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Posted at 2:33 PM ET, 01/26/2011

No more Sputnik moments for the millennial generation

By Alexandra Petri


"This is our generation's Sputnik Moment," President Obama said during Tuesday's State of the Union.

Our generation's Soviet Space Program needs to get its act together! I thought. But then I worried that this sort of comment made me look like an ignorant Millennial. So I had to wonder: What's so important about Sputnik? Why are we still talking about it more than forty years later?

So I did what we all do when we don't know things: I asked the Internet.

This is what everyone now does. And Google shows us the evidence. Asking it any question reveals sedimentary layers of previous askers of questions. The phrase, "Am I" returns "Am I pregnant?" (I never said that we were smart and only asked the Internet logical questions), "Am I registered to vote in Virginia?" (I hope not from the same person) and "Am I pregnant quiz," as though adding a "quiz" to the end of that inquiry would make it somehow legitimate that we were asking the Internet about it.

And that's the way it is with everything now. Ask Facebook. Ask Twitter. Use Quobo! Google it. Post your inquiry as a Gchat status and act like it's ironic if anyone inquires why you wanted to know whether that was contagious.

So I applied this M. O. to Sputnik.

As far as I can understand it, it seems to have been something that Soviet Russia launched into space. Apparently, thanks to the impetus that Sputnik gave us the last time, an entire generation of Americans committed to developing expertise in engineering, math, science, and technology that would enable us to convincingly fake a moon landing on a soundstage somewhere in 1969. This gave added emphasis to the Cold War. Given my advanced youth, I also missed the Cold War. I am accustomed to wars that are hot and distant, like certain men.

To people like me, the idea that there was ever just one team lined up across the field from us is a novel one. But this was the condition of Sputnik. Lyndon B. Johnson aide George Reedy exclaimed: "It really doesn't matter whether the satellite has any military value. The important thing is that the Russians have left the earth and the race for control of the universe has started."

So I couldn't help wondering: Could we ever have a Sputnik moment?

Frontiers? We live on them. In 1969, things were still analog. You didn't have to discard your devices after a few months because Steve Jobs had decided that light purple was the new purple. Now, if something is lasting, we look down on it. "The only thing that lasts these days are dead armadillos and those seasonal breads in the glass case at Starbucks," we point out. Ephemeral is the new permanent. We have the collective memory -- and persistent desire to mate with anything in sight -- of Viagra-addled mayflies.

This comes with many boons. Thanks to our insistence on living on the bubble of the present moment, our world is rife with unnatural wonders - iPhones, iPads, Clouds, memes, videos of cats in Japan stuffing themselves into boxes. When I have a sore throat, I can go online and describe my symptoms, and strangers from across the globe (or the part of the globe that follows me on Twitter, at any rate) can suggest that I drink blueberry syrup and hot toddies! This is the stuff!

Everyone admits that the world has shrunk. But this shrinkage has also closed the window for Sputnik moments.

We understand that in many places it's still us versus them. If someone does something fabulous with science in China, we can be happy for them -- unless that something creates jobs.

But, especially for my generation, community transcends the narrow categories of city, state, country, or even city-state, if you still live in one of those. The Internet has the tendency to form ice-cube-tray communities of particular interests. But those communities have members plucked from all over the world. Read something online that was oddly spelled and full of strange expressions? It could have been written by someone in Slovenia! Although that's not usually the explanation.

True, there are still categories where the old distinctions hold true. Just look at the Super Bowl. You don't stop rooting for the Packers simply because the Internet allows you to be a fan of any team on earth.

But -- especially in the very fields President Obama was urging us to become competitive -- there isn't the same U. S. versus them imperative. Scientists across the world share resources, data, and equipment - applying to spend nights gathering data through radio telescopes in South America, or posting their findings online. They float together in the bowels of the International Space Station -- then post updates on Twitter. Our scientists don't innovate because "the Russians have left the earth and the race for control of the Universe has started." They innovate because our species is racing, in unison, to be faster, better, more efficient, and maybe someday it will slip the bonds of the solar system.

How exactly will we get there? We'd better ask the Internet.

By Alexandra Petri  | January 26, 2011; 2:33 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama, Big Deals, Only on the Internet, Petri  | Tags:  Sputnik, millennials, space, state of the union  
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Next: NASA announcement: They found the set of Star Wars!


Because you have shown such ignorance on this subject, your article dosn't deserve a comment.

Posted by: DGFOHIO | January 26, 2011 3:39 PM | Report abuse

DGFOHIO: and yet you commented, you silly little person. Petri knows that Sputnik was the precedent to the Sony Walkman.

Posted by: purpledrank | January 26, 2011 4:10 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Alex. I am also a millennial and all this talk of sputnik leaves me saying "WTFC?" (Who the F*** Cares?) The "sputnik moment" means absolutely nothing to me! The world has progressed so much since sputnik. Science is now a worldwide collaborated effort.

Posted by: raj_gosul | January 26, 2011 5:36 PM | Report abuse

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