Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obama’s “Sputnik Moment”— a Flawed Analogy

Born almost four years after the launch of Sputnik, Obama should be forgiven if he shows a somewhat naïve understanding of that galvanizing event. The fact is— October of 1957 and January of 2011could not be more different in terms of American capability and motivation. Sputnik was not so much a Soviet triumph of superior technological ability as it was an American blunder based on bureaucratic infighting and outright government departmental incompetence. Once the U.S.A. got serious about orbiting a satellite, this nation had the Explorer in orbit just 84 days after Sputnik.

Only 12 years previous, we had emerged from WWII with half of all the world’s GDP and half of the world’s manufacturing capacity, as well as the world’s pre-eminent rocket scientist in Dr. Wernher von Braun whom we had obtained from Germany. Moreover, we had the world’s highest scientific and mathematical literacy levels in our workforce as a result of having the best educational system on earth. We could make anything, and we did make everything, and compared to every other nation we were wealthy beyond measure. With an income tax rate at 90% on the richest Americans, the U.S. Treasury was awash in money that we could spend on going into space, or creating an interstate highway system, or anything else that suited our fancy. In 1957, the only thing keeping us from going into space was United States Government policy.

The Eisenhower administration had decided that the space race should be waged within this country as a friendly rivalry between the military services (sound familiar?) The Navy had the Vanguard satellite and the Army had the Explorer, but because the Army launch vehicle for Explorer was a converted ballistic missile, old Ike thought that the Navy project would be less likely to ruffle Soviet feathers. Vanguard was given the inside track, but when the pathetic little Navy rocket exploded on the launch pad, Ike took the leash off of Wernher von Braun and his Army ballistic missile team, and they had Explorer up in orbit almost overnight. As for American paranoia over Sputnik, and the national perception that the Soviets were somehow superior to us— nothing about that situation was based in reality.

Which brings us to January, 2011. Americans are NOT paranoid (unfortunately), and most of us carry a perception that we are somehow superior to every other nation. Nothing about that situation is based in reality. The thing is, thanks to our own widespread ignorance and a school system that fails to educate, we are just too stupid to see that the “Sputnik Moment” is not at all analogous to the present state of affairs.

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