Obama, Palin and the ‘Sputnik moment’

Aha! The lamestream media has caught Sarah Palin committing another Palinism!

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama invoked the Sputnik, the artificial satellite the Soviet Union launched into orbit October 4, 1957, to justify new government spending programs (which he called “investments”):

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even 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.

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. And 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 — (applause) — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Sarah Palin went on Fox News Channel’s “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren” the following night and challenged Obama’s Sputnik analogy:

. . . he needs to remember that what happened back then with the former communist USSR and their victory in that race to space, yes, they won, but they also incurred so much debt at the time that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.

She then went on to argue that it is private investment that creates jobs, not government spending.

Yes, Palin got her history wrong — but just a little wrong. Obama’s history was totally wrong. And there was one thing both of them got wrong, namely the idea that with the Sputnik, the Soviet Union had won the space race.

Contrary to Obama’s assertion that “the science wasn’t even there yet”, the United States in 1957 was already well ahead of the Soviet Union in terms of the technology required to get into space. More than three years earlier, Dr. Wernher von Braun, who headed the Army’s team of rocket scientists, proposed using a Redstone missile to put a five-pound satellite into low Earth orbit. One of the advantages of this proposal, which was formally presented to the Assistant Secretary of Defense in January 1955, was that it used existing and proven technology and thus would cost very little.

The Defense Department rejected von Braun’s proposal and instead assigned the task of launching an artificial satellite to the Navy’s Project Vanguard. The reasons for this stupid and costly decision are somewhat obscure, but may have had something to do with the fact that Dr. von Braun was a former Nazi who had been accused of using slave labor in the German rocket program during World War II. There was also the fact that von Braun and his team worked for the Army. The Army was way ahead of the Navy and Air Force in rocket research, but the latter two services did not believe the Army should be in the ballistic rocket business at all.

When Sputnik I went up in October 1957, Project Vanguard was still months away from being able to launch a satellite. Panicked by the successful Soviet space launch (and a subsequent one the following month), the Navy scheduled a launch for December 6, 1957 — an event that turned into a humiliating disaster as the booster rocket exploded on the launch pad.

In the meantime, the Secretary of Defense had directed the Army to resume it’s satellite program. On January 31, 1958, just 84 days — the time it took the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build a satellite — after getting the order from the Secretary of Defense, the Army successfully launched Explorer I into Earth orbit atop a modified Jupiter-C rocket (a Redstone missile booster with clustered Sergeant rockets as second and third stages).

Explorer I technologically was way ahead of the Soviet satellite. Sputnik I was basically a 184-pound ball of junk capable only of transmitting simple beeps. The U. S. satellite, which weighed only 31 pounds, was a sophisticated research instrument that immediately paid back its investment by discovering the Van Allen radiation belt. And it could have been in orbit three years before Sputnik.

It is true that Sputnik spurred the United States into action, as Obama said. Whether this action was beneficial is, at best, questionable. The long-run effect of Sputnik was to divert America’s space exploration resources into a single-minded drive to put a man on the moon. That the Apollo program was abandoned after just six manned landings on the moon was a tacit acknowledgment that the whole program had been a huge waste of money.

Obama to the contrary notwithstanding, we would have had “a wave of innovation” without government “investment” in “research and education”. In fact, the most revolutionary “innovation” in the exploitation of space — the launch of the Telstar communications satellite in 1962 — was a result of private investment.

Government “investment” is just another word for government spending. It is a diversion of resources from uses chosen by the American people, who express their desires through their voluntary spending and saving decisions, to those chosen by the ruling elite. It is the government playing its old game of picking winners and losers.

And Palin was right about this, even if her history was a little off.

One thought on “Obama, Palin and the ‘Sputnik moment’”

  1. We may not be done with the moon yet; manned lunar missions may be back before the end of this decade.

    You can’t have government without government investment/spending.

    The private sector depends on the government to build and maintain the infrastructure they need to operate their factories and move their products to market. It is much more profitable for them to pay taxes and allow the government to provide the infrastructure support, than it would be for them to build and maintain the infrastructure themselves. Even the infamous Palin pipeline deal required a commitment on the part of the Alaskan government to subsidize the project to the tune of $500 million. The deal, by the way, is apparently in some trouble:


    The government is only indirectly responsible for the “diversion of resources from the uses chosen by the American people.” Most of the “ruling elite” you speak of rule from the private sector, using their wealth and influence to dictate how the government spends its money. The term: “Robber Baron” is seldom used to describe the typical government employee.

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