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.

NASA and Education


            As the son of an elementary teacher and the father of a secondary school teacher, I have learned a few things about education.  For example, if you were to ask any teacher at any level what is the most important tool to have to facilitate learning and they will give you the same answer.  Sometimes the words are slightly different but it amounts to the same answer:  the interest, inspiration, and enthusiasm of the students for the subject.  With that, you can teach almost anything with minimal, even primitive equipment and facilities.  Without interest, enthusiasm, and inspiration, all the high tech, modern, fancy equipment and facilities are virtually useless.


            The exploration of space has a long history of inspiring students to study science, engineering, mathematics, and other technical subjects.  The exploration of space has inspired poets, artists, and novelists.  Almost the entire spectrum of human activity and interest has at one time or another been sparked by the exploration of space. 


            I recently watched a middle school class on a field trip to a NASA display.  They were totally entranced.  Middle school is a hard age to capture.  These kids were spellbound.  They were ready to sign on:  astronaut, flight director, chief scientist, whatever.  Dinosaurs and space continue to capture the interest of our young people. 


“The Yankees, the first mechanicians in the world, are engineers– just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians– by right of birth” – Jules Verne, “From the Earth to the Moon” , 1865.  That was the 19th century view.  In the 21st century, engineering (like music and theology) has become a worldwide theme.  America is not the only nation to provide engineers.



            Education is one of the most important topics to Americans.  As a nation we devote huge resources to educating our children, local school boards and state government last year spent over $800 billion on education.  At the federal level, the Department of Education’s budget last year was just over $57 billion.  This represents substantially more money than the nation spent on national defense in all its aspects including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, national intelligence, and the department of homeland security.


            In fact, the national average secondary schooling expenditure per child in the United States is third in the world, behind only Switzerland and Finland and well ahead of Germany, Japan, South Korea, and China. 


Yet, by all objective measures, American students are significantly lagging in almost every area to their foreign counterparts.  Math, Science, even language testing scores lag significantly behind other modern industrialized nations.


Equally troubling is the decline in college graduates in engineering, mathematics, and science.  Over the last decade there has been a steady decay of graduates in these fields so that compared with the previous decade, the United States has 100,000 fewer graduates in these fields.  Compared with other countries we are doing even worse.  When normalized to the population of the country, every industrialized modern nation graduates more science, engineering, and mathematics students than the United States.  Our biggest economic competitors are graduating the most:  China, Japan, India, South Korea.  American innovation and creativity has long been the fire that stoked the engine of our economy.  As we graduate fewer people who have the wherewithal to create new products and services, America can only expect economic decline.


            So what are we to do about this as a nation?  History can provide some relevance.  During the 20th century, there were two significant periods of growth in the training of American engineers, mathematicians, and scientists.  The first was World War II and its immediate aftermath.  Certainly we would rather not expand our capability based on a war, and the circumstances of the GI bill may not be applicable.  The other period of expansion was shortly after Sputnik and the decline started with the end of Apollo.  Is there a lesson here?


            Several prominent writers have argued that the Space Race of the 1960’s provided an alternative to war in the competition between nations.  Certainly there were wars in the 1960’s, most notably in Vietnam.  However, the two super powers of the period were able to compete in the peaceful exploration of space in a way that provided a way to enhance national pride, demonstrate technical and social prowess to the other nations of the world, and in fact inspire young people to pursue careers in technical fields.


            Clearly, today, simply throwing more money at education will not be a panacea.  This is not to say that there are not areas where increased funding could improve some niches.  But overall, we need a different strategy.


            To reiterate:  what is the one most important ingredient in teaching?  Technology such as computers is important.  Facilities are important.  Good teacher preparation is important.  But if you really want students to learn, they must be interested; more than that students must be excited, they must be inspired.


            We need inspiration. 


            NASA is not the Department of Education.  Our charter does not include responsibility for national education.  Nor does our budget provide very much in the way of teacher aids.  NASA’s charter requires us to “inform the nation of our . . . .progress” and a very small division of the public affairs office provides educational material which can be used for classes to explore topics that NASA is directly related to.  In a more significant way, NASA each year spends a significant sum on research grants to universities which in turn provide support for graduate students and researchers.  These grants are funded because there are specific products that NASA needs to carry out our missions.  Research grants have the happy by-product of providing funds for graduate and undergraduate support.  But all of NASA’s education related spending – direct and indirect – is a drop in the bucket of national education spending.


            What NASA has provided in the past, NASA can provide again:  inspiration.


            Many have complained that the International Space Station and Shuttle programs have not been inspirational.  Personally, I would challenge that premise.  But for a moment, lets accept it.  What would be inspirational?  How about the exploration of the solar system?  First, outposts on the moon, then on to Mars, the asteroids, and other habitable places in the solar system.  Initially by robotic explorers, then by human beings:  men and women.  How about that for an inspirational goal?


            Even in these “un-inspirational” days, many young people have been motivated to science and engineering fields by the prospect of becoming an astronaut, or of being a member of a robot exploration of the universe.  Imagine how excited a generation will be if they have the immediate prospect of setting foot on the sandy plains of Mars? 


            It’s not a war.  Its peaceful.  And it is sustainable.  But the vision cannot be delayed, shelved for “a better budget climate” in the distant and hazy future. 


            NASA may once again be the inspiration that America needs to shake off our lethargy, become the greatest nation in the world – maybe even the greatest nation in the world’s history – by continuing to explore the last frontier.  And since it will excite our children as nothing else can, NASA will transform education, and bring back the creative spark that powers our economic engine in ways that we cannot imagine.


            Having a seemingly unattainable goal is the hallmark of what it means to be American.  Our forefathers came here for opportunities that the old world lacked.  Our descendants will look for opportunities that this entire world lacks – but which the universe can provide. 


            And so, once again, American will transform itself and the world.  The old beekeeper from New Zealand had it right.  Ed Hillary lead the first expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest.  He summed it up this way: 


“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”