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Baumgartner's space jump a victory for science -- and wonder

October 14, 2012|By Matt Pearce

We still live in an age of wonder. 

On Sunday, as the remnants of the United States’ storied space shuttle program spent its day on the ground with the Endeavour moseying through the streets of Los Angeles, an attention-hungry energy drink company and an adrenaline-addicted Austrian did something crazy from the edge of space.

Felix Baumgartner, 41, gave a little salute, jumped out of his balloon capsule from roughly 128,000 feet, tumbled pell-mell toward the Earth, and lived.

A nifty advertising stunt by his sponsor, Red Bull, and it worked: People around the globe paused for a moment to watch the amazing — literally, it was amazing! — fall, their attention on the video feeds that would show the little white speck of his jumpsuit slowly growing bigger against the sky.

The gap between his crane-assisted liftoff and the smooth parachute landing was filled with curiosity, anxiety and wonderment.

“Simply amazing that I’m sitting here in kitchen watching a live stream on my iPad as Felix crosses 100k feet,” tweeted @gattaca in Canada.

“How do the 5 million+ people watching this space jump react if the guy dies doing it?” tweeted @TheRyanGavin in Missouri.

“Watched the jump on my phone with the Palestinians who run the bagel place near my house,” tweeted @tomgara in New York City. “The universal cheering had a semi-olympic quality.”

And these are surely times for curiosity, anxiety and wonder: We live in an age where technology has made a 23-mile space jump distinguishable from an attempt at suicide, and where an energy drink company makes aggressive ventures into space while the United States puts its shuttle program into a museum.

Pause for a moment to consider that latter fact. In a recent essay for The Baffler, anthropologist David Graeber posed a challenging question about the “sense of disappointment” around technology that he thought had fallen over the United States since the glory days of the Apollo program.

“Where, in short, are the flying cars?" he wrote. "Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now?”

Graeber’s essay was a protest against capitalism, which he thought was hindering scientific growth rather than fostering it. All the best, newest technologies invented since the 1970s, he reasoned, were “technologies of simulation” like the iPads and iPhones that made watching Baumgartner’s space jump possible — rather than technologies that would make real achievements, like the jumps themselves, easier.

The last jump record-holder, after all, was Joe Kittinger, for a 102,800-foot leap he made in 1960 — more than 50 years ago, a gap not lost on some observers.

“The main lesson I am getting from #livejump is that scientists were AWESOME in the 60s when we set these records in the first place,” tweeted @nojessicaglows.

Which makes Baumgartner’s jump that much more meaningful today, not just as a monument to an adrenaline junkie’s ambition, but as a meaningful contribution to the continuing progression of science. The human body, we now know, can survive a plunge from nearly two dozen miles high with the right equipment, which could have implications for astronaut and high-altitude pilot safety.

And despite the threat of constricting science budgets worldwide, this is a good year to feel good about science and the crazy-stupid or expensive ambitions that make them possible. NASA landed a $2.5-billion scientific SUV, the Mars Curiosity rover, on our red neighbor in August. In July, scientists at the $10-billion CERN Large Hadron Collider announced the discovery of a subatomic particle that may help explain the existence of matter itself.

Yes, this is still an age of wonder. We may not have flying cars, but we have a flying man — or at least a man who, in the words of Buzz Lightyear, falls with style.

“We live to conquer fears and pursue dreams,” Baumgartner tweeted after the jump. “May our attempts and accomplishments progress humankind.”

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