The early 1950s were an iconic time in America’s history – one of great prosperity and optimism. Rock and roll was new, and gas was cheap at a mere $0.25 a gallon. Libraries kept track of books and magazines manually, and American families used rotary dial phones. Television offered a new view of the world around us and Americans now had a common platform for entertainment. Scientific knowledge and advancements, such as the discovery of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and the availability of the new vaccine to treat polio, changed the course of history. These innovations resulted from the hard work and ingenuity of Americans living in a period of economic growth and prosperity.
But this changed in 1957 after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human-made device to orbit the earth. Americans reacted in fear and utter shock. Perhaps they felt they had fallen behind their greatest enemy during the Cold War period. Or, it was because the rockets that carried Sputnik could also carry more substantial ballistic types of munitions that could strike deep inside the United States from space.
In 1957, the Cold War was still in its infancy when the Sputnik rockets launched placing satellites into orbit around the earth and changing the world forever. When the realization of how far the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union set in, the domestic reaction was not only strategic shock but intense national focus and concern. The U.S. Government turned this energy into action, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958 and a moon landing for the first time only 11 years later.
Are we facing another potential Sputnik moment? Possibly.
From the latter stages of the Cold War to the present, The U.S. has enjoyed impressive technological overmatch compared to global threats. But like in the early 1950s, that gap may be narrowing. Arguably, the U.S. could already be behind in some technologies, but it is tough to know exactly who is ahead and who is behind until someone delivers a capability no one expected so soon.