Saturday, August 11, 2012

How Many Spaceships Does It Take To Get A Gold Medal?

I've been reflecting on the big news this week: Usain Bolt winning the 100m & 200m dash for the 2nd time at the Olympics and a rover named Curiosity landing on Mars. Both celebrate profound human accomplishments, but clearly both are different. Warning: you're about to to witness my pessimistic side.

What really caught my attention were two quick stats:

Cost to land Curiosity on Mars: $2.5 billon
Cost of the Olympics in London: At least $16 billion

Let's think about that for a second. To send a machine to a distant world... Something which travelled for 8 months... Which was in development since at least 2004... And survived a completely automated landing... Cost 1/6th of the Olympics, which happens every 4 years.

What am I getting at here?


I don't want to diminish the amazing feats the Olympic athletes accomplished, because let's be honest, it's truly amazing.  Again, don't get me wrong. I think sports are critically important for society: It teaches us how to play fair in a highly structured situation. It teaches us the value of hard work and commitment. It also teaches us poise under pressure and how to lose gracefully (I'm still learning that one).

What pains me is our willingness to spend $16 billion to watch athletes compete. You'd think new technology would enable the host country to save money, but it seems to have the opposite affect. Instead, countries & broadcasters spend more and more to entertain people. And instead of being content with what they already provide, we cry for more (show live footage!)... I'll admit to being guilty of this one.

Just think... if they could host the games for $2 billion (the cost of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics), 5 other rovers could be sent to Mars. Side note: Atlanta profited $10 million. London is expected to take a loss.

Of course, landing on Mars isn't nearly as exciting because the ramifications are not instantly obvious. Photos are pretty, but photos of rocks don't conjure up the same level of emotion as Usain Bolt crossing the finish line of the 200m while quieting his doubters (seriously, he could not have a better name).

Perhaps if we sent a man to Mars it would garner the same level of support? I'd be OK with Nike sponsoring the space suits and Harley sponsoring the rockets to help pay for it.

I think what really bothers me is that we, as a society, have voted with our wallets to favor entertainment instead of research. We reward things that provide an immediate gratification. This is why millions of people sit around cheering on the Olympics while at the same time the number of people in poverty continues to climb, obesity rates slowly tick up, and programs like NASA & public schools scramble to stay alive.

I'll admit to being part of the problem too. I spent money to watch Avengers (twice!), Spiderman & Batman this summer. I didn't donate a penny to my University or any research institute.

Combine this with the recent news about Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur, giving away $3 million each to 9 of the world's best-known physicists. He did it without any expectation of a return; it's literally a thank you to physicists for being awesome (Physics is what he studied originally). You have to admit that's pretty awesome, and puts us to shame.

Perhaps after I finish paying off my student loans I can take part of my money and create a little scholarship to award to someone studying economics? $1,000 a year is easily doable. Imagine if countries decided to do the same thing. Just a thought...

Why Exploring Space Is Important

For completeness, I wanted to cover why I think exploring space is important. I'll lean on an article from for help.

There are inventions like Teflon, Velcro & Tang, but that's really not the point.

Instead, history provides a great example of what's to come. When Columbus sailed to America (despite it not being on purpose), discoveries were made. Those discoveries lead to knew territories and newer discoveries and inventions. In this particular example, the US was formed and many great new discoveries were made. Places like the Moon and Mars provide that same potential. Sure, Mars isn't a wooded forest like the Pacific Northwest, but that just means that different discoveries and inventions will be made.

Furthermore, given the size of these undertakings, it's turned competition into cooperation. The US, China & Russia are now friends pursing a similar goal. That's amazing! Could you imagine a day when we're friends with al-Qaeda and they supply a couple willing participants to donate their lives to explore Mars (because, let's be honest, that's a one way trip). Unfortunately, the timeline for these events are so long in our immediate-gratification-culture that what I just suggested sounds like a non-PC joke.

Finally, not only do the discoveries and the development of those discovers provide economic gains, but the very journey also helps economic development. Eventually the space station will be a tourist stop, and we'll be creating jobs on other planets. That's exciting!

I'm not sure how athletes would train for an Olympics on Mars, but I'd like to find out and watch the outcome.


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