Earlier this month, I loved watching Felix Baumgartner climb halfway to space and free fall back to earth. It was quite a rush. Felix is an incredibly brave and talented man and daredevil. But, I now realize that what he did, although pushing the limits of current technology about high altitude human endurance and exposure, wasn't what I hoped it would be. I look forward to hear his thoughts about this accomplishment, but I think his opinions and statements about NASA and space exploration are completely wrong.
Baumgartner feels we spend far too much money on space exploration. He would like to see all of that money spent here on earth. He told the Daily Telegraph:
"So 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."
We've heard that before and it is probably a common opinion held by many people, but it disappoints me that he would feel this way. I had hoped that someone who has been able to see some of the advantages of prior exploration and research extending far beyond their original scope, enabling him and others to achieve mind numbing accomplishments, would be able to see more of the big picture.
The tiny fraction of what the US spends on space travel and exploration of the solar system IS a study about Earth, humans and what makes us who we are and shows us what we might become. It inspires children and adults to reach for more. Much of what Baumgartner has done was enabled by government funded air and space exploration programs. The impression given by his comments are that he feels an energy drink company and a publicity campaign is a sufficient alternative to a publicly funded space program. That is a very disappointing and short sighted point of view.
It was a little disappointing that during his highly publicized event that they did not take the opportunity to talk about the science and engineering behind what was going on. I was thrilled to watch it, but felt it was a missed opportunity to inspire more than just a higher tech version of Evil Kenival trying to jump his motorcycle over a row of cars during a rodeo. The announcer on the video stream spent a lot of time clicking off ever increasing altitude numbers, like a circus barker, raising the audience’s excitement. Making sure to regularly break the telemetry reports to ensure we all know that this is made possible by the soft drink company RedBull (it gives you wings you know). But, now I see that it really was really only a big campaign to sell soft drinks by giving an exciting show. I don’t think that that is wrong necessarily, but I wish it could have been a bit more than that.
What drives Felix isn't a desire to push the limits of what we know or what we can do. It is much more about what he can do and his own fame. He is a professional performer after all.
I really can’t fault him for that, and I probably shouldn't have expected more from him. His goals and objectives are his own. RedBull is a corporation that makes soda pop and its purpose is to generate a return on investment for its shareholders, not improve extra vehicle space suits. That is what corporations do, sell products, not advance knowledge. That is why we need public funding of science and exploration.
So, even though this opportunity was missed, it serves as a good example of the limits of private enterprise and the merits of public support for space exploration for the sake of knowledge. Because when a NASA space mission is executed, everyone gains and the world is smarter. When a Felix Baumgartner finished exciting us with his daredevil feat, we were reminded to pick up a six pack of a caffeinated sugar drink.