Future Tense

Can America Ever Have Another “Sputnik Moment”?

Our amazing response to Sputnik made America richer and stronger. But here’s why it would be almost impossible to duplicate that today.

The world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, launched by the Soviet Union
The world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, launched by the Soviet Union

Photograph by OFF/AFP/Getty Images.

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In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama declared, “This is our generation’s Sputnik Moment.” Sputnik was the satellite that the Soviets had launched into orbit 54 years earlier, setting off not only a space race (and a missile race to follow) but also a national panic over America’s primacy in the Cold War. Obama went on:

[W]e had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. … But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

Now, Obama told the nation, it was time to unleash the same sort of wave in biomedicine, clean energy, and information technology—boosting not only the volume of research and development but also the quality of “math and science education,” which “lags behind many other nations.” Hence the “Sputnik Moment.”

But is Sputnik the apt analogy? Has anything happened that could spur the public and Congress to the degree that the Russians’ little satellite did?

It’s hard to remember, even for those who lived through it, what an enormous shock Sputnik was. On Oct. 3, 1957, the Russians were regarded as technological primitives. The next day, they launched Sputnik, and suddenly they were seen as ahead of us. (The United States had tried but failed to launch a much smaller satellite.)

Rep. Clare Booth Luce of Connecticut called the beep on Sputnik’s transponder “an intercontinental outer-space raspberry to a decade of American pretensions that the American way of life was a gilt-edged guarantee of our national superiority.” It wasn’t just politicians who were in a panic. John Rinehart of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory predicted that, “no matter what we do now, the Russians will beat us to the moon” and may get there “within a week.” Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, said on national TV that America had lost “a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor.” Sen. Lyndon Johnson’s aide, George Reedy, wrote, in a memo to his boss, “It is unpleasant to feel that there is something floating around in the air which the Russians can put up and we can’t. … 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.” (Reedy’s emphasis.) (All four quotes are from here.)

There was, of course, potential military value: If a Russian rocket could blast off while carrying a satellite, the next one might carry a nuclear warhead. But this was an esoteric point (and, as it happened, an alarmist one; the Russians took several more years to build an intercontinental ballistic missile). The main worry—reinforced by a slew of magazine articles about American complacency, conformity, and the onset of a recession—was that we were growing weak, that we were behind.

Not quite one year later, on Sept. 2, 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, the first lines of which read:

The Congress hereby finds and declares that the security of the Nation requires the fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women. The present emergency demands that additional and more adequate educational opportunities be made available. The defense of this Nation depends upon the mastery of modern techniques developed from complex scientific principles. It depends as well upon the discovery and development of new principles, new techniques, and new knowledge.

The bill allotted $1 billion over the next four years (about $6.5 billion in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars) for 40,000 loans, 40,000 scholarships, and 1,500 graduate fellowships to students in math and science—and several billion more in matching funds to states for new high school courses; supplies; and teachers in math, science, and modern foreign-language instruction.

The law marked the first time (except for the GI Bill, which was by design an extraordinary case) that the federal government subsidized higher education. It passed at a time when the federal budget (which amounted to only $86.1 billion) consisted of very little besides the military ($51.8 billion, or 60 percent), old-age pensions ($8.7 billion, or 10 percent), and agriculture ($5.2 billion, or 6 percent).

Yet the margin of victory for the National Defense Education Act was enormous: 62-26 in the Senate, 212-85 in the House (with both parties voting in favor by solid majorities).

The bill passed so overwhelmingly for a few reasons:

First, it was presented not as a social program but as a national-security program. (The bill’s opening lines made this loud and clear: “the security of the Nation requires … The present emergency demands … The defense of this Nation depends upon …”) President Dwight Eisenhower knew what he was doing here. Two years earlier, he’d prodded Congress into funding the first stretches of the Interstate Highway System by calling it the National Defense Highway Act and selling it as vital for moving troops and tanks across the country in case of a foreign invasion.

Second, there was a consensus—a politically accepted consensus—on the problem and the remedy. On Oct. 15, 1957, 11 days after the Sputnik launch, President Eisenhower met with 14 of the most prominent weapons scientists—including I.I. Rabi, Hans Bethe, James Killian, Edward Land, and Jerome Wiesner—to discuss responses to the crisis. The scientists told him that the big problem wasn’t so much Sputnik but rather the shortage of future American scientists. There needed to be a big boost in American education, and only the federal government could provide that boost.

Three weeks later, on Nov. 6, Eisenhower met with the top officials of the Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare and told them to draft a bill to do just that. (The bill was written mainly by Eliot Richardson, then the assistant secretary of HEW, under the guidance of James Conant, the president of Harvard who was writing a book about the dreadful state of American high schools.)

Third, the bill was presented as part of a broader package of emergency spending measures. Starting in January 1958, Eisenhower held several meetings with congressional leaders on his plan to boost spending on defense, space (NASA was created that year, the first astronauts were selected the year after), and the National Defense Education Act. Even so, the education piece was so radical for its time that Congress pressed Eisenhower to add two clauses: an assurance that the feds would not control state teaching programs; and a requirement that recipients of fellowships sign a loyalty oath, promising not to engage in plots to overthrow the government. Courts would overturn this oath several years later.

So what lessons does the original “Sputnik Moment” hold for the prospect of improving science education today?

First, there has to be a threat that animates the American people. It can be just a perceived threat, but the perception has to be based on something tangible. Second, there should be consensus about how to deal with the threat. Third, this solution should be linked to proposals favored by those who might not be so keen if the solution were offered on its own.

Right away, the limitations of the Sputnik analogy should be clear.

First, there are plenty of threats that science could address: climate change, cyber-security, impending food and water shortages, among others. But none of these threats are tangible, at least not to those who would pass the budgets to deal with them. Yes, charts and graphs can be summoned to demonstrate that the dangers are real, but the threats—the prospects of crisis—lie in the future. There is nothing quite so dramatic (even if, in the scheme of things, less serious) as the beep of Sputnik overhead.

Second, and related to this complacency, consensus is not what it used to be. Back in the late 1950s, if a dozen scientists said something was so, a lot of people were inclined to believe it. (This wasn’t always to the good, by the way.) Now we live in a world where only one of this past season’s Republican presidential candidates would publicly express “belief” in global warming—and where several of them dismissed evolution.

Third, the solutions to many of today’s problems rub up against well-funded interest groups. Spending more money on science teachers and students in 1957 took away resources from nobody, except maybe English and Latin departments (and they had no lobbying power). Spending more money to promote programs that deal with today’s problems—energy, food, and so forth—would buck up against the most powerful lobbying groups there are.

Finally, the late 1950s saw the beginning of federal investment not only in education but also in research and development, welfare, health care, and social justice. The 1958 education bill was a new thing. It passed because it was seen as urgent and necessary, but it also paved the way for the expansion of federal jurisdiction to come. From the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, spending on R&D soared by 200 percent; half of the increase came from the federal government. In the same period, 75 percent of research scientists and engineers were employed in federally subsidized projects. Today, new federal programs are viewed with suspicion—even in areas where large-scale investment is beyond the means, or risk levels, of private companies.

Obama was right that we need a “Sputnik Moment.” But, like the original, it will require a change in thinking, an expansion in the permissible boundaries of what government can legitimately do. Also like the original, it may take a catastrophe—or the widespread perception of a catastrophe—to galvanize the change.

Also in Slate’s special issue on science education: Make magazine’s Dale Dougherty on learning science by building rockets and robots. Also, share your ideas for fixing science education in the Hive. This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.