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America’s Sputnik Moment

Author: Anya Schmemann, Director, Task Force Program
January 31, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations


This is a guest post by Anya Schmemann on the blog, "The Water's Edge."

I watched President Obama's State of the Union speech last week with my nine-year old son. He nodded when the president called for improvements in education and respect for teachers. But when Obama mentioned America's Sputnik moment, he looked puzzled.

I explained to him that a long time ago, when his grandfather was his age, the Russians sent a satellite into space, and Americans suddenly realized that they were not the best in science and math in the world. What Obama was saying is that America is in such a moment now, but this time with China, not Russia.

"Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik," Obama said, "we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. 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."

"This," he said, "is our generation's Sputnik moment."

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