Sputnik Moment30 January 2011 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
During his State of the Union address, President Obama referred to a Sputnik moment. It took me back to Destination Moon, one of the adventures of Tintin. This was my only comic strip. I didn’t really like strip books. Yet Destination Moon appealed to my imagination.
President Obama used a Sputnik moment to recall an event in 1957: the Russians launched the first Sputnik into an orbit around the earth. It caused a bombshell in the USA. It was a direct attack on America’s technological advantage. Yet twelve years later, the Americans put the first man on the moon.
I was just six then, watching TV, hair still wet, with cola and crisps. Cola and crisps were also an innovation. I was too late for Sputnik but in time for Apollo.
Promptly, I appeared at the next school carnival celebrations in a space suit. Its helmet wasn’t a proper helmet but a rather embarrassing cap made of soft plastic. Condensation quickly covered the inside of my crumbling plastic visor. I still nearly choke when thinking back to it.
Sputnik moment, it is an odd metaphor. Occasionally you find it in novels. Out of the blue you come across a comparison or metaphor which jars. This reminds me of a well know Dutch writer, on the whole she writes in a sophisticated style, but once she used a metaphor featuring a genital. I thought, What for heaven’s sake is going on? So this is how I felt when a Sputnik moment was first mentioned.
The big difference between 1957 and now is that, apart from this one technological defeat, the USA were beating the Soviet Union in all areas of the economy; stated otherwise: there was already a new élan in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties. The president just needed to put it into words.
Jack Kerouac introduced a new literary movement, the Beat Generation. Young people were swiftly called Beatniks. Kerouac, by the way, loathed the word Beatnik.
Now China is an emerging power and élan has disappeared. The president’s words try to turn the tide. After a while ‘Yes we can’ starts to work against you. ‘Yes we can beat Sputnik.’
At once, the image of the president in the oval office presents itself. The speechwriter suggests a few metaphors. They joke about making comparisons with the last days of the Roman Empire; about emperors who blame their predecessors and the rise of foreign powers. Or about an army which is overstretched. Well, this won’t do.
Suddenly the scriptwriter proposes ‘Sputnik moment’. Yes, thinks the president, let’s say something hopeful. We can leave the largest budget deficit ever until later.
You come across it more often: hankering back to the nineteen fifties when everything was still OK. It reminds me of the TV series Happy Days and its nostalgic fifties feeling. Plus Obama’s thumbs-up just like ‘The Fonz’.
I assume he didn’t contrive ‘Sputnik moment’. Besides, I cannot imagine the president like Archimedes, jumping out of his bath to run naked across the White House front lawn while shouting ‘Eureka! We are experiencing a Sputnik moment.’
I can’t get this Sputnik out of my mind. I look at everything using space travel terminology. Even John Cleese triggers a Sputnik moment. Because John Cleese recently announced he wished his ex-wife would be abducted by extraterrestrials.
Otherwise I have been singing ‘Garin Gagarin’ all week. Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space. (Little Laika was the first space dog.) I have more chance boarding the first manned space trip to Mars than ever meeting the love of my life. But if I do, I whisper in her ear, ‘Do you know, I experience a massive Sputnik moment. Can I be your Apollo?’
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
You can leave your comment on our forum.
Tell a friend
Back to magazine
Magazine archiveMay 2013
NewsLiving under Fire competition
01 January 2011
Find out more
Angel & King of Tuzla featured in Litro
24 January 2011
This month Litro celebrates Dutch authors
Find out more
Workshop with Arnold Jansen op de Haar
02 January 2011
Celebrating Dutch Poetry Day 2011
Find out more