What is Sputnik moment?

in technology

The phrase “sputnik moment” has been used several times recently in political discussions in the United States.  Sputnik was the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. 

Sputnik moment is referred to this accomplishment by the Soviet Union in 1957 which triggered a serious discussion on the necessity to strengthen science and technology education and research in the United States.

Sputnik moment has since been used when people need to realize that they are threatened or challenged and have to substantially increase their efforts to catch up. 

In November 2010, Energy Secretary Steven Chu likened a series of Chinese milestones to the Soviet Union's landmark 1957 satellite, Sputnik, that led the United States into the space race. He said, “From wind power to nuclear reactors to high-speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead."  Dr chu, President Obama and several others talked about Sputnik moment recently.  In December President Obama said the country is facing a “Sputnik moment”.  “Half a century ago, when 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 even exist,” Mr. Obama said. 

Although Sputnik, launched by the Russians in 1957, only issued a radio "beep" as it orbited Earth, this took America by surprise and hurt her pride.  Thus far Americans had believed that they were the technological super power.  The Russian sputnik challenged American air power.  To add fuel to fire, Russians did not stop their efforts there,  they sent the  first human to space in 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth and safely returned. This led the then President Kennedy to invoke Sputnik moment.  In 1961 he proclaimed that an American can land on moon in ten years.  In fact, though he did not live to see it happen, US  scientists walked on moon much before this deadline. 

The moon landing became possible because the hurt American pride soon realized the significance of science and technology education and research and acted quickly.  The public also allowed Federal government to pour money into space research.

According to a Wikipedia article, “An advanced research group was assembled for military purposes.  These research groups developed weapons such as ICBMs and missile defense systems, as well as spy satellites for the US.  After several failed attempts, the US successfully launched a satellite, Explore I on January 31, 1958.

Now it is opined that the situation is similar to that of 1957, considering the fast development of the third world countries where strong science and technology education and huge investments in advanced technology is revolutionizing their lives and threatening the dominance of the United States.

Edit: In the state of the Union address, President Obama again referred to the Sputnik moment and called for directed investment in science and technology education, high speed rail road, green energy and other technologies of the future.

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