Responding to a Sputnik Moment

The Soviet satellite supplies an opportunity for the U.S.S.R. to claim that it has opened a new era, marked by a spectacular overtaking of the U.S. in a vital field where we have been accustomed to count on superiority, and now compete with the U.S. as an equal.
Reaction to Soviet Satellite—Preliminary Evaluation
White House Office of the Staff Research Group
16 October 1957
I…am far more afraid of the impact of Sputnik upon our minds than I am of its threat to our physical existence.
Sir Robert G. Menzies
Australian Prime Minister
5 March 1958

Replica of Sputnik I in National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (USAF Photo)

By shattering America’s self-image of technological superiority, Sputnik changed America, setting in motion policies that led the quintessential free-market state down a path of centrally planned, state-funded research and development (R&D). Sputnik transformed America into a technocracy.[1]

Australia responded differently. Politicians united across party lines in the belief that scientific advancement alone would not lead to national greatness. Science was the means, not the end, of the human endeavor.[2] Accordingly, the Australian government eschewed the pump-priming of science, opting instead to continue to promote balance between science and the humanities.

These differing responses represent distinct views on the significance of a Sputnik moment: a liberal-democracy’s perceived loss of technological superiority to an authoritarian state. As China’s investment in science and technology continues apace and with a view to a manned lunar landing mission within the next two decades, the possibility of a second Sputnik moment has become a distinct reality. Although the character of the strategic relationship between China and the West is markedly different from that between the Cold War antagonists, the nature of the competition bears some similarities. Indeed, politicians in both the United States and Australia have identified the apparent success of China’s investment in science and technology as giving rise to “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” It is therefore appropriate that on the anniversary of the launch of Sputnik we pause to examine the differing American and Australian reactions to the initial Soviet success in the space race. This examination identifies a different dimension to the original Sputnik moment, one that highlights the need for balance and perspective in American and Australian responses to China’s technological accomplishments.

Understanding the significance of the original Sputnik moment requires an appreciation of the context in which it occurred. When Sputnik rose above the steppes of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in October 1957, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a battle for influence in Africa and Asia. Newly independent states were embarking on the process of nation building, which in most cases involved aligning with a superpower patron. The apparent concern for the United States, expressed eloquently in Kennedy’s Moon speech to Congress in 1961, was that Sputnik’s dramatic demonstration of Soviet technological achievement might convince these states that communism offered the path to the rapid development they desperately desired. At the time, these concerns were well founded. In his seminal work on the politics of the space race, Walter McDougall identified a broad consensus across the developing world during the early 1960s that the Soviets were the global technology leaders.[3] This represented a victory for Soviet soft power and a challenge to the U.S. policy of containment.

The solution to this perceived Soviet soft power advantage was for America to stage a counter-demonstration, to prove that liberal-democracies also offered the promise of development through technological achievement. No feat could provide greater proof of the capitalist West’s technological prowess than sending humankind to the moon. Getting there would cost the United States approximately $20 billion in direct investment into an accelerated space program over the course of the 1960s. U.S. government funding of space programs grew by more than 800 percent between 1959 and 1965.[4] While this government investment achieved its objective, stimulation of space R&D distorted certain sectors of the economy; for example, universities became dependent on government funding, and the scientist shortage of the early 1960s became an oversupply by the end of the decade.[5]

The Apollo program was a success, insofar as landing a man on the moon demonstrated America’s technological capabilities. But this achievement came at a heavy financial and ideological cost; the champion of the free-market had succumbed to the temptation of government control. Meanwhile, the growth in American soft power flowing from the moon landing appeared to have little impact on winning favor with its target audience. States in the developing world continued to drift into Moscow’s orbit as a result of strategic pragmatism, indicating that prestige based on technological achievement alone was insufficient enticement to follow a liberal-democratic path.

Sir Robert G. Menzies: "In the great story of scientific achievement, democracy need not make a regulated bow in the direction of Communism." (Public Domain)

In contrast, Australia’s response to the Sputnik moment reflected the belief that, in due course, the liberal-democratic system itself would prove sufficiently attractive that the states of the developing world would reject communism. As Australia was a “geographically isolated small power with limited manpower and resources,” it is easy to discount the significance and relevance of this response.[6] At the time, however, Australia faced the real prospect of Indonesia, the access point to its indefensible northern approaches, succumbing to the allure of communism.[7] Sputnik’s potential to influence developing nations therefore directly affected Australia’s security. Accordingly, Australia’s response is instructive.

While the Australian public greeted Sputnik with enthusiasm and awe rather than the panic associated with their American counterparts, politicians remained cautious. In Parliament, Robert Menzies, Prime Minister from 1949 to 1966, downplayed Sputnik’s significance, stating that although the Soviets had launched first, other countries would follow. For Menzies, the real concern was that the West might lose its “sense of perspective” and adopt a Soviet-style technocratic approach to close what would prove to be an illusory scientific gap.[8] He believed Sputnik did not establish the superiority of communism, but merely highlighted that the Soviet command approach to technology had enabled it to temporarily outstrip the West in one niche area. The West’s traditional laissez-faire approach to science, by contrast, had given it consistent dominance across the breadth of scientific achievement. Accordingly, “in the great story of scientific achievement, democracy need not make a regulated bow in the direction of Communism.”[9] More important was the point that scientific achievement alone was meaningless; science was a means, not an end unto itself. What mattered was how science was used and the societal benefits it enabled. Science, therefore, needed to be balanced by progress in the humanities, as it was the humanities that created the framework of the liberal-democratic system that was the epitome of civilized human advancement.[10]

“Let us have more scientists, and more humanists. Let the scientists be touched and informed by the humanities. Let the humanists be touched and informed by science, so that they may not be lost in abstractions derived from out-dated knowledge of circumstances.”

During a contemporaneous debate on university reform, a prominent Opposition parliamentarian pointed out that “many tyrannical regimes have fostered science, but no tyrannical regimes have fostered those faculties of universities that deal with human affairs, sociology, and those fields of thought where criticism of tyranny is likely to emerge.” Menzies similarly argued, “it was in the free world that the two [sic] great institutions of liberty, parliamentary self-government and the Rule of…Law, were fashioned. They have made a mark on this century compared to which a Sputnik is unimportant.”[11] These achievements were not directed by the state through a command economy, but naturally emerged from a system that encouraged the free flow of ideas across the full spectrum of human endeavor.

In effect, the Australian response to Sputnik was not to respond.

Reforms of the Australian university system, begun in 1956, continued largely unaffected by the events of October 1957. A 300 percent increase in university funding from 1958 to 1960 promoted higher education and research across a broad range of disciplines, not solely to enable government-determined scientific goals.[12] For Menzies, balance was the key: “Let us have more scientists, and more humanists. Let the scientists be touched and informed by the humanities. Let the humanists be touched and informed by science, so that they may not be lost in abstractions derived from out-dated knowledge of circumstances.”[13] This balance had underpinned the success of liberal-democracies prior to Sputnik.

The Apollo program did not win the Cold War. Liberal democracies prevailed over the Soviet-style system because they created an environment that supported the free-flow of ideas and capital. This created not only the material wealth needed to outlast the Soviet Union, but also a robust societal framework able to withstand economic, political, and military shocks. America’s pre-eminence was and continues to be the natural outcome of unfettered individual initiative, not the result of centrally planned, state-funded research.

China's Chang 3 lander (foreground) captured these images of the lunar surface and the Yutu, literally Jade Rabbit, rover. (Chinese Academy of Sciences | China National Space Administration | The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration | Emily Lakdawalla)

With the potential for China’s quest for the moon to provide this generation with its own Sputnik moment, the United States and Australia may again need to consider how to respond, if at all, to a perceived loss of scientific advantage and prestige. Will they respond as the Kennedy administration did by reflexively pursuing government controlled programs to restore their scientific prestige? Or will they follow the Australian example of 1957 and not lose sight of the comparative advantage offered by its liberal-democratic tradition by relapsing into technocracy? Only time will tell.

Travis Hallen is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Scholar, and an editor at The Central Blue. He is a 2013 graduate of the U.S. Air Force's School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

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Header Image: US. astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes an American flag on the surface of the moon, 1969. (Neil Armstrong | NASA)


[1] Walter McDougall, … the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 436

[2] Prime Minister R. G. Menzies, “Modern Civilization and Science,” (Sir Henry Simpson Newland Oration, Australasian Medical Congress, Hobart, 5 March 1958)

[3] McDougall, Heavens and the Earth, 246.

[4] Michael O’Hanlon, Neither Star Wars Nor Sanctuary: Constraining the Military Uses of Space (Washington, DC: Brookings, 2006), 6.

[5] McDougall, Heavens and the Earth, 422, 441.

[6] Australian Defence Committee, “The Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy: October 1956” in Stephen Frühling, ed., A History of Australian Strategic Policy Since 1945 (Defence Publishing Service: Canberra, 2009), 207.

[7] Australian Defence Committee, “The Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy: October 1956," 240.

[8] Menzies, “Modern Civilization and Science

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[12] Pauline Tompkins, “Australian Higher Education and the Murray Report,” Journal of Higher Education 29, no.7 (October 1958): 361-68+409, 409.

[13] Menzies, “Modern Civilization and Science.”