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Sputnik Moment? Nyet

During the pre-State of the Union press chatter yesterday, the media lead with an excerpt that our country was at another Sputnik moment. At that juncture I knew that the space analogy would flop and the speech to follow would be out of touch with the current political and economic realities.

Using outer space exploration analogies is a favorite of politicians; yet they are rarely used correctly. A Cold War-era story, most of the voters he was trying to connect with have no idea what Sputnik was all about. And for those of us that do know, it sets the wrong tone. If the speech writers were going for a John F. Kennedy moment, it did not work.

No matter how dire the political or economic situation, a President has the opportunity during a State of the Union speech to challenge the country and raise aspirations for a better tomorrow. Sputnik was an embarrassing geopolitical blip that exacerbated an already tense relationship with the Soviets. We remedied the matter about four months later when we launched a much more advanced and sophisticated satellite program starting with Explorer I. Again, unless you’re a space junkie, you have no idea what I am talking about either.

One of the political takeaways from the first Sputnik launch is that the Soviets were a little more ahead than previously thought. It may have sent a much-needed jolt through our space program, but to average folks not part of that process it was somewhat alarming. If the Reds could put a satellite in space, what could they do with nuclear weapons? And so on. These were things that people had not just thought about at that time.

In a joint session of Congress in 1961, several years after Sputnik, President Kennedy told the nation that the space program was much more than a race.  “We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share,” Kennedy told the Congress. Today, we are not in the race to be the best, we are the best. And we want other countries to do so as well. But to do so we must lead by example. In that same speech, Kennedy challenged a nation to send men to the moon and return them safely to Earth. A few short years later, we did. Six times.

That the Obama team would use a space analogy is politically rich. Just ask any astronaut who has travelled recently to the international space station. Because we have failed to properly invest in low earth orbit rockets, we must pay the Russian Soyuz program – Cold War technology – for a $50 million taxpayer paid bus ticket to and from the space station. He has also scrapped several programs that astronauts and other experts have dubbed a critical return mission to the moon; billions invested in these programs potentially lost forever.

The American people do not need a Sputnik moment to remind them how serious the economic situation is. It is bad. They know it. Unlike the bipolar world of the Cold War where two rivals duked it out, the U.S. remains the world’s sole economic, military, and political superpower. There are no international boogeyman. Americans want more Apollo moon landings, they want to remain the leader. Judging from the rest of speech, they will be sorely disappointed for the next two years.


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