What's Up With 'Sputnik?' Obama Makes '50s Space Race a Rallying Cry

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The phone. The electric light bulb. The Model T. Heck, Google.

The list of American innovations that have changed life on Earth is practically endless, but President Obama is trying to inspire America's next technological wave by referring back to a 50-year-old achievement by a defunct nation -- Sputnik.

The president, visiting North Carolina's Research Triangle Monday, called on businesses and lawmakers to help America achieve the next "Sputnik moment" -- referring to the Soviets' 1957 launch of an Earth-orbiting satellite which amped up the space race, led to the creation of NASA and was effectively rebutted when the United States put a man, or several of them, on the moon.

"That was a wake-up call," Obama said. "Once we put our minds to it, once we got focused, once we got unified, not only did we surpass the Soviets -- we developed new American technologies, industries and jobs."

The United States' response to Sputnik secured its place in the post-war world as the leading innovator in science and technology. Obama warned Monday that an America in danger of "falling behind" is once again facing such a test.

Point taken.

But the president's decision to cheerlead for the next big breakthrough by repeatedly referencing a Soviet achievement from a half-century ago has some scratching their heads. For starters, the United States has forged some important engineering eras since then. Ever hear of Palo Alto?

"In order to know what Sputnik is, you probably have to be at least 50 years old," said Marc Thiessen, a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush. "I would think that there's a long list of moments in American innovation that would resonate more with the American people."

Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein said the Sputnik aftermath may be an apt analogy for what needs to happen today but that there are far better, and more current, examples of U.S. innovation.

"Most people under 40 have no idea what Sputnik is," Gerstein said. "It's an un-innovative way to talk about innovation."

Besides, this is the president under fire from Sputnik-era astronauts for pushing cuts to the NASA budget.

The president's apparent point Monday was to show some tough love as he warned about the economic rise of India and China -- suggesting those countries would take the place of the Soviets in this generation as the innovators to beat.

"Competition is going to be much more fierce," Obama said, citing the glut of statistics that show America's students lagging in science and engineering and education overall despite the renowned quality of their universities. The president expressed confidence that the United States will once again rise to the challenge but cautioned against resting on laurels.

"We will meet that Sputnik moment," Obama predicted.

The rhetorical twist isn't new. The president's Sputnik references date back to April 2009, when in a speech before the National Academy of Sciences he made the case for more research investment by hailing the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations' hard-charging response to the Sputnik crisis. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, in a speech last week, described China's clean energy investment as the next "Sputnik moment" for America. In other words, a trigger that kicks U.S. innovation into high gear.

But Republican strategist Pete Snyder said the United States -- what with its economic collapse and overwhelming security threats -- has had plenty of wake-up calls in recent years. "We need something else to wake us up?" he said.

Snyder said a good leader needs to challenge his or her country, but noted, "The amount of innovation that's happening in America alone is nothing short of phenomenal."

Gerstein said if he were writing the president's speeches, he'd hold up as the shining example government investment in research which eventually led to the creation of the Internet. Then he'd pair that with more recent examples of "the genius of American entrepreneurship" -- like Mark Zuckerberg.

"I'd play a video clip from the Facebook movie," Gerstein said. "This guy created a website that has just revolutionized communications and networking in the world."

Obama did note during his speech Monday that "we introduced the world to the Internet," and also referenced the iPod and other U.S. inventions. He said he just wants to make sure that places like Europe and Asia are not the source of cutting-edge innovations when it comes to clean-energy technology and other sectors in the years ahead.