Friday, April 8, 2011

Dr Brandon Rohrer Answers Why We Do This

This originally appeared on the official GLXP blog for the team.

Dr Brandon Rohrer is the nominal team lead for rover development. His day job is a robotics and AI researcher at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He earned his bachelor's of science in Mechnical engineering from BYU and then his Master's and PhD in ME at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was the second person to join Team Phoenicia and part of the reason that we are often called the 'New Mexico' team.

Recently when James, a long time friend of Team Phoenicia, wrote his post arguing lunar He3 nonsensical reason to be pitching going to the Moon, a responder asked then, why ought we go. Why go to the Moon at all? Brandon wrote his own answer as to why we are. Or, perhaps, his own special reason.

Dr Brandon Rohrer

Occasionally it occurs to me to step back and ask why we’re doing this. Why go to the moon? How many episodes of Family Guy could we collectively watch in the time we dedicate to getting there? How many slices of pepperoni pizza would our funding buy? Is it worth it?

It seems especially relevant considering that we’ve already been there, at least as a species. Sure, putting a man on the moon was the cultural icon of humanity’s technical achievement. But that was four decades ago. It's older than Zork. Isn’t that yesterday’s news?

There are the obvious answers of fame and fortune. Or at least bragging rights and pocket change. But the magnitude of the task is completely out of scale with the financial compensation or notoriety we might receive. There are far more straightforward ways to make a small fortune (investment banking, for one) or to get a million hits on YouTube (like videotape yourself lip syncing to “Numa Numa”). Why go to all that work?

Perhaps it’s just the magic of the moon. It glows at us, well within our vision but, like so many of our dreams, perpetually out of reach. It turns suitors into lovers and men into wolves. The moon is a symbol of the great space beyond our floating island, and to reach it offers the possibility of breaking our landlocked existing and leaving our terrestrial cares down below. It is our stepping stone to Mars and gateway to the stars beyond.

And even though humans have set foot on its surface, that accomplishment belonged to the government rather than to individuals. It was a concerted multi-billion dollar institutional thrust. And it belonged to a previous generation, now fading into memory with Knight Rider and 5 ¼” floppies. The Google Lunar X-Prize is our chance to get there personally. Maybe what drives so many of us is a primal desire to reach out and touch the moon with our own fingertips. Or at least to touch it with something our fingertips have touched. That way we make it ours in a way that can physically hold on to and tell our grandchildren about.

Either that or, like me, you’re just doing it to meet girls.

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