The Corner

Enough with the ‘Sputnik Moments’ Already

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 is almost guaranteed to be a foolish and false analogy, just like “If we can land a man on the moon, why can’t we etc.

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) over 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 America’s 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 where 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 — though really, given his political proclivities, I’m glad he doesn’t. Let’s just not talk about what a “Sputnik moment” it is.


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