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Can Obama get his Sputnik moment?

By Steven Cohen, Special to CNN
  • Obama referred to Sputnik moment, Soviet Union's 1957 satellite launch
  • Steven Cohen says this led Americans to embrace scientific research, global view
  • He says Obama wants a new era of innovation to build economy and global strength
  • Cohen: But freezing spending, new anti-government views conflict with Sputnik moment

Editor's note: Steven Cohen is executive director of The Earth Institute and professor in the practice of public affairs at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

New York (CNN) -- On Tuesday night, Barack Obama looked back more than half a century to October 4, 1957, when Americans were shocked to discover that someone had sent a satellite into orbit around the Earth, and that someone wasn't us.

A little more than a decade after the triumph of World War II, the communist Soviet Union had beaten us in developing rockets powerful enough to leave the planet. The fear was that if they could do that, perhaps they could also use that same technology to bomb our cities. Making things even worse, in December of that year our own response to Sputnik, the Vanguard satellite, exploded on the launch pad.

The fear of losing this competition was a central theme of John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign. He asserted that there was a "missile gap" and the Soviets had more ICBMs than we did. While the gap was probably more imagined than real, Kennedy and his contemporaries believed it was true, and the fear of losing out in a global competition was a central part of their view of the world.

The challenge of Sputnik stimulated a major emphasis on scientific research in the United States. It led to the goal, set by Kennedy in a memorable speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, of sending humans to explore the moon by the end of the decade.

In the 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama called on Americans to respond to the challenge of our own "Sputnik moment":

Today, the primary technological challenge is the need to develop a fossil fuel-free economy.
--Steven Cohen

"Half a century ago, the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik. We had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't 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."

Obama clearly recognizes that most economic growth in the past hundred years has been the direct result of technological innovation that has materially increased our well being and quality of life: electric lights, the automobile, refrigeration, air conditioning, air travel, movies, television, cell phones, computers, the internet -- the list goes on.

Today, the primary technological challenge is the need to develop a fossil fuel-free economy. The nation that gets there first wins. Growing energy and environmental costs threaten our way of life. Technological innovation is the ultimate economic stimulus package.

America has long done very well in developing and implementing these new technologies. Now, how do we respond to the challenges of the global economy, and especially impressive challengers like China?

In the mid-20th century, the Soviet Union scared the daylights out of America, and those of us in elementary school back then found ourselves hiding under school desks or eating crackers and apple juice in nuclear fallout shelters during drills in school basements. Today, it is China that provides our national nightmare, with the presumed high-pressure child rearing practices of its "tiger mothers" and huge central government-directed investments in everything from bullet trains to solar power.

By recalling the challenge of Sputnik, the president is trying to summon America to a national effort to retool and revitalize our economy. America brings great resources and great difficulties to this newly competitive environment.

The anti-government ideology of many Americans today stands in contrast to the belief in our institutions during Kennedy's time.
--Steven Cohen
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As he indicated, we have the best research universities in the world and remain a magnet for the best minds of every nation. That brings to mind our second great advantage: that we remain a nation of immigrants, and the most diverse nation in the world. An American in China will never become Chinese. After a generation or two here, anyone, including the son of a man from Kenya, can become an American.

We also have the advantage of a culture that supports entrepreneurship and innovation. On the downside, our education system is slipping at the same moment that others are improving. We know that the 21st century economy is going to be a brain-based economy, and today's version of the missile gap may well be an "education gap."

Our fundamental challenge is our inability to develop a sophisticated relationship between government and the private sector. John Kennedy's response to the challenge of his day was not to freeze domestic spending, as President Obama promised last night, but to increase spending on scientific research and space travel.

Government needed small computers for missiles and spaceships, and it paid for the R&D to develop them. Decades later, the internet started as a Defense Department project. Government and private industry worked together and we all benefited from their collaboration.

The anti-government ideology of many Americans today stands in contrast to the belief in our institutions during Kennedy's time.

Nevertheless, the members of Congress at least proved last night that they could sit together. Perhaps, as the president hopes, they will also learn to work together and respond to the technological challenge that we face.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steven Cohen.