Oct 17, 2012

Space Jump: Inspiring a new generation of big thinking?

If you missed last weekend's "space jump" (Felix Baumgartner's jump from 128,000 feet above New Mexico), you really missed quite the generation-inspiring event. On an otherwise unimportant Sunday afternoon I tuned to the Discovery Channel after watching a forgettable show with my wife expecting to see some pretty-cool daredevil type event. As soon as the channel was flipped we were presented with a seated Felix who had already ascended to a remarkable 117,000 feet and who apparently had been sitting in that position for over 2 hours on his journey up. Thanks to the on-screen information (which was wonderfully presented in both U.S. customary and SI (metric) units) we were well aware of Felix's altitude, flight time, cabin pressure, and the incredibly harsh outside environment (essentially zero pressure and very, very cold).

Do you remember the last time NASA live-streamed a camera view from inside the space shuttle while simultaneously commenting on the extreme danger with which the subjects of that view were then presented?

At that moment I became quite aware of a couple things: this was no "pretty-cool daredevil" type event - this was seriously perilous, and an incredible feat of engineering. RedBull has been working on this project for the healthy part of a decade - this is something no one has ever, ever done before, and the highest any other man has come to such a thing was in 1960.

1960 - the inaugural year in a pretty good decade for space stuff as it turns out. The decade that Kennedy said this:

"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" - John F. Kennedy, 1962

The same decade that we actually went to the moon. The decade that this country was captivated by the extraordinary achievement of science and engineering. The horror of the first Apollo test (later named Apollo 1) which ended in a cabin fire and the loss of the crew was honored not by a near-decade-long review of safety protocol but by the subsequent victory over the prevailing challenges and at length an actual landing on the moon. 

When Columbia disintegrated over the Texas skies I was a student participating in a high school debate tournament, and "Space" was a last-page mention (at best) in most newspapers across the country. Space shuttles were going to space, regularly, and most people had no idea. NASA was a line item in a government budget relegated to the backs of everyone's mind. Somewhere, somehow, since 1960 this country no longer thought big. Truly, the Columbia disaster was the most publicity NASA had received in years; it really is no wonder then why so many had (have) a negative view of space sciences and would rather have that line cut from their tax strains. 

For years the government reviewed the tragedy while the public marveled at how such a horrible thing - the death of several fine men and women - could ever happen. Many thought how possibly NASA could survive if such things from them were to be expected. But then - the death of a few men and women has never been reason to shut down the military, or public transportation; why now should such deaths kill a program which costs the taxpayer orders-of-magnitudes less than either of those items?

Well, quite simply: space didn't matter. The achievement of going to the moon was just not that big of a deal. Building a space station cooperatively with the rest of the world was just not worth the sacrifice of a handful of people. Of the important things, the great ideas, the big thinking that was going on in this country - space was just not welcome as one. 

So Sunday, sitting there next to my wife, watching Felix sitting in a tiny balloon carriage 20-something miles above the Earth, I was shocked. Shocked to see someone taking a chance; shocked to find an organization willing to broadcast live, to the rest of the world, that hey - this is a really big deal. For the first time in a long time, I was on the edge of my seat for what was a public demonstration of nothing more than incredible engineering and blatant, ballsy human curiosity. This was freaking awesome. 

When Felix started depressurizing the cabin, I was struck by thoughts of his suit exploding - did they design it right? Does RedBull know what they are doing here? It's a vacuum out there! Good gracious this could be really, really bad!

From time to time Felix wouldn't respond to the commands of his land bound counterparts - was he listening? Was he having second thoughts? Was he going to make it?

When the door of his little capsule finally opened, an icy-mist blew into the cabin and a striking view of the Earth emerged. I can only imagine what Felix thought as he saw our little globe through that doorway. Completing the checklist, standing out on the limb, miles above where any man had ever before jumped, Felix said these words:

"Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are" - Felix Baumgartner, 2012

And then he jumped. He vanished to a dot below the door in just a few seconds. The ground-based cameras followed his descent but soon showed he was spinning quite quickly. Can his body take it? Was he going to die? Am I actually watching a man's life come to an end on live television?

Quite honestly this was the most dramatic, heart-pounding, suspenseful event I've seen in many, many years. I can only imagine what the Apollo 13 adventure was to the audience of that time; but in my imaginings it was not to dissimilar from what I felt watching Felix fall from that balloon. 

Finally he steadied and in just a few moments he was back on the ground, alive. Felix did it; RedBull did it; and a ton of people saw it happen.

This was a scientifically significant event - the data gathered from this experiment will help us in our development of high altitude escape mechanisms, balloon flight, and space-suit technology among many other things. But more important than the data gleaned is the profound sense of "that was awesome" that has hopefully struck many, many children across the world.

For the first time in a long while people are talking about space, about engineering, and about taking risks for science. I truly believe this "space jump" has inspired a new generation of curious boundary pushers. We can only hope that others like RedBull and Felix will pick up the flag dropped sometime after the 1960's and push our imagination back into space. 

Space is a big deal, not a line item. We need more of this and more of that kind of thinking. If you haven't seen the video, you must. 

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