Felix Baumgartner, the spirit of exploration, and jumping to conclusions

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Published on: October 20, 2012

I almost missed seeing Felix Baumgartner’s historic and record-setting jump from a balloon last Sunday. If it weren’t for the fact that my Minnesota Vikings had a late afternoon kickoff against the Redskins I would have missed it altogether.

Watching on live TV as Felix sat there and the balloon climbed to altitude, and listening to the exchanges between Felix and the down-to-Earth Joe Kittinger as they stepped through the checklist, I found myself becoming as nervous and anxious as I always was during the final moments before a Space Shuttle launch.

The final sequence of events ticked off quickly and the next thing you know we saw Felix stand up and jump. Actually it looked more like he calmly leaned forward and just sort of fell. The brief moments when we saw him tumbling were scary, but he regained control before the day became a disaster.

Incredibly, after dropping 128,000 feet – 24 miles – and becoming the first human to break the sound barrier “simply” by falling, Felix touched down on his feet and remained standing, as though he had just stepped off a bus or a train. Then, a few seconds later, he dropped to the ground and raised his arms in triumph.

Wow! What a great moment. Humans have been to the Moon, dived to the bottom of the ocean, flown around the world in an airplane without refueling, and done a million other things that showcase the drive and determination of the human spirit.

But at a time when the public thinks our space program is dormant, or dead altogether, at a time when so many people seem to believe we ought to be using our resources for everything other than exploration and innovation, at a time when it seems playing it safe is more virtuous than taking risks — I assumed, apparently naively, that the broader space community would fully embrace this feat and trumpet its contributions to science and old-fashioned daring do.

But It turns out I was wrong.

In perusing the many comments posted online, in blogs and at the bottom of many stories, I saw an unbelievable number of negative comments that went beyond the usual uneducated and uncivilized dribble of name calling and general stupidity that you too often see.

But the one recurring theme among some of the allegedly more thoughtful posters was that while this was a nice stunt that might prompt more purchases of Red Bull energy drinks, this did not have anything to do with science – and if you thought it did then you can’t possible know anything about what science really is or should have a right to express opinions on the matter.

And, disappointingly, some of these people said Felix’s exploit had absolutely no bearing or relevance to our space program whatsoever. I couldn’t disagree more.

Well, yes, this was a very expensive publicity stunt for a product that I personally have no desire to try.

Yes, despite the fact this event was branded as a jump from space, Felix was only halfway toward the arbitrary line of 50 miles that NASA and the Air Force consider space, let alone the bare minimum altitude of about 80 miles or so that you need to be at to briefly stay in orbit.

But the fact of the matter is that plenty of real scientists and engineers are talking about this jump and are hoping the recorded data will teach us more about how the human body responds to the kind of environment Felix found himself in.

There is information now available that could help us improve the space suits our astronauts will wear in the future, and with this successful jump there is now at least some evidence to suggest that it could be possible for future passengers of sub-orbital space tourism endeavors to bail out and survive an impending disaster.

It’s interesting to note that the man who was in charge of Felix’s medical team was Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon who is the widow of astronaut Laurel Clark, who was lost in 2003 aboard Columbia when it broke up over Texas during re-entry.

There was no way the Columbia crew could have escaped at that point in their descent, but watching Felix make his jump gave Clark some hope for a future crew that might be in peril, and the development of crew escape systems that could be used at much higher altitudes and faster speeds have now taken at least one small step forward thanks to what some unenlightened observers claim was “just” a stupid publicity stunt.

By the way, the stunt did work in terms of generating publicity. In addition to the thousands of news stories appearing online, including more than four thousand announcing this week that Felix got engaged to be married, more than 12 million people tuned in to either the Discovery channel or You Tube to watch the jump live.

That number is four times the average viewership per week of all major cable news channels combined.

Rightly or wrongly in terms of its actual correlation with our space program, that space jump thrilled people and got them excited about something intangible that I know remains deeply ingrained in all of us, and that’s the spirit of exploration.

We’ve seen that sense of excitement recently with each move of the space shuttle to its final museum home, with the landing of Curiosity on Mars, and now with the example of Felix Baumgartner.

The challenge all of us in the space community still have is to figure out how to turn that thrill of discovery – the excitement of exploration – into real political capital that would prompt our elected leaders to invest more of our nation’s resources in the final frontier, which I remain convinced will help us solve our urgent problems here on the ground.

So thanks to Red Bull for having the guts to do what our own elected leaders too often fail to do, which is to have the vision and the courage to put their money where their mouth is and make something like this happen, to the benefit of science, future space travelers and all of us.

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