The 834mph question

These are the facts. I offer no editorial on them at this stage. Yesterday, on Sunday October 14, the Austrian man Felix Baumgartner, a former paratrooper, jumped out of a balloon that was 23 miles above the earth, and, ten minutes later – four minutes and 19 seconds of those in freefall – landed on the earth – specifically, Roswell, New Mexico – having reached a speed of 834mph along the way, breaking three world records, including becoming the world’s first “supersonic skydiver” by breaking the sound barrier at Mach 1.24.

His jump was sponsored by the Austrian, ox-bile-based energy drink Red Bull, but its scientific impetus was NASA’s desire to create better pressurised survival suits for astronauts who might fall out of the stratosphere. (The one that kept Baumgartner’s body intact against the hugely varying pressures that marked his drop back to earth, prevented his blood boiling and his lungs exploding.)

A categorically brave man, Baumgartner has parachuted off buildings and mountains. He prepared for this record attempt by performing two practise freefalls, one from 71,000 feet in March and another from 97,000 feet in July. But this one was more like 128,000 feet, or 39km, if you prefer it in new money.

So, as I understand it, he’s now the first human to ever break the sound barrier in freefall; that was the highest freefall altitude jump and the highest manned balloon flight. I wish Roy Castle had been around to see it. Like most people, I saw the footage from which the iconic grab above is taken, and gasped as Baumgartner stepped out of the capsule and into … space. It was amazing. I was amazed that anyone would wish to do that, and that anyone could do that, and not retreat, bawling and sucking their thumb, into the capsule until somebody came and got them. Part of me thinks he is a nutcase. But I guess we need nutcases sometimes.

I do not follow television on Twitter, but had a little look afterwards and it was predictably awash with exclamations. (As we found during the Olympics, Twitter is the perfect medium for exclamations, and it can be quite sweet to see normally erudite people simply gasping in 140 characters.) I threw this question into the mix, partly out of mischief, but partly out of genuine inquiry. Making statements, or pronouncements, can sometimes seem a little arrogant; I quite like asking things instead. I Tweeted:

A man jumped 23 miles out of a balloon. And we have learned … what?

I was, within seconds, bombarded with responses. Most of them took my question literally and answered it. Some of them made jokes. I found this stimulating. Because it’s almost unarguably an amazing feat, and an amazing thing to have seen, I wasn’t actually looking for a fight. There’s little room for philosophical manoeuvre here: it’s amazing. But it’s a valid supplementary question: what have we learned from it?

The actual answer is that a man can do it. And that a man-made pressurised suit can withstand it. This is the research. More elliptically, we have learned that Red Bull has a phenomenal marketing department. We have also learned that the Space Race isn’t over, contrary to the Billy Bragg song The Space Race Is Over. I get the Space Race. It was all about global posturing during the Cold War, a show of military strength by the world’s two superpowers after the Second World War. In this brave new world, a super-sized democracy and a totalitarian state could afford to spend whatever it took to get a man on the moon, and get him there first (after a couple of dogs and monkeys). I also know that many technological advances were made during the Space Race that impacted on our earthbound lives, albeit mostly in kitchenware, dried fruit and sports gear, and, to be fair, satellites.

But you might ask the question, why are we still exploring space when there’s so much that’s going wrong with the planet we already own? Endeavour and exploration for endeavour and exploration’s sake is one thing, but it’s not as if we have finished with Earth, and it costs a lot of money to keep sending things up there. (Even, one assumes, the relatively austere sending up of a balloon to 128,000 feet and having a man jump out of it.)

There’s a Jerry Seinfeld routine, which I wish I could quote, in which he wryly suggests that the minute you have to invent a crash helmet to protect your skull while riding a motorcycle, you have to wonder why you invented something that could smash your skull in the first place. I go along with this. If we didn’t send people into space, we wouldn’t need to invent a pressurised protection suit for them to wear. We could spend the money on something that would help people on earth. No?

I realise that by even asking an innocent question about what we have learned from the amazing feat of Felix Baumgartner I risk upsetting the applecart of blanket adulation for him. I do not wish to subtract from his achievement, and his insane bravery. If you are not in awe of him, then you must think yourself as brave, or more brave. I am so much less brave than him, it would be weird to not be in awe of him. But surely we are allowed to question the point of the feat.

One person replied to my Tweet (“and we have learned … what?”): “That some people aren’t impressed by anything?” He was implying that I was not impressed by the skydive. But I was. I am impressed by big things, high things, tall things, far-away things, deep things … but impressing me isn’t enough. (Actually, I’m more impressed by selfless acts of charity or compassion than self-indulgent acts of bravery or endurance, but that’s just me.)

Another wit responded: “Man has opinions on music and films and telly. And we have learned … what?” Ouch. That’s me told. I’m not permitted a question, because I don’t do scientific feats.

Another asked, “Did we need to learn anything from it? It was a fantastic feat, just appreciate that.” Again, I’m being told to appreciate something. I do find a consensus issue like this one – and the Olympics, actually, although we’ve done those – slightly bullying. There’s only one verified reaction, and if you stray from that orthodoxy you are some kind of spoilsport.

And another: “That there’s pretty much nothing in this world that someone somewhere won’t be sniffy about?” And another: “If you are going to reduce everything to those sort of terms then almost all human endeavour is pointless.” Hmm, maybe he’s right. At least he didn’t say what so many people did, especially in the Guardian comments section under the story: “He’s got balls of steel.” Yep, because having balls is better than not having them, and having ones made of metal is better than having ones made of flesh. Are we still equating testicles with superiority? I do wonder often why women, on the whole, don’t tend to do things like jump out of things and climb up things and do things really fast just for its own sake. Why is that? (Women are great, aren’t they? I think so.)

It does not do to dwell 24 hours a day on poverty, injustice, corporate greed and cruelty to animals and people – like I do – you risk your brow becoming permanently furrowed, which is not a good look. But these issues require more immediate attention than space suits. So may I respectfully recommend that we look down with as much wonder as when we look up? And if someone questions something, do not ostracise them for doing so.

As Marge Simpson once said, “There’s no shame in being a pariah.”


20 thoughts on “The 834mph question

  1. Hi Andrew. Nice and thoughtful article. For what it is worth, here’s wotireckon:

    It is of course fine to question what we have learned from such an awesome feat, but to my mind it does not really matter. As humans we do plenty of things that are of little real consequence… I love football, but ultimately it is just a game, and Felix Baumgartner could probably do one jump per annual salary of the top twenty best-paid footballers. There were some scientific benefits to his jump and the project as a whole, but I don’t really buy into the argument that if we don’t go to space then we don’t need the research… the motorcycle quote is a good one, but you could make the same argument for improvements in materials or other security features that leads to safer cars, aeroplanes, bicycles and any other form of transport that is not our own two feet. Upon which we have put shoes, which have developed over time and can now help people with various problems walk more comfortably. If we didn’t have cars, we wouldnt need to invent airbags. If we didn’t have shoes, we wouldnt need to invent insoles. If we didn’t have motorbikes, we wouldn’t need helmets… to my mind it is all the same thing.

    But one thing I can agree with you on, is that no-one HAS to be impressed, and no-one HAS to think the whole thing was a good idea. But by the same token (and this does not include you, as this is your own personal website and you can write what you want), I do wonder why people go onto, say, Guardian blogs and write things like “who gives a sh*t?”.

    Anyway, it’s all marketing… and if Red Bull are going to spend their marketing dollars anyway, I would rather they do it in a project that leaves me open-mouthed in wonder, that paying equal millions to get footballers, actors or musicians to appear in magazine adverts or product placement in the next Bond movie.

  2. Oh sigh. The old “why explore space when so much is wrong on Earth” argument. According to Wikipedia, in the year 2012, US defense spending was 1.03 to 1.14 trillion dollars. That is almost double the 526 billion dollars spent on NASA in total SINCE IT BEGAN IN 1958 (true, some of NASA’s budget is included in overall defense spending – between 3 and 8 billion in 2012. AKA a pittance). So why argue that we take resources away from one of the most worthy defense-related programs when we could keep exploring space and not, say, build killer drones? Is it just an argument against exploration? If so, someone call NASA because we must live on different planets.

    • You’re not going to find me defending defence spending. It’s all relative. I’m not arguing we take resources away from space exploration to spend on defence. I’d just sooner see it spent on earthly projects, that’s all. Solving the energy crisis would be nice.

      • Sorry, my poorly-made point (after too much coffee) was that the resources exist to both explore space and solve global warming if we spent as much on those endeavours as we do fighting wars. So it’s not as if we stop exploring space we’ll suddenly devote all our time and money to solving the world’s problems. More likely, we’ll just create more.

  3. I’m not sure there is a satisfactory answer to this question.

    Like Paul above, it reminds me of the people who feel obliged to comment on The Guardian’s website, under a non-news article, saying something like “How dare you write about fashion/films/football when there are people starving in Africa/ATOS is denying access to benefits/people are dying in Iraq?” Which is, I suppose, a fair point. Perhaps the modern human condition requires diversion and trivia every now and again.

    We both enjoyed, this year, the Belgian film ‘The Kid with a Bike’. It wasn’t a big-budget film, but I daresay the money spent on it could have been put to a less frivolous use. Perhaps it should have been. But I still enjoyed the film.

    • For me, this is much more than simply a case of money for x should be spent on y. I hoped it was clear that I’m talking about a much broader attitude. In the 50s and 60s, the world was rebuilding itself, and the Space Race was a symbolic show of political and military strength. In the early 21st century, we have different global concerns, one of which is accelerating ecological collapse, a worldwide problem that nobody seems very interested in addressing. But an energy drink company has enough money to part-fund a man jumping 23 miles out of a balloon to test a survival suit for future astronauts. It baffles me, that’s all. Why can’t Red Bull sponsor a wind farm? Because it’s not sexy or manly or newsworthy enough.

      The Kid With A Bike was made in order to generate profit through box office and rental receipts. Whether or not it is a worthwhile piece of art, or entertainment, is entirely subjective. I really liked it. So did you. There is room for worthwhile distraction, I think. But Felix Baumgartner’s achievement seems to pinpoint a lot of what’s upside-down and back-to-front about our world.

  4. Without space exploration (the manned side of which Mr Baumgartner could be considered a part), we wouldn’t have satellites, or the launch vehicles to get them into orbit. Without satellites we wouldn’t have the global reconnaisance and surveying which has more or less convinced most sensible scientists that we have a problem with global warming. And it’s unlikely that without those satellites we would find a way of stopping that warming getting out of control (if that’s possible even – but that’s a separate debate).
    Satellite technology also gives us much better weather forecasting, long and short term, than we had 50 years ago. Such forecasting helps farmers to get the best yields from their crops, thus feeding more of our populations.
    Maybe we won’t be able to fix global warming, because it’s out of control, or not caused by human behaviours, and in 200 years time we will need to get people off the planet. Ignoring space research isn’t going to help the people who will be around then, is it?
    Experiments in space give vital information into how to improve crop yields and improve medicines to prevent or cure diseases.
    No-one knows how big, or small, the tangible, economic or scientific benefits of any type of exploration are going to be until years or decades down the line.

  5. This is an example of “because it’s there” – I think that this is a display of mankind at its very best – pushing the limits of what we can endure simply to see whether those limits push back.

    No, of course no one has to be impressed or express adulation for the feat, but I think as a feat it is indicative of a part of our nature we deny at our collective peril. Without those on the edge doing the magnificent, we are all diminished somewhat. We are a species that builds the Palace of Versailles, but also wipes up the vomit of a cancer patient in a hospital for little reward but the act, and both of these are magnificent. Of course we also build killing drones and produce teenagers that stab each other in alleyas – we are as terrible a species as we are magnificent.

    I am troubled by the idea that we should not occasionally have the odd costly display of our on magnificence as a species. It smacks slightly of knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing. There are enough resources in the world to deal with global debt and poverty, but the will to tackle these problems is surely enhanced rather than diminished by a collective WOW at how we can be magnificent when we put the effort in. Most of us will go WOW and slink back to our sofas and keyboards, but if even a few are inspired to go the distance and make the world a better place because this act made them feel better for a moment about what it is to be human, then it is money well spent.

    • Another excellent, considered response. Although why is it that it’s usually men who do these “wow” feats. What is it about men that makes them so keen to show off?

  6. I don’t think it’s ever as simple as an “either-or” as to what research or stunts are funded.

    To be clear, this was probably much more a stunt with some research benefits, than anything else. Red Bull tends to fund extreme sports and stunts of this nature. Perhaps their most “normal” marketing expenditure is their sponsoship of a Formula 1 team. They’re a private company, and how they spend their marketing budget is entirely up to them.

    On the other hand, others are furiously investing in and researching clean energies. And let’s face it, if someone does make a major breakthrough in some kind of green energy, they’re sitting on a goldmine. Yet it’d be unrealistic – given where they’re coming from – for Red Bull to sponsor a wind farm.

    And it is marketing for an energy drink. 7m people aren’t going to watch the opening of a windfarm live on YouTube.

    As others have said, we’re spending proportionately much less on “space” then we’ve ever previously. And yet there are lots of positive benefits – often completely unforeseen – as the research and technology is developed. And in the meantime mankind continues his natural tendency to want to explore.

    You could make the argument that funding the Arts Council is frivalous and a waste of money. All that cash would be better invested into solving climate change issues. But as I say, it’s not an “either-or” equation. Most people might think that arts are actually pretty important to our wellbeing alongside scientific research. As a civilised country, we should probably be doing both.

    In the meantime, I got off the sofa with a sense of proudness and wonderment at seeing what man is capable of achieving.

  7. I find irksome that they made a tremendous accomplishment by a human being and a team of engineers look like a marketing cash-in. If space exploration and the engineering behind the suit were the stars of this show why wasn’t NASA’s name splashed all over the suit instead of Red Bull. I’m not against corporate sponsoring when it comes to furthering technology and mankind’s quest for knowledge and achievement or in any other endeavor that makes a human being better. It’s when they make it all about them instead of the purpose of the quest. The experience was soured for me as soon as I saw the logo on the suit. Red Bull isn’t talking about what was achieved by the jump today, they are calculating the number of units sold because of the jump. What should feel like a stellar and glorious moment, is tainted by corporate rapacity. Even more disheartening is that it sets a precedent for future marketing relations. Will the next shuttle be smattered with logos like (insert sporting arena of choice)? Is there anything left that can amaze us without someone turning a profit from it? Am I just an old codger clinging to the days when sports were sports and not the entertainment machine it has become…and discovery was measured by accolades not by units sold?

  8. At the risk of offending you, you can’t stick up a one-liner on Twitter which is ambiguous at best (I for one would not have read it as a genuine enquiry but as a sarcastic dismissal), and then object when people respond in kind. It’s a bit disingenuous. You say of the guy who came back with the line about a man who watches music and films and telly “I’m not permitted a question, because I don’t do scientific feats”, but your original tweet didn’t read like a sincere question, it read like another way of saying “What was the point of that?” And you must know that. You’re a gifted writer, you know the power of words, you know that had you only wanted to know the scientific rationale for it you could have asked that very clearly.
    Sorry. I don’t mean to be combative. I just find the whole “twitter misinterpretation” aspect of modern living more and more prevalent (politics, sport, entertainment, it’s everywhere) and wearisome. Why couldn’t you have just written an interesting piece about Baumgartner without invoking the almighty T?!

    • I can object if I like!

      Why use 140 characters on Twitter when a considered 1,300-word column would be preferable? Because I didn’t have time to write 1,300 words (which, by the way, I always spend a lot of time editing and finessing before I publish) when I felt like joining the conversation that evening.

      You, in turn, can object to my explanation …

      I would exclusively write 1,300-word columns if somebody would pay me to write them. But nobody seems keen to do so. This means I have to do my paid work first, and my blog second.

  9. I know I’m not normal. When I see someone doing something it simply wouldn’t occur to me to think about doing, I just can’t relate to it. I can’t put myself in his place. If any kind of extreme sports or thrill-seeking stunts appear on a TV that my eyes are directed towards, they just leave me cold. I’ve never been on a rollercoaster – maybe I should do that. But then I think: why would I do that? I don’t need that in my life. Who needs that in his life?

    This chap wanted to go up to that height and step out of the capsule. I don’t want to do that. I suppose I see wanting or needing to do something like that as a character flaw rather than as something to be admired. The sheer height impresses me. The view impresses me. His feat somehow doesn’t. No disrespect to him – it’s my failing I’m sure – but I saw the other kids on the rollercoaster and I felt nothing.

    The Curiosity Rover on Mars? Now that’s amazing. Awesome. Inspirational.

    A question from my position of pure ignorance: if he’d died, would Nasa have learnt anything it wouldn’t have learnt by actually waiting for an astronaut to fall out of the sky in one of these suits?

  10. I havn’t read all the responses, so forgive me if this has already been said. The reason for space exploration, or at least one of them, is to search for/find raw materials, govts can exploit/capitalise on, isnt it?

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