Felix Baumgartner: Stunt Man or Scientist?

Geoff Lane photo

By now you’ve probably heard or read about Felix Baumgartner’s free fall from 24 miles above the earth.  24 miles.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Airliners often fly at about 30,000 feet, or between 5 and 6 miles above the Earth.  Baumgartner decided he wanted to fall from a distance more than 4 times that.

The jump certainly makes for great water cooler talk, and some might consider Baumgartner foolish for even considering the idea.  That’s fair.  I, for one, would never entertain the idea.  But what has become overlooked in the past 24 hours is his contribution to science.  Today the feat looks like nothing more than a stunt however, there’s simply no telling what his 4 minute fall at a cool 833 miles per hour back to earth will reveal down the road. 

When Neil Armstrong embarked on his moon walk and uttered those five innocuous words “one small step for man,” the world celebrated knowing we were just beginning to scrape what was possible.  Armstrong’s mission was inspired not just by his own curiosity, but was also buoyed by the federal government.  For hundreds of years, with the help of the federal government, scientists just like Armstrong undertook research and development projects that changed the way we go about our everyday lives.  The support of the federal government made the United States an incubator for big ideas with uncertain outcomes.

Unfortunately, 43 years later, we’ve arrived at a point where our curiosity remains steady, but the necessary support from the federal government has waned, hampering the efforts of important agencies like NASA.  It’s time we, and our government, revisit the Armstrong model and test the bounds of what’s possible.  We should look to Felix Baumgartner for inspiration, and get back to thinking bold and become a country risk takers again.

After the jump, Baumgartner said he hopes the jump will help NASA design better spacesuits for astronauts.  If that’s the only thing garnered from his feat, we should consider it a rousing success.

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