Friday, February 04, 2011

A Sputnik Moment?

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama said that we are having a Sputnik Moment. What does that mean?

For most people alive today, Sputnik is history. The launch happened before Obama was even born. I was about two and a half at the time so I certainly don't remember it. That means that it needs to be put in context.

America ended World War II feeling pretty good about itself. We defeated Germany and Japan. We were also the world's only nuclear power. That changed in 1949 when the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear weapon. Still, we were convinced of our technological superiority.

When Sputnik was launched in 1957, it shocked the world for several reasons. One was that we assumed that our missile program was more advanced than the Soviets. During WWII, the Germans had the best rocket scientists and we had the best of them working for us.

Another shock was that it meant that the US was potentially in range of Soviet nuclear missiles. We had depended on a Fortress America where our distance from Europe would protect us from the brunt of any conflicts. This worked well in WWII. We escaped the devastating bombing that leveled Japan and most of Europe. But now we were vulnerable to weapons that were more powerful than anything used in WWII (by that time both sides had hydrogen bombs which were much more powerful than the atom bombs dropped on Japan).

The final shock was that we had not seen this coming. We had no idea that the Soviets were so advanced. What other secrets wre they hiding.

Remember, at that time we were in a state of low-level war with the USSR. This was fought through proxies such as Korea, Viet Nam, Cuba, and China but it was a real shooting war which threatened to turn into WWIII if the Soviets gained a significant advantage. The USSR had enough troops and tanks to overrun western Europe if they wanted. We had to show that we were their equal.

Sputnik launched the Space Race. This consisted of massive spending on both sides for both military and civilian uses. The military part was simple - to be able to survive a first strike and retain the capacity to annihilate the enemy. This lead to the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) where each side knew that both would perish regardless of who started a nuclear exchange. While it sounds extreme, MAD kept the peace through the end of the USSR.

The civilian side of the space race was also important. It gave the nations a chance to show their capabilities without being belligerent. It also acted a public relations, showing what each side could accomplish.

But we were at a huge disadvantage. The Soviets were years ahead of us and they always knew how to build more powerful booster rockets than we did. President Kennedy knew that we could never catch up as long as the goals were low-earth orbit so he raised the stakes - we would go to the moon. Both sides needed new technologies for this so we started on an even footing.

The race to the moon was a real race. There was an urgency because we knew that if we did not do it, the Soviets would.

Obviously, we won. The Soviets gave up on the space race and we lost interest soon after that. The number of lunar mission was cut and both sides turned their eyes back on low-earth orbit.

So, our Sputnik Moment galvanized the nation into a 12-year effort that ended in a moon landing.

Contrast that with today. China has built more windmills than we have and they have the world's largest super computer. Neither accomplishment is significant. They signal a lack of will rather than a lack of ability on our part. Windmills are still a young technology and there is considerable question about the current generation's ability to generate more power than was used in making the windmills in the first place. Massively parallel supercomputers are easy to build (using technology developed in the US). A few years ago a group of volunteers built a supercomputer over a weekend using Linux notebooks and WiFi, just to prove how simple it is.

No country in the world has demonstrated that it is so advanced in a field that it will take most of a generation for the US to catch up. Similarly, we are not in a hostile competition with anyone. Relations with China are infinitely better than they were with the USSR during the Cold War. The closest thing to the Cold War today is the struggle against Muslim extremism and that is purely ideological.

The biggest thing about a Sputnik Moment is that no one needs to tell us that we have had one. In fact, if the President feels the need to tell us that one has happened then almost by definition it has not happened.

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