Technology, innovation, and education were the main topics and largest segments time-wise in President Obama's State of the Union address. He noted the country is at a "Sputnik Moment," akin to when the Soviet Union shocked the U.S. and the world in 1957 when it launched the world's first artificial satellite. That event spurred a drive in technology and education that resulted in the U.S. landing the first (and only) astronauts on the moon—along with technology developments that spread across many areas.
The President said that today the challenge is to "win the future" in terms of innovation and manufacturing to propel our economy out of recession and into a world of clean, renewable energy—with minimal dependence on foreign energy sources.
The analogy to the early competition in space is a good one, but like any comparison, not entirely correct. Back in 1957, the country as a whole was well aware of the challenge and put pressure on the government to respond—resulting three-and-a-half years later in the Kennedy Administration's commitment to the moon landing effort (view video)
. (In fairness, President Eisenhower, who appeared less concerned, had U-2 spy-plane photos—which he couldn’t acknowledge back in 1957—and knew the Soviet threat and capability wasn't as serious as perceived.) Today we have no one event to galvanize us into action, just the President saying (and perhaps rightly so) it is time to act.
But the challenge in the Space Race was mainly technical, as well as educational for the engineering workforce needed for the effort, with the country united in the endeavor from the outset, with a specific goal in mind. Today, while technology development is the objective, budget restrictions and reining in the national debt, and conflicting political priorities over the coming years could throttle any all-out effort—which is without any specific goal yet, that would be similar to the moon landing Apollo project.
Getting various constituencies together in any semblance of cooperation to "win the future" could well be the biggest challenge.