Why does Rice Play Texas?

I wrote this note to the shuttle team in 2004.  I think it is still true today.  Maybe more so than in 2004.

Rice vs. K State tonight at Reckling Park in the NCAA regional baseball playoffs.  Texas has already advanced to the super-regionals facing TCU.  Why do we care?  Read on:


This note is not about really sports but about exploration. Let me tell you why.


JFK was on a roll.  He could move a crowd with a speech.  He knew what would excite an audience and he could build on their emotion.  It was a hot summer day in Houston and the event was outdoors at Rice stadium.  The President had come to town to elaborate on his space exploration initiative.  He talked about the technical challenges, like the requirement for materials to withstand temperatures of several thousand degrees, or “almost as hot as it is here today” he quipped.  Then he came to the centerpiece of his speech:










At this point the crowd which contained many university alumni, faculty, and students started cheering.  But JFK knew better than to slow down; without a pause he continued:




The cheering intensified, not cheering about a football team but about a new goal







At one time, during the 1920’s and 30’s there was parity in football in the Southwest Conference; Rice won its share of the championships and on any given Saturday in the fall any team had the potential to beat any other team.  But after WWII the University of Texas took off in size and came to dominate football in the region.  Rice earned the dubious honor of becoming the smallest school in the nation to play Division I sports. 


Logically, mathematically, analytically, Rice should never beat Texas.  With a regular period, the Rice University faculty debates giving up football – or all Division I athletics –  as a waste of time, money, and effort. 


And when the historians replay the tape of JFK’s speech, they generally clip out the phrase ‘WHY DOES RICE PLAY TEXAS?’  perhaps because the reference may be obscure to some people, perhaps because it seems less important than Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic.  But if that phrase is clipped out, I submit you may miss the point. 


Texas dominates the series 64-21-1.  The conferences have changed and the two teams don’t play every year, and when they do, it doesn’t count for conference standings. 


Logically, mathematically, analytically, there is no point for Rice to play Texas. 


But about once a decade, the illogical happens: the underdog triumphs.  Facing the challenge makes a fundamental change in the people who face that challenge.


George Mallory was one of the early explorers to attempt to climb Mount Everest, the penultimate “highest mountain”.  When they asked him why, Mallory’s reply became legendary: “Because its there”.  But that reason smacks of adolescence, it fails to describe any compelling value.  George Mallory died on the slopes of Mount Everest.  Tinzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary made the first successful assault of the world’s highest mountain.  Later Hillary spoke about the experience:  “It is not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves”. 


The Universe neither knows nor cares if we boldly explore or silently fade from the scene. 


But we know. 


The point is what the challenge does to us.  There is nothing “virtual” about being on the mountain peak, or on the lunar surface.  The challenge changes us and that may very well be the most important thing of all.


JFK spoke about the challenge of the lunar program as being a measure of us as a people; could we meet the challenge.


Today, we are facing another space exploration initiative and the challenge is the same.  Exploring the space frontier is extremely difficult, saturated with risk, immensely challenging.  Our part is to fly the Space Shuttle safely soon.  It is a formidable challenge.  But everyone from the President down tells us that demonstrating that we can meet this challenge is the necessary cornerstone to all that may come afterward.  Flying the shuttle safely and completing the International Space Station will demonstrate that we –  our agency – our nation – has the competence to continue on and roll back the frontiers.  Meeting this challenge will change us.



Somebody recently wrote that this was a poor reason to explore space.  There are many reasons to explore space.  I’ve written a number of posts providing various reasons, some intensely practical, some more philosophical.  Go ahead and look back over the record here. 


But challenging the best in ourselves to do something hard; that is not an inconsiderable reason either.

The Way West

I recently read a magazine article by Cornell professor Jim Bell who is the lead scientist on the Mars Exploration Rover Panoramic Camera team.  The final picture of his article took my breath away:

Opportunity on Sol 114 looks back at its tracks through



This picture is so reminiscent of views of wagon ruts still visible on the Oregon trail in Nebraska and Wyoming!  Pioneers on the American west a hundred and fifty years ago would feel right at home.

Well, they probably had a bit more oxygen, so lets not push the analogy too far.

Four hundred years after Columbus, American historian Fredrick Jackson Turner lamented the US Census bureau declaration that the western frontier was “closed”, all settled.  In 1893 Turner presented a controversial paper which has come to be called “The Frontier Hypothesis”.  His paper asserted that having a frontier was the most influential factor in American history.  The Frontier Hypothesis has been debated ever since by historians who argue that other factors were more important in American development.  But nobody argues that having a frontier wasn’t a huge factor, just what factor was biggest.

Turner wrote that having a frontier shaped the American character; always facing a challenge, inculcating innate optimism, relying on personal initiative and ingenuity, cooperating with scattered neighbors — all these things influenced who we are today.

Since the western frontier “closed” a century ago, America has become a world power, perhaps the only superpower, and has faced many other challenges.  Today pessimism seems rampant and some quarters seem to revel in painting a dark future for America and humanity as a whole. 

I don’t have the academic credentials to participate in the debate that Fredrick Jackson Turner started, but it seems at least he was close to the mark.  Having a challenge, being forced to be innovative, having the hope that the future will be better than the present — all these things are important.

I’ve overused the quotation by Sir Edmund Hillary, but here it is again:  “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”  Ed Hillary and Tensing Norgay were first on the summit of Mount Everest, so I think the beekeeper from New Zealand knew what he was talking about.  Unlike Ed Hillary or Scott Parazinsky, I’ve never had the nerve or the opportunity to attempt the world’s highest mountain, but I have been on the summit of some lesser peaks:

Wayne and friends atop the highest point in Texas, Guadelupe Peak 2, 667 meters



Climbing a mountain changes the one who takes on the challenge.  When you do something hard, like pioneer a new frontier or climb a higher mountain, you come back a different person.  Generally a better person.  More creative, more resilient, and more optimistic.  After all, if you can climb the mountain, you know you can take on other challenges. 

Collectively we need a challenge that is one for good, not for destruction or competition or rivalry.  Not one for bragging rights.  But a challenge that we can take pride in accomplishing.

This time when we pioneer a new frontier we have the opportunity to do it without all the ugliness that accompanied the last great age of exploration:  slavery, racial and ethnic denigration, hideous destruction of native peoples, and wholesale damage to the environment. 

Lets do it right this time. 

But lets do it. 

It is important for ourselves.