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Posted at 7:15 PM ET, 01/25/2011

What's a 'Sputnik moment'?

By Scott Wilson

President Obama will call this tenuous time in America "our generation's Sputnik moment" in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. So what is that suppose to mean?

The Soviet launch of a basketball-size object called Sputnik in October 1957 served as a wake up call for a relatively fat and happy United States. The U.S. was then between wars in Asia, building stylish gas-guzzling cars for a swelling middle class, gambling in Havana, and generally feeling pretty good about the future.

The surprise of Sputnik - the world's first Earth-orbiting satellite made by man - reminded Americans there was a big, brash alternative out there and it was a lot smarter than anyone had thought. The satellite made nearly 1,550 Earth orbits, and provided a stunning propaganda victory for the Soviet people and the Communist project.

President Eisenhower immediately declared the "Sputnik crisis" - in part out of concern that a country that could launch a satellite into space could also effectively deliver nuclear missiles across continents.

Less than a year later, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created NASA. He also began new national education initiatives to train more engineers - much as Obama intends to announce tonight.

What followed was the so-called Space Race, won, in effect, by the Americans in 1969 with the first human landing on the moon.

Obama is hoping to prod the country toward greatness here on Earth, in the fields of clean energy technology, high-speed trains, and scientific innovation, among other things, to increase the country's economic competitiveness. Rising economies in Asia provide the threat and possibility this time around, and Obama, much like Eisenhower half a century ago, wants the country to wake up.

By Scott Wilson  | January 25, 2011; 7:15 PM ET
Categories:  44 The Obama Presidency  
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Next: State of the Union 2011: Paul Ryan responds that government spending needs to stop


As a Republican who worked to successfully flip the only Congressional seat on the West Coast in this past Election, I respond to the President's B grade SOTU speech with these words:

"Mr. President, WE SHALL OVERCOME!"

Posted by: King2641 | January 26, 2011 11:53 AM | Report abuse

"Sputnik" what about the captured Aliens and Flying Saucers in Area 51. Surely you have worked out Zero gravity by now. How about releasing all the UFO stuff to the people of the World and ram the TRUTH down the throats of those who believe the World was created 4,500 years ago. Go on EDUCATE THE WORLD.

Posted by: 1littlegrey | January 26, 2011 5:11 AM | Report abuse

This is the Conservative's Hubble moment, when we turn our telescopes on the public servants in our government and start holding them accountable for every single penny they take from us in taxes and how they spend it and who they spend it on.

Posted by: robtjonz | January 25, 2011 9:14 PM | Report abuse

Particularly ironic in light of this administration's actions to cancel return trips to the moon, ending the Constellation program - thereby gutting key initiatives, fundamentally changing the role of NASA and privatizing travel to the ISS.

I don't know. This sounds like "Recovery Summer" all over again.

Posted by: bluebonnetsandbbq | January 25, 2011 8:37 PM | Report abuse

"Forward Together" How sweet of Obama, that was Nixon's inaugural theme.

Posted by: Nemo24601 | January 25, 2011 8:09 PM | Report abuse

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