The Difference Between Then and Now on the “Sputnik Moment”

Barack Obama is, to some extent, correct on this:

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

But the conundrum everyone is talking about is this: how can we afford it with all the Republicans screaming for tax cuts?  And how about all of the catcalls about the government advancing technology?  Well, the simplest way to explain it is to break down the differences between the late 1950’s/early 1960’s and now.

First: I would be the last person to say that the government doesn’t have a role in technological advance.  I offer for sale a book that is the product of, in the words of the person who furnished me the scanned copy, a tremendous effort of the Federal government, both civilian and military parts:

The importance of the Federal labs (particularly FHWA, Bureau of Reclamation, and Army and Navy labs) in pushing the practice of geotechnical engineering forward between 1930 and around the time of the publication of these manuals cannot be overstated, and they are a testament to that heritage.

And this is definitely “down to earth” technology in every sense of the word!

So what’s changed?

  1. The budgets that Dwight Eisenhower and Jack Kennedy had to work with were not larded with Medicare or many of the entitlements that are a “fixed” part of federal budgets today.  Jack Kennedy was able to propose a tax cut even as he set this country on a challenge to put a man on the moon before the 1960’s was out: a promise we delivered on.
  2. The Baby Boomers who sat in wonder in front of their black and white TV’s watching the whole space programme then are now old, fat, and tired of working.  They’re looking forward to be the beneficiaries of Social Security (which did exist when Sputnik went into orbit) and Medicare (which, as noted in (1), didn’t.)  I might add in many cases that Social Security will be drawn along with a paycheck; many of this illustrious generation are so far in hock they cannot afford to really retire.
  3. We didn’t have the people I’ve come to call the “anti-moon Luddites” to contend with, who turn every technological advance into a bureaucratic and regulatory nightmare.  If you think this is an obsession of mine alone, read the confessions of Patrick Moore, Greenpeace’s founder, who even says “There is no cause for alarm about climate change. The climate is always changing.”  (This, in a Canadian publication!)

I’m ready for some real scientific and technological advance funded by the government.  But, given our self-inflicted budgetary restrictions, the strange attitude towards the subject that is in vogue these days, and the shameless use of such efforts to fuel unrelated and unproductive agendas, I’m a sceptic about anything good coming out of these soaring words.

P.S. the word “Sputnik” is simply the Russian word for satellite.  When my church resettled Russo-Ukrainian Pentecostal refugees years ago, they used the word to refer to the thing in space that delivered many channels of television.

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