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Sputnik Redux

CAPE CANAVERAL – More than 50 years ago (1957), the Soviets launched the world’s first orbiting satellite, beating the US into space. For Americans, the so-called “Sputnik moment” was a wake-up call that pushed the United States to increase investment in technology and science education. Months later, the US launched the Explorer 1 satellite, and the race was on. Children were encouraged to study math and science, and American know-how helped the US meet the challenge.

But things have slowed down dramatically since then, and NASA has been trying since early November to get its latest shuttle ready for launch. In December, US President Barack Obama talked of the need for a new “Sputnik moment” to revitalize America’s once-leading role in technology.

Ironically, that moment happened two days later, but with lamentably little media coverage. However, this Sputnik moment – actually a “Dragon moment” – delivers a somewhat different message. The launch of the Dragon spacecraft was in fact a US achievement, in a traditionally American spirit. On December 8, a US company, SpaceX, founded by an immigrant and financed mostly by private US investors, successfully launched a spacecraft into orbit and then recovered it from a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

The message is not just that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education is necessary, but also that this achievement by a private company cost just a fraction of NASA's budget in money and time. Governments are great at funding and carrying out research, but competitive private companies motivated by profit and glory tend to be more efficient and speedier in applying the results.