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Americans Don't Have 'Sputnik Moments'

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Khrushchev had his Sputnik Moment. The Soviets had their Sputnik Moment. Communist sympathizers throughout the world had their Sputnik Moment. But despite President Obama’s comment during the State of the Union Address, Americans don’t have Sputnik Moments.

Instead, we Americans recognize “The Eagle has landed.” Those are the words of Astronaut Neil Armstrong as his lunar lander touched down on Tranquility Base on the Moon’s surface, July 19, 1969. With that landing, Americans put an end to the Sputnik Moment.

Eight months earlier, on Christmas Eve, 1968, the world heard Americans speaking from the far side of the Moon. Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders read from the Book of Genesis as they became the first men to leave earth’s orbit: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” It was no toss-away line.

For Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev, losing the space race to the Americans must have been a bitter pill indeed. Sputnik was his greatest success as he searched desperately for a way to legitimize Communist rule. He had admitted to a secret session of the Communist Party Congress that his predecessor Josef Stalin killed “thousands.” But he only indicted Stalin for crimes against loyal Communists. He made no reference in his Secret Speech to the millions of Christians and Jews who perished in the Gulag.

Khrushchev chose Yuri Gagarin to be the first man in space because he was such an articulate young atheist. Asked at his first press conference what he had seen in space, Cosmonaut Gagarin grinned, and said: “Nyet boga!” No God.

Marxist historian Zheya Sveltilova summed up the real meaning of the Soviets’ Sputnik Moment: “When man has conquered the universe … people who now believe in God will reject him. … Man will be stronger than God.”

Thanks to John F. Kennedy, Americans won the race to the Moon. President Obama is not wrong to suggest that it was this effort that launched the Information Age we have inherited.

But it is spectacularly hypocritical for him to laud America’s space effort when he is the one who canceled our plans to return to the Moon. Astronaut Harrison Schmitt believes there is sufficient Helium 3 beneath the lunar surface to make nuclear fusion energy on earth abundant and cheap. It’s at least worth considering.

It is further misleading Americans to link going to the Moon with a federal takeover of education and energy. We won the Space Race without creating huge federal bureaucracies like the Departments of Education and Energy. NASA was created under the parsimonious Ike. Under Mr. Obama, if we want to go back into space, we’ll have to hitch a ride with Khrushchev’s successors in the Kremlin.

That Sputnik Moment phrase is especially inappropriate for someone who has sent spending into orbit, and whose returning space capsule would land in an ocean of red ink.

Conservatives’ claim that liberals in Congress spend like drunken sailors is, however, untrue. President Reagan pointed out: Sailors spend their own money.

I have one suggestion for a modest savings: Let’s fire the speechwriter who gave us that Sputnik Moment. True, it would only save $172,000 a year, but it’s a start. We’ve already been taxed enough for cash for clunkers. That phrase is truly a clunker.

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