The Soviet Union kicked off the Space Age when it propelled the world’s first satellite into space from a desert steppe in Kazakhstan on October 4, 1957. The launch of Sputnik I — a small aluminum orb, no bigger than a beach ball — proved a transformative moment for the United States. It triggered the U.S.-Soviet space race, served as the impetus for new government institutions, and precipitated substantial increases in federal R&D spending and funding for STEM education.
Sputnik was a galvanizing force, providing the shock and momentum needed to revolutionize the country’s science and technology base. In recent years, government officials and lawmakers have called for a new “Sputnik moment” as they reckon with how to successfully compete economically and technologically with China. While a singular, transformative “Sputnik moment” has yet to occur, there is growing consensus in Washington that the U.S. has fallen or is at risk of falling behind China.
A new Sputnik spirit today can power American technological competitiveness into the future.
The U.S.-China competition is novel in many ways, but that doesn’t mean America’s way of competing has to be. To reclaim its inimitable role as a driver of American innovation, the U.S. government must muster the kind of energy it did in the aftermath of Sputnik — mobilizing the country’s remarkable talent, institutions and R&D resources — to successfully compete with China.
First, it’s important to revisit what happened 60 some years ago. In the months following Sputnik’s launch, the U.S. government created two new institutions. Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act in July 1958, creating NASA and placing the country’s space program under civilian control. NASA’s primary objective was to land a man on the moon, and it was given a lot of money to do it. Its budget increased almost 500% from 1961 to 1964, accounting for nearly 4.5% of federal spending at its peak. NASA took Americans to the moon and contributed to the development of major technologies with wide commercial application.
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