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. Chris

    Lame analogy. FAIL.

    January 26, 2011 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
  2. Mmmmm

    Congress and the President have really gone out on the deep end to pull out this sputnik moment bunny. Get this Washington we dont pay you to keep up with the Joneses! Handle the peoples' business and bring home the bacon. My finger is bipartisan! And I don't mine voting you out of office. The american people are tired of the taco-beef benefits: all talk, no beef, and lotta filling(hot air). Repubs we don't favor you either! 2012 we definitely see change if this economy does not turn favorably to benefit the little man and his family. GAO-guy corporate america needs no more breaks or incentives and the little guy wants know no more cuts. If Washington finds the peoples' business and the peoples' well-being is an unreasonable priority we have a finger that is equally effective as the peoples' middle finger to remove your inepts from OUR offices. See you all at the voting polls and/or at the impeachment logs...we do not have to wait two years! God Bless America!

    January 26, 2011 at 9:29 am | Report abuse |
  3. TimeCop

    I totally got what he meant by sputnik moment, but then I paid attention in history class. Pearl Harbor could be a good analogy, for the US has awaken after realizing we're under attack by global corporations.

    January 26, 2011 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
  4. Chris

    Why is it that in the past 30 years, any kind of investment for the future of the United States, with the exception of all the wasted billions in 'defense' spending, is considered commie pinko talk? In order for the US to succeed in its goals it is going to have to invest in its people, together we can make and shape the US into what we want it to be. President Eisenhower understood this, a well educated nation, is a powerful nation. Invest in the american people and the american people will invest in the great and powerful nation that was the United States of America. Thank God that we had a smart man as president when sputnik happened, if the current crop of neocon repubs where in charge we wouldn't have NASA... or the interstate highway or any of the other social investments that the 'commie' Eisenhower enacted under his presidency. The nation isn't going to be number 1 in anything if we keep the 'neocon' investment plan of 'giving the top 2% tax cuts so that way they can invest in america'. That plan hasn't worked in 30 years, our country has fallen behind and crumbled while the elite has managed to get richer by outsourcing everything and the neocon way of thinking ignores this because 'we'll always be the greatest nation on earth no matter what for all eternity!'

    January 26, 2011 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  5. Mike

    The "sputnik" moment is when the US population realizes it was HAD by a non-citizen becoming President, with the massive assistance of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Its the moment we realized we've had a coup.

    January 26, 2011 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
  6. Josh, New York, NY

    @TimeCop: We're under attack by our own government and its sheer incompetence to do ANYTHING positive regarding the US economy. For example: start by banning all forms of outsourcing of US jobs to other nations. Hire from within first and if you cant find someone within your own borders then AND ONLY THEN will you be able to look abroad. The person must physically reside AND work within the US borders AND be a LEGAL citizen AND none of this H1B bullsh!t. The corporation must file reports of how and where they searched for that US citizen to fill its position AND, if granted the ability to outsource to another nation, then 1) pay all tax revenue that the person in India would have paid had they been a US citizen hired; 2) be open to a challenge by a US citizen that becomes aware of the job and wasnt sought out for that job.

    You say it will bring business to a crawl? TOUGH SH!T. If the corporate whack-jobs would have not been so greedy for an extra few percentage points of profit, that ONLY goes into the pock of the CEO mind you, then we would be in this massive recession in the first place. The sheer loss of tax revenue from the 30% REAL unemployed out there is staggering. Ask yourself why our towns, cities and counties have no more money to pay cops, fire and other necessary services? Our nation's infrastructure has already FAILED. It is in dire need of repair before it totally collapses.

    Keep allowing this curable cancer called outsourcing to spread and we're doomed as a 1st world nation. Dont even think of defending this disgusting practice as our manufacturing and employment base dwindles to nothing. There are only so many "SERVICE" jobs that we can fill. At some point no one will be able to afford the "services" of McDonalds, Borders, Starbucks, etc and those jobs will also collapse.

    This isnt rocket science people. THIS is the sputnik moment – the realization that outsourcing is destroying the nations that have embraced it. That "giant sucking sound" wasnt a myth, its the current reality.

    January 26, 2011 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
  7. TimeCop

    @Josh: You're preaching to the choir. You can go to John (B)one(r)'s website and find thousands of people posting and demanding an end to this practice. When I said global corporations I was referring to all including those here. I seriously doubt John (B)one(r) or any supposed union loving Democrat will EVER demand an end to the practice. They all own stock in companies that outsource.

    January 26, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  8. D4V3

    Bad Analogy.. Sputnik didn't just represent a gap in knowledge and ability between Russia and the U.S. It was a LOSS for the U.S. And more importantly, it was a threat to National Security. The Russians were ahead of us in the race to weaponize space. Sputnik injected space into the cold war. And, I'll say it again... represented a very real threat to National Security. This resulted in massive government spending to catch up... and then to save face, by going to the moon. TODAY'S SITUATION IS DIFFERENT. If Obama is suggesting that we need massive government spending to catch up, he is fooling us all. We are not dealing with a similar threat to National Security, and we have not lost any given "race." We are behind... and our spending has created a nighmarish amount of debt. To use the "Sputnik Moment" comment to justify increaed government spending and control of the economy is a farce. We need major improvements, but increased government control and spending is not answering a "Sputnik Need." The Sputnik Crisis was one of National Security. What we are suffering through now is very different.

    January 26, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Concerned

      The analogy is a good one. If you disagree with how he is changing things, thats a different matter. The "Sputnik moment" analogy just means that we need to change, not that we need to spend money to change. It means we need to realize we are being overtaken and outdone, and that we need to move forward.

      February 8, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mathlol1

    I really think its just haughty and without humility to randomly string words like that together. Sputnik was used for certain motives but that did not define its existence and potential. There were far more applications for ti than its original intent.
    Satellites started a whole new era for technology and mankind. There is absolutely nothing on even the same scale of that type of verge. Sure we are investigating and minorly making advances but they are not completely new ideas that have the potential to change the direction of humanity.

    Obama actually tried to compare that invention with the invention of new jobs and industries. Seriously? seriously. I wonder if he even looked in the mirror or the speech before hand and realized he essentially tried to compare a new element to a new source of quarries.

    January 26, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Concerned

      No, that is not the reference. Again, i find it sad that no one knows what a sputnik moment is. It is not a reference to technological innovation. When sputnik launched, and it was not america that launched it, people realized that we are not #1 in something and its time to catch up.

      All the president is saying is that we need to realize that we are falling behind, and it is time to catch up. This is our wake up call. This is our sputnik moment.

      Our challenge, which we can chose to rise to, surpass, or fail to meet.

      This is our sputnik moment. This is our challenge, will we rise to meet it?

      Sputnik moment, a moment of foreign challenge resulting in domestic progress. They challenged us, we kicked their ass.

      Now the rest of the world is again challenging us. That is what the statement means.

      February 8, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Concerned

      I am sorry, but you are wrong. No, that is not the reference. Again, i find it depressing that no one knows what a sputnik moment means. It is not a reference to technological innovation. When sputnik launched, and it was not america that launched it, people realized that we are not #1 in something and its time to catch up.

      All the president is saying is that we need to realize that we are falling behind, and it is time to catch up. This is our wake up call. This is our sputnik moment.

      This is our sputnik moment. This is our challenge. will we rise to meet it?

      Sputnik moment, a moment of foreign challenge resulting in domestic progress. The soviet union challenged us, we kicked their ass.

      Now the rest of the world is again challenging us. That is what the statement means.

      February 8, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
  10. danielkgardner

    It's an epidemic. Everyday you wake up and read about someone else who's had a "Sputnik moment." Thomas Friedman may have been the first (September 2009); an incubatory year later and the number of its victims mounts. In December of 2010 alone, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Senator John Kerry, former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn, and the president himself all experienced a "Sputnik moment."

    Fear is the one common trigger of the recent Sputnik moment outbreak. Fear of being bettered educationally, economically, technologically - the range of fears is varied, but the source of these fears is not. It's always traceable to China.

    See The 'Sputnik Moment' Epidemic: Is China Our New Russia? at

    January 27, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Charles

    I learned about Sputnik from a time traveling episode of Boy Meets World.

    Television: 1
    School System: 0

    January 27, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jim Brazell

    Father of GPS Responds to Obama's "Sputnik Moment" – Press Release and Story – 21st Century ROcket Boys and Girls –

    February 3, 2011 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
  13. alok

    Very True in fact !If you can catch a technology that can be used to feed the world from Sun nothing like it!Please remember all the energy from thesun is responsibilefor our food/ forests etc

    February 8, 2011 at 6:23 am | Report abuse |
  14. DSLR-A850

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    November 16, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  15. rsgoldjw

    very good, it's very useful to me, thank you very much!

    May 9, 2012 at 12:18 am | Report abuse |
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