Why was Obama's "Sputnik Moment" comment so irksome the other night? Is it because I actually remember Sputnik? Someday, when they're grown, I'm going ask my sons to sit down and tell me what 9/11 meant to them, and Hurricane Katrina. And I will tell them what October 1957 was like for a small, rather introspective boy like me.
My Sputnik moment happened a few days after the launch. The newspapers had published the expected transit of Sputnik over our hometown. My father, who was a seafaring man and who knew his way around the night sky, led my sisters and me out into the street in front of our house. Our neighbors were out there too. We all stood waiting, looking up, searching for the little speck the papers said would be visible to the naked eye. I'm not sure I actually saw Sputnik that night, but I recall going to bed worried that they had something up there and we didn't.
Things got worse for our side in the weeks ahead. We had pathetic little satellites the size of grapefruits that we kept trying to put in orbit with horribly unreliable rockets. The Navy had its "Vanguard," and the Army its "Redstone." And they all blew up in full view of the American public. I watched each disastrous launch attempt on our black-and-white Philco, and was shocked, fascinated and depressed as only a kid can be. What if we don't get this right? What if we lose?
Apparently the other side was watching too, cheering and gloating behind their Iron Curtains. I just found this Czech TV news clip on the spectacular Vanguard explosion of December 6, 1957. You'll love the triumphalist tone of the announcer's voice and music as flames fill the entire screen:
Try, try, try again. Eventually we succeeded. There was Explorer, then the chimp, then Alan Sheperd, Gemini, Apollo, a man on the moon...yay, America!
So what does all this have to do with the present moment? Very little, I think. The prevailing mood back then was a deep, existential fear. But at least we knew the source. These days, our problems seem to be entirely self-made. We are spending ourselves into oblivion and the President had almost nothing to say about how we change our ways.