Neil deGrasse Tyson: Are You Waiting On A Sputnik Moment?

Do you really have to wait for the Soviets to launch a satellite to start innovating? The star starman thinks not.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Are You Waiting On A Sputnik Moment?

Neil deGrasse Tyson has a ballistic bone to pick with laurel-resting executives: reflecting on how President Obama tried to get the union to hustle by invoking the Sputnik Satellelite launched by the Soviet Union, the beloved astrophysicist scoffs at the comparison.


Back in 1957, the U.S. saw the its sworn enemy, the communists, had leapt ahead, the stargazing former Most Creative Person says, it shook the country’s ego:

“We had our own state of self-assessment that we were technologically proficient, you know, we won the war. Our manufacturing was back in place and here’s this country that we were telling the whole world that we were better than they were in every way that mattered and, bam, out comes a satellite.”

So what happened? If you’ve watched Mad Men, you may know that first the U.S. went beserk and then created NASA and put our science, technology, and engineering efforts into overdrive. This, Tyson rightly observes, would shape the country’s identity from the ’50s through the ’70s, as we were looking for the Right Stuff.

What we need to look at is the “Sputnicity” of the moment, Tyson explains. It comes from the fact that the satellite was in fact “a hollowed out intercontinental ballistic missile shell” with a radio transmitter instead of a warhead–showing that yes, the Soviets, as they were called, could reach America.

And, as Obama drew the parrallel to, other countries have now surpassed the U.S. in other, less-mortal ways, showing that the country has lost its leadership position. And the country, as many organizations have been, was caught sleeping.

Tyson won’t stand for it:

I don’t like Sputnik moments. I’d rather have been the leader all along. Why do we have to be shocked into being motivated to lead? Why don’t we just lead all the time? And maybe that’s just unrealistic, maybe that’s just not human nature. Maybe we have to feel threatened in order to act.

The Sputnik thing happens in business, too. You see it in the way that P&G is re-installing sparkplug CEO A.G. Lafley to reignite a sluggish rate of innovation or how Andrew Mason was uncermoniously ousted from lead at Groupon. And while P&G seems to be able to weather the Sputnik-y storm, Groupon’s threat level is going nuclear.


Bottom Line: If you’re waiting for Sputnik, you’re losing the space race.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Don’t Sit Around Waiting for a Sputnik Moment

[Image: Flickr user Emily Mills]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.