Sunday, January 15, 2006


As most readers of this blog know, I'm a pilot. Flying, however, is rather expensive right now, mostly because of rising gas and insurance costs. A new Cessna 172 will cost $140,000 -- about as much as our house cost (obviously, I don't live in California). While having our own plane would make it much easier for me for me to stay current (if you can stay in practice, don't fly at all) and would also make it easier to visit our friends in Los Angeles -- an easy two-hour flight away. Trips to Las Vegas for the day or night become a possiblity. Basically, having a plane is just like having a car, but it greatly expands the range of places you can visit as a day trip. But the thought of making essentially a second house payment -- not to mention the maintenance costs, tie-down fees, etc. -- is not something that is even close to being in the realm of the possible for someone who has just quit their job to become a full-time writer. If I had stayed at NASA we could have afforded a plane easily. That was something I thought about and was a conscious choice I made when I quit.

King Schools, however, offers another way. King, along with Sporty's Pilot Shop, is one of the best producers of flying curriculum around. They use a combination of video and computer software along with flights with your local instructor to take you all the way through the training. It's a good system. Every two years they get a new plane to use for filming their instructional videos. The old one is then raffled off. Everytime you buy something from King Schools, you get one entry into the contest. The published odds of winning are about 200,000 to 1, which is better than lottery odds, but not much better.

Ah, but every contest is required to have a "no purchase necessary" option. For King, all you have to do is send a postcard with your name, address, and e-mail. You're limited to one entry, per person, per day. So, my wife and I have each sent a postcard every day for the last year and a bit more (we missed maybe 10 days in that time). To work in round figures, that means that we sent a total of about 700 postcards! I did buy quite a few things from King Schools, but since you only get one entry per day, those didn't help us. If you assume no one else had this idea (which is unlikely, but who knows), then the odds of winning have improved to about 285 to 1. Still door prize odds, but way better than lottery odds. The investment was just a 23-cent stamp and a penny's worth of paper and ink per card, or about $170 over a year or so. Since the aircraft they are giving away is worth $140,000, that represents a 82,300% return on the investment -- if we win. The drawing is today, which is why it's on my mind. We won't know who won for a couple of weeks regardless, though.

The key here is to compare the potential return on the investment with the odds of getting that return. If you spent $100 on lottery tickets, your potential return (assuming you win $10 million), is a million percent. Your odds of winning, however, are only about 1 in 2 million (at best). Even though the return is huge, the odds of obtaining that return dwarf it -- it's not worth the money. Buying only a single lottery ticket increases your potential return by a factor of a hundred, but the odds similarly get worse by a factor of a hundred -- you can't win. This, in a nutshell is why I don't play the lottery.

What does this have to do with science fiction? Just this: The amount of money we spend on the space program is miniscule compared to essentially anything else in the budget. You could give all of the space program's budget to social services, and they wouldn't evne know the money was there. You can't solve the world's problems by gutting the space program. There are no guarantees that the space program will produce new technologies that will pay dividends in the long run -- but the odds aren't bad. What you (and our lawmakers) need to ask yourself is this: Does the potential return on the investment exceed the odds of getting that investment. The space program currently gets about 0.75% of the federal budget. With technologies form the space program we have medical imaging, the laptop computer I'm writing this on, weather satellites, safer aircraft, and a host of other things. It's not just Tang and Velcro. It really bugs me when people say, "What has the space program ever done for me?" -- as they are chatting on their PCS cell phone.

It's a small investment with a huge potential return -- and good odds of getting that return. Show me a missile system or a bomber program that can say the same thing.

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