Barack Obama gave a speech this week at a North Carolina community college warning Americans of the peril of falling behind our global competitors. The challenge, he said, is not unlike the one the U.S. faced in the 1950s, when Americans mortified at the sight of the first Soviet satellite in space — Sputnik — decided to suddenly get real serious about science, math, and the upstart space program.
Of course, everyone knows how that story ends (if not much about the 1957 one-watt Soviet satellite that began it): America beat the world to the moon.
"So 50 years later," the president told Forsyth Technical Community College, "our generation's Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment."
But beyond the growing evidence that America is not No. 1 in the key arenas likely to drive the world out of economic malaise, Obama's Sputnik analogy may not make for a very good fit.
He's right that Sputnik scared America into game-changing investment. In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which ramped up funding in particular to science and technology education. That same year, NASA was created, supplanting earlier space efforts that had been run out of the Department of Defense. And the DoD developed a new office — the Advanced Research Projects Agency, now known as DARPA.
"Sputnik was a huge surprise for Americans because they had thought for a long time that the U.S. was technologically superior, and conversely, that the Russians were kind of these backward bumpkins," said Clayton Koppes, a historian at Oberlin College. Whatever the Russians were able to figure out, Americans assumed, was thanks only to espionage.
When this turned out not to be the case, Americans weren't just embarrassed, Koppes said. They were viscerally jarred by Sputnik's military implications. (Speaking of poor historic analogues, Koppes adds that many overwrought commentaries in 1957 equated the event to Pearl Harbor.)
Herein lies the primary problem with Obama's own "Sputnik moment." America may be falling behind global economic competitors like China and India, but none of those competitors are also mortal military enemies on par with the Soviet Union of the Cold War era. And our race for economic relevance — to build more "Made in America" products, to develop the world's top renewable energy sector — has few of the defense undertones that helped galvanize support for NASA and the defense education act.
A president in 2010 could never get away with creating, say, the Department of Sustainable Energy, or the Agency for Advanced Green Tech Research.
"But you could almost always expand government in the '50s or during the Cold War if it had a military purpose," Koppes said. "In that sense, the NDEA and the creation of NASA were easy sells."
There's also the problem of spectacle. Sputnik was a tangible symbol to chase, and it yielded equally tangible American goals: a satellite in space, then a man in space, then a man on the moon. Obama's Sputnik moment would produce something infinitely more amorphous. The goal now, as he put it sleepily at Forsyth, is "making our economy more competitive with the rest of the world."
It might help the president's case if he could get more specific. Let's put the first million domestic electric cars on the road! Let's make the first metropolitan city that runs on renewable energy, or the first government that's entirely cloud-computed! But even those images don't sound quite right.
"There was always a kind of glamour about the space program," Koppes said. "And it's probably not as easy to make solar panels glamorous in the same sort of way."
Obama is also talking about something Eisenhower and Kennedy never were. The Sputnik wake-up call, Koppes points out, didn't require people to change their ways of life or their coveted spending habits.
As Obama urged Monday: "We cannot go back to an economy that's driven by too much spending, too much borrowing, running up credit cards, taking out a lot of home equity loans, paper profits that are built on financial speculation."
This doesn't sound terribly exciting, whether we call it our "Sputnik moment" or not. But even if the analogy were more apt, it has one final problem: Does it even resonate today?
"It would be interesting to know how many students walked out of there saying, 'What was Sputnik?'" Koppes said. "Historical analogies are often tricky, but I think if you're going to use one, you need one that people can kind of grasp in a very direct way, something where they think, 'Oh yeah, I remember that.' I think Sputnik is kind of fading into history."