What Exactly Is a 'Sputnik Moment?'

The phrase "Sputnik moment" has been tossed around during recentdebates and press conferences regarding the technology gap between the UnitedStates and other nations, but what does the evocative phrase mean?

Government officials, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and PresidentBarack Obama, have usedthe term "Sputnik moment" to describe the United States' need to catchup to the rapid development of other countries, especially when it comes toclean energy and technology.

"From wind power to nuclear reactors to high-speed rail, China andother countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead," U.S.Secretary of Energy Steven Chu told press sources on Nov. 29. "Given thatchallenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy,it's time for America to do what we do best: innovate."

The original Sputnik moment came a couple of weeks after Sputnik 1, thefirst Earth-orbiting satellite, was launchedinto orbit by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957. At the time, Sputnik wasthe first human-built object launched into orbit.

"A Sputnik moment is a trigger mechanism, an event that makes people collectivelysay that they need to do something, and this sets a course in anotherdirection," said Roger Launius, senior curator of the National Air andSpace Museum's division of space history at the Smithsonian Institution.

The small Sputnik satellite heralded the dawn of the so-called Space Racebetween the U.S. and Soviet Union that ended with Americans landing on the moonin the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sputnik 2 was launched on Nov. 3, 1957, andbecause of the Space Race going on at the time, the U.S. attempted to launchVanguard TV3 on Dec. 6, 1957, but the fuel tanks of the rocket to which thesatellite was attached ruptured and exploded on the launch pad.

"It wasn't an 'Aha!' moment ? it didn't happen overnight," Launiustold Life's Little Mysteries. "It built up over a period of time, untilthe government said, 'We have to do things differently.' This led to thecreation of NASA and the National Defense Education Act, which provided fundingfor improving science and mathematics education."

Similarly, China's advancement, which includes developing technology for thehighest-efficiency coal plants and rapidly installing turbines for windenergy-generating fields, has made U.S. government officials take notice of ourown need to increase funding in energy innovation.

The fear of another Sputnik moment may drive the U.S. to re-invest in cleanenergy as well as education, science and innovation fields.

"Although people have been discussing the need for clean energy and investingin our future through science and technology for at least a decade, it's goodto have such prominent individuals say that we need to take action,"Launius said.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, asister site of SPACE.com. Got a question? Send us an email and we'll look for anexpert who can crack it. Follow Remy Melina on Twitter @RemyMelina

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Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and a contributor to Space.com. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.