What If We Celebrated Science Like the Olympics?

What NASA does every day is like a perfect balance beam act, performed every day, in space. Why don’t we celebrate these feats with the enthusiasm we reserve for Olympic athletes?

If we celebrated NASA geniuses the way we celebrate Michael Phelps, would we still be 23rd in science? If we put the country’s best algebra teacher on a cereal box, would we still rank 31st in math around the world?

Believe me, I have nothing against the Olympics (aside from the almost mentally ill fixation on volleyball). I like watching them, and think it’s terrific to see the world’s best athletes and NBA basketball players compete head-to-head for a few weeks in the summer. The whole winter Olympics thing is another story, as all it ever does is remind me how cold it is outside, but my daughter thinks the cross-country skiing is hilarious.

In case you missed it … a government agency managed to launch a piece of fragile technology … toward another planet spinning in orbit millions of miles away and had it land—softly—precisely where it was supposed to land. That’s like doing a perfect balance beam routine every day for 255 days—with an anvil on your back.

I have no problem with sports in general. I’m a huge fan of baseball, and would tell you my team affiliation if it weren’t guaranteed to create animosity among some readers. Judge me for my words, not my Jorge Posada jersey.

But the adoration we heap upon those who compete physically is, in one man’s opinion, misplaced, or at least disproportionate. People who can swim really fast or run really fast or jump up on a pole (what the heck is that all about?) are combining an unusual talent of genetics with a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication. I get that. And they deserve to be recognized for what they can do.
Still: Does that really justify the level of encouragement they’re given after the fact? I believe that Gabrielle Douglas manages to be supremely talented at what she does and adorable at the same moment, and begrudge her nothing including the Wheaties box she must already be grinning at us from. But is that the priority we should have?

In case you missed it, while the Olympics were being televised (on considerable time delay) from London, a few guys and even fewer women at a government agency managed to launch a piece of fragile technology from a planet spinning in orbit toward another planet spinning in orbit millions of miles away and had it land—softly—precisely where it was supposed to land. That’s like doing a perfect balance beam routine every day for 255 days—with an anvil on your back.

The only thing most news organizations did was note the jubilation at Mission Control when Curiosity landed safely. Late night comedians were focused on the uniforms worn in the control room, which they rightly noted made the Ph.D.s in the room look like they worked at Best Buy.

We have an interesting priority system in this country. Super Bowl winners are at the top, followed by NBA stars, perhaps followed by baseball players, followed by the leader of the political party of your choice, followed by movie actors, followed by television actors.  But then we wonder why we’ve fallen so far behind the rest of the world in math and science. If the message we’re sending to our children is that the way to become rich and famous is to “accidentally” release a sex tape or to knock over someone who’s just a little bit smaller than you, we are doing them a disservice.

Personally, I think more kids should be shown John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator; Charles Elachi, director, JPL; Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager; Richard Cook, MSL deputy project manager; Adam Steltzner, MSL entry, descent and landing (EDL) lead; and John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist.

And if you’re a real celebrity junkie, Neil deGrasse Tyson.


Read more Education and Ethics & Values.

Image of John Grunsfeld courtesy of Wikipedia

About Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is a freelance writer and novelist, a father and a husband. He tries to be a good man. Others will have to determine how well he succeeds. You can find him at @jeffcohenwriter on Twitter and on Facebook, and he blogs on Mondays at Hey, There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room, which examines crime fiction from all sides. His hobbies include speaking about himself in the third person.


  1. wellokaythen says:

    I agree with the sentiment, but I have to disagree with the depiction of “science.” NASA does contribute to the body of scientific knowledge, no question, but landing something on Mars is not primarily a scientific achievement. It’s an engineering achievement, with some secondary scientific aspects, maybe.

    Saying NASA has scientific achievements is sort of like saying Olympic athletes have endorsement achievements. Or like saying that Olympic swimmers have shaving achievements. Well, sort of, but is that fundamentally what it’s all about?

    Putting people into space is not really a scientific achievement, but primarily a political and ideological one. Astronauts do conduct scientific experiments, but that is generally not why they are celebrated as heroes. (They are generally more like lab techs in the shuttle more than primary investigators.) Neil Armstrong is not famous for science, but for an activity that had virtually no scientific usefulness. China is not building a space program primarily to advance the course of scientific knowledge.

    Science also requires sharing data on experiments that are reproducible, and being transparent about how you get your information. Considering how much defense work NASA does that it can’t talk about, that’s hardly scientific either.

    I would say the Nobel Prize is a better example.

    • One of NASA’s primary reasons for existing has always been to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge and to provide platforms which enable others to do so. Although it’s often co-opted for defense work or publicity stunts (i.e. putting people in space), I think discounting NASA’s contributions to science does the organization a disservice. I mean, Hubble alone revolutionized parts of astrophysics and that’s just cherrypicking one of NASA’s more high-profile projects.

      Take the example used in this article, the Curiosity mission. Just one of the many purposes for launching the rover is investigating initial reports of water on Mars in an attempt to ascertain whether it could have once harbored life. The mission, as with almost all NASA missions, is primarily scientific. I mean, let’s think critically. Would NASA spend billions of dollars simply to prove they could choreograph and execute an extraordinarily complex landing maneuver because they, I dunno, wanted to flex their engineering biceps? The point of the mission wasn’t to deposit the rover, we just haven’t gotten any data back yet, so only the part of the mission that’s reportable – the landing – gets any press.

      To call NASA merely a vehicle to put people in space sounds to me like we’re discounting the vast amount of work the organization has done since the moon landings. Notice the author didn’t mention any astronauts in his final paragraph, and that’s because you’re right – they are just the lab techs. The people he mentioned lead multiyear missions that add significantly to human understanding of the universe’s working and history.

  2. Nori Bommel says:

    Great article, and I couldn’t agree more.
    However, I must admit that I can’t help wondering if it would really have been that hard to find one, just ONE woman to include in the last paragraph. I’m sure with a few minutes of research, you could have come up with a role model for little girls as well.

    • I would have been happy to include women in that last paragraph, but that was the list of mission commanders (that might not be the exact title), and there were no women included. There are women involved, and I wish there were more.


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