Sputnik Moments

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by Bruce J. Holmes

In President Obama's recent State of the Union Address, he made the assertion that "this is our generation's Sputnik moment." Therefore, we need "to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race." By doing so, "we will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people." I ask myself: Is the idea of a "Sputnik moment" a timely one?

For me, the context for the answer to this question includes my recollections from the 1957 Sputnik event. I remember, as a youth living in the Chicagoland suburbs, saving the front page of the Chicago Tribune when the headline read something like "Russian Satellite Orbits Earth." At the time, I was an aspiring pilot with, as yet, no clear aspirations for aerospace engineering, aeronautics and space research, which would later become my career. I was just a pre-teen already passionate about the liberty afforded by access to an airplane and a local airport. My reason for saving the newspaper was not all that clear in my young mind. I also saved the issues of National Geographic with stories and pictures of the X-15 rocket plane and Mad Magazine, which had nothing to do with aeronautics. But the Sputnik event seemed compelling in ways that would have meaning later in life.

Looking back, I realize that my reaction to Sputnik was something to the effect of "...how cool is that!" The "that" being the concept of flight beyond what I understood from my own experience, and the gadgetry of the whole idea -- radios far exceeding the capabilities of my home-built crystal sets, and propulsion chemistry beyond the comprehension afforded by my home chemistry lab set and match-head-powered aluminum foil rockets.

Between then and now (marriage, family raised, parents and friends passed, careers started, ended, and restarted), my adult mind developed an understanding of the Sputnik Event effect on the world of politics, cold war, technology trajectories, educational system directions, and national motivations. For me, the act of creating NASA in1959 (on the shoulders of the NACA giants of the previous five decades), was clearly government at its best: the nurturing of the commons in such a way as to stimulate the emergence of a new industrial capacity, new markets and consumers, and new products and services -- a new economic identity. The result virally catalyzed the entrepreneurial spirit among the nation's innovators in ways that fomented the transformation from the agricultural and industrial ages into the age of space and computers and the Internet. And, along the way, we went to the Moon.

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times last November 9 ("Crossroads Nation"), David Brooks shared a thought that "...nobody is clear about what sort of country America is going to be in 2030 or 2050. Nobody has quite defined America's coming economic identity." What we can know is that catalytic (Sputnik) moments can motivate us to make the investments and take the kinds of risks that create the foundations for the next epoch, for a new economic identity. Certainly, the field of my passion, aeronautics, aviation and aerospace, is vitally in need of "Sputnik-moment-inspired" transformation in ways that contribute to our nation's next economic identity. We are a society slowing down and serving fewer cities, in spite of faster airplanes and better navigation technology. The current air transportation enterprise, made up of airports, airspace, aircraft, regulation, finance, and business models developed for the 20th century markets, is vital to our economic system. However, the current enterprise and infrastructure, developed for 20th century markets, will not be the likely source of a new life cycle of game-changing innovations in air mobility for the 21st century.

The time-tested lessons from Clayton Christensen's The Innovators Dilemma (Harvard Business School Press, 1997) teach the reasons for that reality and illuminate the strategic framework needed to stimulate new innovation life cycles. The lost opportunities in quality of life and economic opportunity, from diminished mobility or mobility not realized, need to be understood as a threat to our future standard of living. Faster, more predictable, economical air access to more communities seems a logical part of the way forward. More on that in another blog. It seems to me that one of the features of our economic-political system is that it is most effective in making big changes only in response to big impetus. So, do we need a big change? Looking forward to a future of a nation moving slower to fewer places by air makes me think so. Can the President's Sputnik moment claim do the trick? I for one -- cheering from the aviation bleachers -- hope the idea goes viral.

Bruce J. Holmes, retired from his NASA career in public sector entrepreneurialism, is now practicing the art in the private sector as CEO, NextGen AeroSciences

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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