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The President’s “Sputnik Moment”

Even without hearing the president’s speech tonight, as a space policy analyst, whenever I hear about a “Sputnik moment” from a politician, I shudder, because I can be almost certain that it will have nothing whatsoever to do with Sputnik, let alone space policy. It will likely be guaranteed to be a foolish and false analogy, just like “…if we can land a man on the moon, why can’t we…”.

Sputnik (like Apollo) was a unique event in American (and perhaps even human) history. It was the heart of the Cold War. We were in an existential battle with an enemy (the Soviet Union) about the capability to bombard each other with nuclear weapons. Both adversaries were developing rockets, with help from captured Germans from the recent world war. We got the cream of the crop, because Von Braun had decided that he had better prospects to pursue his dreams of planetary exploration by humans with the American ideals, and had consciously escaped to the west with his hand-picked team. He was ever the pragmatist with his ambitions (including his looking the other way at Dora and other Nazi work/death camps that supported his rocket program during the war).

But of course, the president’s speech had nothing to do with that. It was about…other things…that have nothing to do with Sputnik, in either analogy or reality.

Sputnik was about pure, raw, technological skill, in an area in which we felt vulnerable at the time.

It had nothing to do with what made America exceptional.

Look, if the president wants to talk about space, then I’m all in favor of it. But, given his political proclivities, I’m glad he doesn’t. Let’s just not talk about what a “Sputnik moment” it was.