NEW ORLEANS — The European forecast of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was so far ahead of U.S. models in predicting the storm’s path that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was called before Congress to explain how it happened.

NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan told lawmakers at a hearing last year that the Europeans “set a target and a policy of staying very close to the leading edge of computational capacity.” That’s in contrast to the U.S., which “falls further and further behind the cutting edge” and then follows it with a “big step forward,” she said.

That’s how things work in the U.S. When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, the “big step forward” for the U.S. was the moon landing in 1969. It crushed the competition.

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