I am a huge supporter of space exploration, and a big fan of the recent boom of entrepreneurial activity around space. For example, I’m the type of person that gets excited when I see that the Blue Origin spacecraft managed a very successful test recently of their new launch vehicle. (Blue Origin is Jeff Bezos’ pet space company).
However, I have a special connection with the ongoing mission to Pluto, dubbed “New Horizons”. The spacecraft has been in the news lately because the ship will soon be passing Jupiter, on its way to rendezvous with Pluto (which is a planet).
The reason is kind of quirky – it has to do with my activity on the Speech & Debate team in High School. I went to a very small high school (less than 200 students), but it had, at the time, a very successful and well-recognized Speech & Debate team. I was successful enough on the team to be both President of the team (about 40 students) and Captain of the Policy Debate team (sometimes called Oxford debate).
I had a lot of success in individual speech events – my specialty were the variants where there was little to no preparation. Extemporaneous speaking was an event where you had 30 minutes to prepare a 7 minute speach on a topic, typically current events or policy. Impromptu, my favorite, gave you only 2 minutes to prepare a 5 minute speech on anything. Literally anything – a quote, a person, a place, an item. One of my best speeches ever was the final round of the Stanford invitational, where I won first place after picking my topic out of a Stanford bookstore bag (it was a condom).
One area where the team had struggled historically had been the annual, official statewide competition for policy debate. Unlike college invitationals, the state competitions tended to have “lay” judges – parents, friends, locals. As a result, winning had more to do with persuasive speech, and less to do with well thought out policy or evidence.
Our senior year, at the qualification tournament at Bellarmine High School, my partner and I had prepared a special case – one that was less technical, inexpensive, and incredibly compelling. It was a secret – we had never used it before at a tournament (we typically did 15-20 tournaments across the country, per year). The topic that year was space exploration.
The policy proposal? Send an unmanned spacecraft to Pluto. It was inexpensive (under $200M), obvious (it’s the only planet we haven’t explored close up), and it had urgency – there was a specific window in Pluto’s orbit that makes it economical to launch only once every decade or so. Pluto goes through a unique atmospheric event every 200 years, and it turned out that sending the craft immediately, in the next decade, made the most sense.
Not as grandiose as a moon base. Not as compelling as a manned mission to Mars. Not as exotic as developing solar sails. Not as economically valuable as beaming solar energy down from orbit to provide clean, inexpensive power.
But it won. And we qualified for the State tournament that year.
We didn’t end up winning the State championship that year, although I did pick up 2nd in the state in Extemporaneous. But I still look back on that case fondly; it was our last one.
That was spring of 1991. And as it turns out, it was a good idea, and we really are doing it. And now the ship is racing across the solar system, due for its rendezvous with Pluto… in July 2015, when my oldest son will be 10.
See you in 2015.