President Obama’s announcement on Tuesday that “this is our generation’s Sputnik moment” came across as puzzling. Had al Qaeda sent a suicide bomber into space? But it turned out to be just a clumsy metaphor. The first Sputnik launch in October 1957 is a now distant event that no longer arouses passion. It would be as if someone described the Watergate scandal as that generation’s Teapot Dome.
Nothing has happened recently that could be roughly analogous to Sputnik. The launch drew its shock value from the context of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was America’s bitter adversary. It had been less than a year since Nikita Khrushchev had said, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.” In the 1950s the U.S. missile program suffered a series of high-profile failures and seemed to be failing. The Soviet program had its disasters too, but they were hushed up, so the success of Sputnik seemed to come out of nowhere. It seemed to confirm that their German scientists were far ahead of our German scientists.
The sense of national purpose that followed the Sputnik launch was not based on an abstract sense of the need for better education programs; it was a national security emergency. In those days lagging behind in the technology race could literally be fatal. Mr. Obama has failed to conjure the same sense of looming disaster, excepting the national state of alarm over his irresponsible deficit spending.
Mr. Obama said that the country needs to “reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.” In that respect one would think that the president would have invoked John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 “Special message to the Congress on urgent national needs,” also known as the “Man on the Moon” speech, which was also delivered to a joint session of Congress. But the contrasts between the two addresses are greater than the comparisons. President Kennedy couched his objective of landing a man in the moon in terms of winning “the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny.” He saw the space race as having critical impact “on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.” To JFK it was a critical competition between the free world and the communist bloc.
Mr. Obama’s call is more abstract. It poses no concrete objective, like putting a man on the moon. Mr. Obama was simply touting his new budget proposal. He would like to see the same level of national commitment as during the space race, but without a goal, without passion, and certainly without identifying any country as an adversary. In fact his self-possessed “Sputnik moment” is a lifeless call for more aimless government programs and regulatory meddling.
Invoking space race metaphors is a risky proposition for Mr. Obama. On his watch NASA killed its plan to return to the moon and has scaled back most of its other programs. But competition in space is alive and well. Last October China sent an unmanned probe into Moon orbit to map possible landing sites. The People’s Republic is expected to make a manned moon landing sometime this decade. The Obama administration has done its best to curry favor with Beijing, which in return has exploited American technology and open markets, and treated the United States with disdain.
Maybe when the red flag is flying on the lunar surface the United States will have a true Sputnik moment, the shocked realization that while the rest of mankind is making giant leaps, Obama’s America can manage only small steps.