â€œHalf a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how weâ€™d beat them to the moon,â€ President Barack Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union speech. â€œBut after investing in better research and education, we didnâ€™t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generationâ€™s Sputnik moment.â€
Was the president rising to the challenge of some new technology that Americaâ€™s adversaries were mastering? Was he doubling down on the vague, far-off promise by his predecessor to send a mission to Mars? No. He was talking about government loans for solar panels, federal spending on research, and the even more prosaic work of getting his preferred budget passed. And as Editor in Chief Matt Welch observes in his column from our February 2012 issue, ever since President John F. Kennedyâ€™s famous â€œMan on the Moonâ€ speech, succeeding presidents and the commentators who egg them on have been using the moonshot as a metaphor for successively less urgent, scientific, and attainable goals.