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Letter from Wayne Hale - Why does Rice play Texas?

Status Report From: Johnson Space Center
Posted: Tuesday, November 2, 2004

image From: N. Wayne Hale, Jr., Deputy Manager, Space Shuttle Program

Subject: Why does Rice play Texas?

God bless those of you digging out from under hurricanes. We are all hoping for the best.

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

JFK was on a roll. He was a consummate public speaker. He knew what would excite an audience and how to 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:

SOME PEOPLE ASK, WHY GO TO THE MOON?

THEY MAY WELL ASK, WHY CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN?

WHY 35 YEARS AGO, FLY THE ATLANTIC?

WHY DOES RICE PLAY TEXAS?

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

WE CHOOSE TO GO TO THE MOON

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

WE CHOOSE TO GO TO THE MOON

AND DO THE OTHER THINGS,

NOT BECAUSE THEY ARE EASY BUT BECAUSE THEY ARE HARD

BECAUSE THAT CHALLENGE IS ONE THAT WILL SERVE TO MEASURE THE BEST IN US

IT IS ONE WE INTEND TO WIN

During the 1920's and 1930's there was parity in football in the Southwest Conference. Rice won its share of the championships. On each fall Saturday any team had the potential to beat any other team. But after WWII the University of Texas mushroomed in size and came to dominate regional football. Rice earned the dubious honor of becoming the smallest school in the nation to play Division I sports. Texas dominates the series 64-21-1.

When the historians replay the tape of JFK's speech, they generally clip out the phrase 'WHY DOES RICE PLAY TEXAS?' because the reference may be obscure to some or perhaps because it seems less important than climbing Mount Everest or Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic. But you miss an important point if there is gap in the recording.

Athletic conferences change and the teams don't play every year. When they do, the results don't count toward conference standings. Logically, mathematically, analytically, there is no point for Rice to play Texas. Regularly, the Rice faculty debates giving up football altogether as a waste of time, money, and effort.

But about once a decade, the illogical happens: against all rational reasons the underdog wins. The wiser members of the Rice faculty know that having a challenge can change a university. Facing the challenge makes a fundamental change in the players even when they lose. Every four years we cheer the Jamaican bobsled team in the winter Olympics. Last month we cheered the Iraqi soccer team in the summer Olympics. It is not all about winning the gold medal; it is about competing, facing the challenge. Those who face the challenge are forever changed.

George Mallory was one of the early explorers to attempt to climb Mount Everest, the penultimate "highest mountain". When asked why, Mallory's reply became legendary: "Because its there". That smacks of adolescence and fails to ascribe any compelling value to the climb. George Mallory died on the slopes of Mount Everest. Tensing Norgay and Edmund Hillary made the first successful assault of the world's highest mountain. Later when Edmund Hillary spoke about the experience he said: "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 will know and our children will bear the result. 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 and he said we should not be afraid to take that measure. It changed us.

Today we have a new space exploration initiative, but the challenge is the same. Exploring the space frontier is extremely difficult, highly unforgiving, surrounded with risk and therefore immensely challenging. Our part is to fly the Space Shuttle safely and soon. It is a formidable challenge. Everyone from the President on down agrees that demonstrating we can succeed at 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 to roll back the frontiers. Meeting this challenge will change us forever. IT IS ONE WE INTEND TO WIN

Rice at Texas, Saturday, 6 PM.

// end //

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