Jake Dockter: An Open Letter to Felix Baumgartner.

Dear Mr. Felix Baumgartner,

A few weeks ago, while sitting in a literary festival surrounded by books, I watched you jump out of a balloon and sail through the air. You broke more than records and more than the sound barrier. You broke into the imagination and spirit of millions of people. Imagine! One man at the edge of space, looking into the distance. Your adventure captured us. How many people hope to be doing something so daring? How many armchair adventurers only dream of such heights? You are a hero. You stood at the edge and jumped back to Earth while others hope to stand at the edge and jump out further, to the Moon, to Mars and beyond.

In a recent interview, you mentioned this very impulse to explore but instead of advocating for it, you disapproved by saying, “I think we should perhaps spend all the money [which is] going to Mars to learn about Earth. I mean, you cannot send people there because it is just too far away. That little knowledge we get from Mars I don't think it does make sense.”

I disagree. I am a book editor and over the last few months have been working on a book called American Dreamers. This book is a collection of dreams, ideas, and visions for a brighter future. Many leaders and innovators have contributed. One of the key themes in the book is about the value of space exploration. I had the honor of speaking with some visionaries in the field of space and Mars, including Dr. Charles Elachi of NASA/JPL, Dr. Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society and Dr. Cameron M. Smith, an anthropology professor building a space suit in his living room. Claire L. Evans shared her idea that Mars exploration represents something grander for humanity than just a robot on distant soil.

Learning About Mars Has Value

Learning about Mars and our solar system is valuable. It seems that you only look at one aspect - the science - and deem it unworthy. The science of Mars is not just for Mars; it has an impact for our own planet. For example, we know water once existed on Mars. What happened to it? We can learn about climate change and atmospheric trouble by studying a planet that appears to have undergone radical transformation. While the science has so much value in and of itself (finding out the possible origins of life, exploring climate change, etc.), we also gain much from the inspiration.

Look at the impact moon exploration had on culture in the 1960s. A whole generation of kids grew up wanting to be astronauts. Few of them achieved this dream but they traded it to be scientists, doctors, engineers, and inventors. Dr. Zubrin told me that the inspiration we can gain from Mars is boundless; we need the challenges. “Society grows when we are challenged. We stagnate when we are not challenged,” he said. “The humans to Mars program would send out an invigorating challenge, particularly to the youth of every country that participates. Out of that challenge we would get millions of young scientists, engineers, inventors, doctors, medical researchers, and technological entrepreneurs.” How can we put a cost on that? How can we deny the value?

The Cost Is Not Too High

You criticized the cost of exploration when you said, “People should decide 'are you willing to spend all this money to go to Mars?' I think the average person on the ground would never spend that amount of money – they have to spend it on something that makes sense and this is definitely saving our planet." But the cost is worth it. Dr. Elachi pointed out in his interview that the cost of the Curiosity project alone was “less than a dollar a year per person over seven years.” The price was, “less than a ticket to a movie and look at the excitement and inspiration and spirit it created. 15 million Americans watched that landing on the JPL and NASA websites.” It seems that you are not looking at the cultural benefits as well. $1.00 a year per citizen for a rover on Mars is amazing but that dollar also paid for children to marvel at our capabilities, for humans to see beyond the edges, for each of us to think about our future.

Investing in JPL and NASA and Mars is also investing in future generations. Putting funds into science shows a dedication to intellect and experimentation. Providing the resources for students to dig into The Universe makes life on Earth all the better. It pushes us forward, triggers inventions, medical breakthroughs, environmental discoveries, green technologies, and so much more than just Martian soil samples.

Mars Is Not Too Far

The Curiosity rover took only nine months or so to reach Mars. We can expect a human trip to take close to this time. But it is the distance and the challenge that makes it worth it. The struggle is in our DNA. Where would we be if Lewis and Clark had said the destination was too far? Where would we be if Roald Amundsen had thought the North Pole too far? We do not explore because it is easy or close or within reach. John F. Kennedy expressed this in 1962 during his famous speech at Rice University:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. The distance he spoke of was the Moon. Our new destination is further. “Mars is not the final destination,” says Dr. Zubrin, “it is the direction.”

The knowledge we get from Mars makes total sense because it allows us to learn about ourselves. The Apollo astronauts who circled the Moon for the first time had no idea what to expect when the Earth began to rise over the lunar landscape. That sight overcame them. The view of Earth, distant and small on the horizon of a new land created a new way to see ourselves. Dr. Cameron Smith told me that “Historians have attributed the start of the environmental movement to those pictures of Earth from Apollo, the first Earthrise. You could see the whole thing. It is surrounded by emptiness.” Imagine what might happen when we look back home from a Martian landscape. If we can achieve that what else can we achieve? I think you sell short the value of Mars. I hope for a future of exploration of Mars and beyond. It can only be positive.

Claire L. Evans contributed a gorgeous essay for our book, in which she connects our exploration to more than just science. She says, “We no longer relied on the limited capacities of our individual memories, nor did we quite fully trust the bounded senses of our apparatus; free to back ourselves up and reach ourselves further outward, we extended our reach. We also loosened the definition of ‘we.’”

You argue that the money spent on Mars should be spent on us. But spending money on Mars is spending money on us. Dedicating resources to these pursuits has and will only benefit us. We grew as a global culture after Apollo. We marveled after Curiosity. How much more will we expand as a people when we set foot on a new planet? We will, as Claire says, be intergalactic and no longer confined to one place. We will have the choice to see our boundaries broadened, no longer fighting over earthly borders. When our edges are among the planets, those on Earth will hopefully seem less and less important.

And so, I see you as a hero but hope you will see Mars in a new light, one of options and chances for humanity. I have been inspired by hearing from these scientists, writers, and dreamers and know our culture can also progress from these leaps into the unknown. I know we can follow in your path and go to the edge, but I also hope we go further.


Jake Dockter
Editor, Sharp Stuff.

Jake Dockter is the editor at Sharp Stuff. Sharp Stuff is a rapid release content shop that explores the methods of storytelling. American Dreamers, the first title, is an anthology of dream, visions and innovations helping to regain a sense of optimism about the future.

Next Story — Nirvan Mullick: Caine’s Arcade and the Power of Cardboard.
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Photo © Nirvan Mullick

Nirvan Mullick: Caine’s Arcade and the Power of Cardboard.

It all started with going to buy a door handle for my ‘96 Corolla. It was the last day of summer and I was in an industrial area of Los Angeles, where they sell used auto parts. I came across a random store, pulled in, and ended up meeting a nine-year-old boy named Caine who built a cardboard arcade using boxes from his dad’s store. He asked me if I wanted to play and if I’d be interested in buying a fun pass to his arcade. It was a two dollar pass that he had made which offered five hundred turns.I bought the fun pass, and the rest grew from there.

It really started with Caine. Playing his games and seeing what he had made was very inspiring to me. It reminded me of my own childhood and the things that I used to make. I kept thinking about his arcade and I went back and asked his father if I could make a short film about his son’s arcade. That’s when his dad told me that I had been Caine’s only customer, and I got to know more about how long Caine had been working on this. He spent the entire summer building his arcade and making it more functional and elaborate in preparation for customers, but he had yet to have any. The shop is in a very industrial area and they don’t get a lot of foot traffic, and his dad started doing most of his business on Ebay selling auto parts, so Caine didn’t really have a chance to have any customers for his arcade. The few people that did come by just bought their auto parts and left.

We crafted a plan to surprise Caine with customers. We organized a flash mob just to make his day. We put together a flash mob online, and invited anybody in Los Angeles to come out and make Caine’s day and surprise him. Hundreds of people came out. So this little idea—this little Facebook invite—went kind of mini-viral. It made the front page of Reddit, and was featured on Hidden LA, which had about 230,000 Facebook fans at the time. Hundreds of people came out and we surprised Caine. That was the heart of the short film that I made. When I posted the film I invited people to chip in and try to raise a scholarship fund for Caine. The initial goal was a twenty-five thousand dollar scholarship fund. The first first day the film was posted, it got over a million views, raised over sixty thousand dollars for his scholarship, and just took off.

On October 6th, 2012, the one year anniversary of the flash mob to make Caine’s day, we had a global day of play where people could find cardboard challenge events around the world and go out to support the kids in their community. That was super fun and will be an annual event that we do through the Imagination Foundation. Every first weekend ofOctober, people will be able to go and play at these events. People can sign up to do these events on the Imagination Foundation website. Other goals are for kids in underserved communities: giving kids the space to create, and to develop a more robust web platform that connects maker-kids with adults, teachers, parents. We want to create more community around making and also celebrate and share more stories of creative kids around the world who are doing awesome things like Caine.

Another thing we are moving towards, and are really excited about, is promoting and fostering social entrepreneurship at a young age. There are so many kids who have been using these cardboard creations to make little businesses, and raise money for different causes.

You always hear statistics about kids when they’re young. They want to grow up to be artists, they want to grow up to be all these big things, but once they’re in high school they’ve become way more practical just because those engaging and inspirational ideas get beaten out of them by the reality of life. I think we need to take a close look at the education system that we have in place, and think about the kinds of adults we’re making in that system, and what makes sense in the new reality of our world.

Nirvan Mullick is an LA based filmmaker, digital strategist, and creative consultant. In 2011, Nirvan cofounded Interconnected, an LA based creative agency, through which he directed Caine’s Arcade, an 11-minute short film that has been viewed over six million times. They raised over $200,000 for a scholarship fund for a creative young boy, and launched a nonprofit called the Imagination Foundation to find, foster, and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in kids.

This excerpt is from American Dreamers, available now at Sharp Stuff.

Next Story — Natalie Bailey: McDonald’s 2.0.
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photo © amy sly

Natalie Bailey: McDonald’s 2.0.

I am not proud that I called McDonald’s at four o’clock in the morning. And much to everyone’s befuddlement, it wasn’t for my usual hot fudge sundae.

Please, first understand that though I have an acute aversion to television, country music, and fast food when in the United States, I am drawn to these beacons of American familiarity when I find myself far from home. Though I love sticky rice and bamboo salad with an undeniable passion, during my time in Bangkok, I occasionally delighted in forking over three dollars for a Happy Meal to appear at my doorstep. My pleasure derided from more than the soggy fries and plastic toy, it was the promise of avoiding the madness of the hot streets clogged with motorcycles and strange goods. For once I could “press 1 for English” and have limited miscommunication. To boot, it was like America improved—McDonalds 2.0—I had never experienced the distinct luxury of fast food delivery. Quite simply: I was lovin’ it.

The choice I made to move to Bangkok straight out of graduate school, following the great recession of 2008, was unthinkable to many, especially for those in my parents’ generation. But I represented a new American Dream that traded the stability of a house, car, and even couch, for one thing: adventure. Ironically, it was outside of the land of liberty that I felt free. From Bangkok I traveled far and wide; I built my savings; I became part of the global community.

Of course, living abroad is no longer what it was when the American Dream consisted of picket fences and 2.3 children. I had a cell phone that worked in the middle of nowhere, email at my constant disposal, Facebook, and video chat—the list goes on, and yet, acute culture shock and homesickness sideswiped me upon my arrival. I realized how brave travelers before me had been—going off into the great unknown, with no comforts to speak of, not even hamburgers. Nevertheless, being tens of thousands of miles away, I came to identify with my appreciation for the special, and simultaneously for the usual.

I knew I didn’t want to be an expatriate forever. I wanted to return to the U.S. an improved version of myself, enriching the fabric of the culture through my own reversed immigrant experience. My dream was to come back somebody new. After swinging between countries with rich histories, untrustworthy governments, and a relatively low regard for safety in the midst of several natural disasters, the sweetest words were those of a border control official at JFK who said, after flipping through the eighty pages of visas in my passport, “Welcome home.” But what I overheard in passing, a few days later, was similarly comforting thanks to that harrowing night on the other side of the world: “Would you like fries with that?” Why yes I would.

As a foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, Natalie traveled to some of the most remote parts of South and Southeast Asia with her notebook and camera as her only companions. Her creative non-fiction and journalism have appeared in GOOD Magazine, Reader’s Digest Asia, Forbes Travel Guide, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Real Simple, Military Times, and IRIN News.

This excerpt is from American Dreamers, available now at Sharp Stuff.

Next Story — Michael Brennan: Socially Conscious Geeks.
Currently Reading - Michael Brennan: Socially Conscious Geeks.

photo © amy sly

Michael Brennan: Socially Conscious Geeks.

How can a computer scientist make direct, tangible impact on the lives of individuals around the world? I don’t mean through a fancier phone or a prettier video game. I mean for basic needs and emergencies: food, drought, shelter, jobs, health, hurricanes.

This question emerged for me as a young college student. I was earning a degree in computer science and running the college chapter of Amnesty International on the side. On one hand, I was programming late at night. On the other, I was writing letters in support of releasing political prisoners around the world. I loved both but, at the time, I saw no link between the two. This raised some concern, but I shrugged it off. I would figure it out later.

Hackers. Technologists. Programmers. Geeks. Whatever you want to call us. We are your ally, and you are ours. We understand the technology and you understand the problem. We must work together and co-create twenty-first century solutions to the problems humanity faces. And we can do it.

Michael Brennan is a technologist living in Philadelphia. He currently works for SecondMuse, where he is a global organizer for socially conscious tech initiatives such as Random Hacks of Kindness, the International Space Apps Challenge, and the Central America Domestic Violence

This excerpt is from American Dreamers, available now at Sharp Stuff.

Next Story — Ross Borden: Get Out There.
Currently Reading - Ross Borden: Get Out There.

photo © amy sly

Ross Borden: Get Out There.

Americans don’t travel much. Only 33 percent of us even own a passport, a figure that’s been inflated since immigration began requiring more than a driver’s license to visit Cancun. With this being the number one destination Americans make it to abroad, we can safely assume the percentage of us who visit countries in addition to Mexico is much lower.

I was lucky enough to travel when I was younger and caught the bug at an early age. After going on to study abroad in Spain, work in Kenya, and spend time “in between jobs” in Argentina, I can look back and point to travel as the most significant source of education in my life. Along the way, I’ve observed the numerous benefits that travel offers people who make it a priority. And I’ve witnessed firsthand how friendly, open-minded American travelers, simply by making the effort to travel to faraway places, can tear down stereotypes and spread a message of peace.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the Earth all one’s lifetime.

When you travel, you often find yourself in need of assistance from strangers. You might be lost and needing directions; you may even be looking for a meal and place to stay the night. Throughout my travels, I’ve been continually shocked by the warmth and generosity of the complete strangers I’ve encountered.

It is so healthy for humanity as a whole to know that most people are good, and that in 99 percent of situations, we can count on and trust one another. The only things holding us back from unlocking this optimism and a better world are fear and excuses. Put them aside and we will all have a more enlightened America.

Ross Borden is the founder and CEO of Matador Network. He has traveled to over 60 countries and lived in Spain, Kenya, and Argentina. He currently splits time between New York City and his native San Francisco.

This excerpt is from American Dreamers, available now at Sharp Stuff.

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