have done can be blamed for this. He could not have prevented it. All he could do was try to create a system that, eventually, will help us out of this. And of course, minimize the pain we feel in the meantime. The economy is a great force, and the recession like a tidal wave. You cannot blame the current or any other single president for its impact. And healthcare premiums were predicted to go up until the bill fully comes into action. Just wait and see, and in the meantime, google "Sick around america" by frontline. Its important that people realize why the reform was necessary.

      February 8, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Gabor47

    The "Sputnik moment" could have been "Light bulb moment" or "Penicillin moment" or "DNA moment" or "internet moment" or thousands of American inventions which radically changed the world we are now living in. Funny (or rather sad) that he picked a Soviet something. Also interesting to notice that the same Obama said that who canceled the current space program (which I agreed with, but for totally different reasons). None of those things were born as a result of government activity, they were all born as a result of individual excellence, based on good education, willpower, incentives which all would be reduced or eliminated in the socialistic realm Obama would like to further in USA. Those all failed in the same Soviet Union which created the Sputnik.

    January 26, 2011 at 7:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Concerned

      You are missing the point. I find it sad that this sort of thinking is possible.

      The "Sputnik moment" does not refer to some great innovation. Sputnik's launch was a wake up call to america. We saw that someone else had beaten us to the punch, that we were in danger of sliding backwards and being overtaken. And so, as a country, we woke up, got in gear, and accomplished some pretty incredible things.

      Obama is saying that we are in danger of sliding backwards, that this country is no longer #1, and that it is time for us to band together and work as a team towards our common goals. He is expressing a hope that america will realize we need to change, like we did after sputnik launched. We must take foreign successes as a challenge to be surpassed.

      His comment had nothing to do with any great technological advancement, and the space program has nothing to do with the statements real meaning.

      A "Sputnik moment" simply means the moment when we acknowledge our shortcomings and must now work to overcome them.

      February 8, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Billy

    I agree with the President's "sputnik moment" comment. Just as Russia jumped ahead of us in space, many countries, including China, have jumped ahead of us in other areas. America used to be the leader in innovation and invention. We charged forward at warp speed after suptnik and put a man on the moon. Maybe a more apt analogy would've been "this is our moon shot moment" – meaning it's again once time for warp speed.

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

      Yes, we were ahead in those things when we limited government and got out of the way of ingenuity & innovation in the PRIVATE SECTOR. The only thing we lead on that was government run was NASA and the military... both completely ineffficeint when viewed by the mount of money pumped into them.

      China has taken the lead due to one thing: Over the last few decades they have slowly loosened the grip and embraced the free market system.

      Even they see that government gets in the way more often than not.

      January 26, 2011 at 11:10 am | Report abuse |
  12. mmr

    It figures that Obama would reference a communist country moment as something we want to recognize,, rather than picking any one of the AH HA! moments the United States has had over the centuries. geezzzz... Can't the guy get over the Czar worship he has?

    January 26, 2011 at 7:31 am | Report abuse |
  13. jenny

    The "Sputnik moment" is sound like communism. You people don't know anything about it, I've been grown in that kind of style of communism and you'll see in your future what is kind of change is coming in America.

    January 26, 2011 at 8:18 am | Report abuse |
  14. eg

    What most folks do not realize is that the launch of Sputnik led to the birth of the Internet - The US Defense Dept had 4 colleges start DARPA Net which became the Internet 40 years later.

    January 26, 2011 at 8:35 am | Report abuse |
  15. bailoutsos

    Want a "Sputnik moment"? Watch "October Sky"

    January 26, 2011 at 8:38 am | Report abuse |
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