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.
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.
Image of John Grunsfeld courtesy of Wikipedia