“WTF?” Palin completely misunderstands what “Sputnik Moment” means

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Some bloggers have sworn off comments on Sarah Palin. Good on them.

This fruit is too low-hanging.

Palin doesn’t appear to have a clue about what the phrase “Sputnik moment” refers to — and mistakes it with the much later financial difficulties of the Soviet Union.  You’d think, since she was so close to the U.S.S.R. in Alaska, she’d know something about Sputnik.

And what’s with the “WTF” on television?  Has she no composure, no decency?

Here, Sarah; a primer:

Sputnik was the first artificial satellite launched from Earth, in October 1957.  (Palin wasn’t born for another seven years . . . arguments about teaching history, anyone?)

Please note that the launch of the satellite scared the bejeebers out of Americans.  Most people thought — without knowing anything about how heavy a nuclear device might be, nor how hard it might be to target one — that if the Russians could orbit a satellite the size of a beach ball, they could certainly launch missiles with nuclear warheads to rain down on America.  Maybe, some thought, Russians had already orbited such nukes, which could just fall from space without warning.

That was the spooky, red scary part.  Then there was the kick-American-science-in-the-pants part.  A lot of policy makers asked how the Russians could surpass the U.S. in the race for space (wholly apart from the imported German rocket scientists used by both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.).  Looking around, they found science and technology education in America sadly lacking.  Congress passed a law that called science education necessary for our defense, and appropriated money to help boost science education — the National Defense Education Act.

The Cold War stimulated the first example of comprehensive Federal education legislation, when in 1958 Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. To help ensure that highly trained individuals would be available to help America compete with the Soviet Union in scientific and technical fields, the NDEA included support for loans to college students, the improvement of science, mathematics, and foreign language instruction in elementary and secondary schools, graduate fellowships, foreign language and area studies, and vocational-technical training.

(See the Wikipedia entry on NDEA, too.)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) history points to the genuine advances in science the Soviets had made, and the need for the U.S. to quickly catch up:

Sputnik once again elevated the word “competition” in the language of government officials and the American public. Sputnik threatened the American national interest even more than the Soviet Union’s breaking of America’s atomic monopoly in 1949; indeed it rocked the very defense of the United States because Russia’s ability to place a satellite into orbit meant that it could build rockets powerful enough to propel hydrogen bomb warheads atop intercontinental ballistic missiles.  Perhaps more importantly, however, Sputnik forced a national self-appraisal that questioned American education, scientific, technical and industrial strength, and even the moral fiber of the nation. What had gone wrong, questioned the pundits as well as the man in the street. They saw the nation’s tradition of being “Number One” facing its toughest competition, particularly in the areas of science and technology and in science education.

With its ties to the nation’s research universities, the Foundation of course became a key player in the unfolding events during this trying time. An indication is shown by the large increase in Foundation monies for programs already in place and for new programs. In fiscal year 1958, the year before Sputnik, the Foundation’s appropriation had leveled at $40 million. In fiscal 1959, it more than tripled at $134 million, and by 1968 the Foundation budget stood at nearly $500 million. Highlights of this phase of the agency’s history cannot be told in a vacuum, however, but must be placed within the broad context of American political happenings.

The Congress reacted to Sputnik with important pieces of legislation and an internal reorganization of its own committees. Taken together, the action announced that America would meet the Soviet competition.  The National Aeronautics and Space Act, more than any other post-Sputnik law, had great impact on increasing federal funding of scientific research and development. Signed by the president in July 1958, the law created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and gave it responsibility for the technological advancement of the space program. NASA became a major contracting agency and boosted tremendously the extra mural research support of the federal government. NASA not only symbolized America’s response to the Soviet challenge, but also dramatized the federal role in support of science and technology.

Among other things, the National Science Foundation looked at science textbooks used in elementary and secondary schools, and found them badly outdated.  NSF and other organizations spurred the development of new, up-to-date books, and tougher academic curricula in all sciences.

So, when President Obama refers to a “Sputnik moment,” he isn’t referring to a foolish expenditure of money for space junk that bankrupts the nation.  He’s referring to that time in 1957 when America woke up to the fact that education is important to defense, and to preparing for the future, and did a lot about improving education.  Between the G.I. Bill’s education benefits and the NDEA, the U.S. became the world’s leader in science and technology for the latter half of the 20th century.

But we’ve coasted on that 1958 law for too long.  Now we are being lapped by others — India, China, France, Japan, and others — and it’s time to spur progress in education again, to spur progress and great leaps in science.

One gets the impression Palin does not think much of science, nor education, nor especially science education.  She could use some lessons in history, too.  Sputnik didn’t bankrupt the Soviet Union.  Ignoring Sputnik might have bankrupted the U.S.

Santayana’s Ghost is shaking his head in sad disbelief.  And he has a question for Sarah Palin:  Santayana’s Ghost wants to know from Ms. Palin, can the U.S. compete with the Russians?

Tip of the old scrub brush to P. Z. Myers and Pharyngula, and another shake to DailyKos.

More, resources:

7 Responses to “WTF?” Palin completely misunderstands what “Sputnik Moment” means

  1. Nick K says:

    But that costs money and we can’t have that.

    Besides, you know how the right wing loves having stupid people. After all…they’re easier to hoodwink.


  2. jd2718 says:

    I would disagree that we are being lapped, but more that this is the time to spur…



  3. Jim says:


    The Anarcho-Libertarians (aka, the Tea Party) and a great many Republicans not only want to cut funding to education…they want to entirely eliminate public schooling. The more “moderate” (a laughable thought that any of them can be called that) voices in their midst prefer that public schooling be relegated to the states and to various localities. I have yet to have a single one of these folks explain to me where the money will come from at the state and/or local level to keep public schools afloat. None of them want to admit to supporting tax increases. No, not even local taxes.

    But surely, the most chilling message of the Anarcho-Libertarian movement known as the Tea Party is the blind faith, total certainty and incredible faith they have in the private school, homeschool and charter school fairies. These little imps will be so successful, they will sprinkle their voucher fairy dust all over the whole, re-worked education system. Public schools will become relics of the past and children will finally be edumicated the way they should be: at mother’s knee, by the hearth and with all subject matter immersed plenty of ol’ time religion. Peter Marshall’s horrifically bad “The Light and the Glory” will be the history text. The book of Genesis will teach the little moppets all they need to know about science. Current events will be viewed through the lens of “Left Behind”; a book many in the homeschool movement absurdly call a “literary classic”. Boys will be taught to lead. And girls will be programmed to be sweet, submissive helpmeets.

    Is it any wonder public education is under attack?


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Disagree on being lapped? Or disagree on Palin not knowing?

    Yeah, I agree the international comparisons are not straight up, persimmons to persimmons. Still, Shanghai beat everybody else in the most recent run of the tests. The top 10% of engineering students in China is equal to the total number of U.S. engineering students . . .

    We cannot slash education to get to excellence. We cannot fire teachers to produce a good school. We cannot deport every undocumented U.S. high school graduate and stay competitive.

    Why do your correspondents disagree?


  5. Ellie says:

    I remember Sputnik very well. It had our teachers emphasizing that we’d better buckle down and do some serious learning, especially in the field of science — even the girls!! And we’d better do it now, or spend the rest of our short lives doing “duck and cover” under our desks.

    La Palin (and I was really sorry to see this here, because I couldn’t resist reading it, and I’ve tried to avoid her anywhere and anyway I possibly can) doesn’t have a clue what a “Sputnik moment” is or what it was. Nor, I am assuming, does she much care.

    BTW, Ms Palin, Spudnuts aren’t what they used to be. The product may be, but the company isn’t and hasn’t been for many, many years.


  6. […] Darrell at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, apparently he of more durable brain, does the heavy lifting on this one: “…So, when President Obama refers to a “Sputnik moment,” he isn’t referring to a […]


  7. jd2718 says:

    This line:
    “But we’ve coasted on that 1958 law for too long. Now we are being lapped by others — India, China, France, Japan, and others — and it’s time to spur progress in education again, to spur progress and great leaps in science.”
    is neither history nor a critique of Palin.

    There is a wide range of opinions on this one, and most of those with whom I discuss and correspond would disagree.



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