As a space-policy analyst, whenever I hear about a “Sputnik moment” from a politician, I shudder, because I can be almost certain that it will have nothing whatsoever to do with Sputnik, let alone space policy. It is almost guaranteed to be a foolish and false analogy, just like “If we can land a man on the moon, why can’t we etc.”
Sputnik, like Apollo, was a unique event in American and perhaps even human history. It was the heart of the Cold War. We were in an existential battle with an enemy (the Soviet Union) over the capability to bombard each other with nuclear weapons.
Sputnik was about pure, raw technological skill, in an area where we felt vulnerable at the time. It had nothing to do with what made America exceptional.[emphasis mine]
What made America 'exceptional' is the moral and political vision of its Founders, who clearly understood that a country established on the principles of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' was, not only an historical anomoly, but also represented the embodiment of the highest values to which mankind could aspire.
What continues to make America exceptional is the extent to which we still live up to those same values bequeathed to us by a group of exceptional and extraordinary men.
To the extent that we deviate from their vision, we become merely ordinary and mediocre at best; self-destructive and suicidal at worst; 'just one of many nations' and nothing special at all, in a world where, "On the one hand, all cultures are equally deserving of respect; on the other, Western culture is uniquely destructive and bad."
When Sputnik was in the news, as Simberg notes, we were in the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union; and their launch of a satellite into outer space reminded us in a number of ways that our very existence was at stake. The technological breakthroughs that followed were simply that: technological breakthroughs. And they were made possible because we firmly believed in our exceptionalism in those days; we did not need to be convinced that our way of life was superior to the Soviet communists--we knew in a fundamental way that our freedom was superior to their collectivism. If we had believed that we were nothing special; that the Soviet Union was just as good in every way and possibly even morally superior to us (as a very small minority did at the time) then we might have settled for the just "one of many" nations" talk back then and stood by while communism spread its poison around the globe.
But on a very visceral level, Americans knew better then.
Today, even though we fight an existential enemy who makes a practice of hiding in caves and forcing 50% of its population to hide under black shrouds to make them invisible; even though this existential threat to our way of lfe is unbelievably primitive in not only its ability to create new technology, but also primitive and medieval in its choice of human values; they are able to use exactly the same technology that we have access to.
But, they are more than equal to us in one very important way: while we have moved away from the moral clarity that those who founded America had; away from the values that are our birthright; they have wholeheartedly embraced the values of death and destruction and have no ambivalence whatsoever. We do not believe in our heart of hearts anymore that we are exceptional; we have even elected a President who does not believe it and tolerate it while he makes sure the rest of the world understands how ordinary we are, even as he placates us here at home with faint praise of our unexceptional exceptionalism. (See the SOTU address by the President this week).
Instead, our culture and values are considered by many to be 'equal' to those of the Islamists--and there is even a significant number of people in this country who believe that we are morally and culturally inferior.
Technological skill is not going to be the deciding factor in this war because the primitives of Islam can use the same technology we do; and they have fewer moral and ethical restraints to do it (witness how Iran is well on its way to nuclear capability and what they will do with that capability as soon as it is fully operational; note how Pakistan already has nukes and has sold them to the highest bidder and so on.
No, the only way that we can win over this existential enemy is to once again dedicate ourselves to the moral and political vision of the Founders. We must again develop the moral clarity to be able to appreciate that America is exceptional because our culture of freedom and its reverence for life is exceptional and utterly unique in all of history; that our reverence for individual rights and the cultural sanction to pursue one's own individual happiness is the highest moral virtue; that the rule of law and not of men is a blessing; and that a limited government is absolutely essential to safeguarding all these freedoms.
These exceptional, remarkable ideas are the true reason we are, and should always be, what Ronald Reagan called 'the shining city on the hill' and a beacon to the rest of the world. In fact, these simple ideas are so superior; so incredible and so worth living--and even dying--for, that they can never be completely taken away from humanity; nor will they ever perish permanently from this Earth...
...unless we ourselves kill them or allow them to die. Only then, will the primitives, who desire with all their hearts the death of these ideas, have a clear path to turn back history and plunge the world back into the medieval horrors of the past.