Lessons from above

Oct. 15, 2012, 10:19 a.m.

When professional daredevil Felix Baumgartner fell to earth at 833.9 miles per hour yesterday, he shattered records, helped acquire valuable data for future scientific endeavors and captivated millions of viewers around the world.  But his four minutes of free-fall and eventual safe landing in the New Mexico desert did much more than that.  It also provided a model for what the future of space exploration – and great enterprise more generally – could look like.

First, Baumgartner’s jump was financed by Red Bull, a private corporation with a financial interest in big-time media publicity and an apparent penchant for the daring and dangerous.  In an era of drastic cuts in government funding for research and development, Red Bull spent untold millions of dollars on a project that took five years to plan.  Private corporations like Red Bull have one institutional advantage over governments in this regard: political administrations come and go quickly, as do their priorities and ideologies, making long-term national projects – from wars to space exploration to basic research – difficult to sustain.  Exxon-Mobil CEO Lee Raymond famously remarked that “we see governments come and go.”  That is terrifying.  But it also speaks to the unique capability of corporations to think big, and long-term, in ways ephemeral democratic governments can’t or won’t.

Second, the scientific expertise backing Red Bull Stratos (the official name for Baumgartner’s death-defying stunt) flowed from a combination of private ingenuity and publicly funded research and education.  The mission’s medical director, Jonathan Clark, previously oversaw the health of astronauts at NASA.  84-year-old Joe Kittinger, the previous highest-jump record-holder in charge of direct communication between Mission Control in Roswell and the ascending Mr. Baumgartner, acquired his formidable skills in the United States Air Force.  Mike Todd, who designed Mr. Baumgartner’s next-generation suit, worked for defense contractor Lockheed Martin.  Senior flight engineer Marle Hewitt is a retired US Navy Commander, while Technical Project Director Art Thompson received his education in the public University of California system and then founded his own successful aerospace firm.

Third, Red Bull Stratos required a sustained, collective application of effort by a well-coordinated team of dedicated professionals, many of whom will go forever unmentioned in the major news reports.  It required phenomenal levels of personal courage and initiative by one particularly daring man, yes.  But sheer guts and individual heroism weren’t enough – the project also required contributions from a vast array of hardworking men and women whose names won’t make it into the record books.

Fourth, people care, and care a lot.  Eight million people tuned in to Red Bull’s live feed of Baumgartner’s dive, shattering the previous YouTube record of half a million (recorded during the Summer Olympics).  Human beings still want to expand the boundaries of what is technologically and physically possible, even at tremendous financial cost and with little direct and immediate benefit to themselves.

All of this is instructive – and encouraging.

As companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic forge further outward and upward, we could use more projects modeled on the example of Red Bull Stratos.  Great achievements can be realized, knowledge expanded, barriers broken, by harnessing the engines of private enterprise to the technical skills provided by a well-funded system of public education and a vision articulated by the collective will.

There are many men and women out there ready to be the next Felix Baumgartner – ready to chart new frontiers in space, medicine, the arts, and engineering.  If yesterday’s spectacle was any indication, we can all help them get there – by channeling the formidable power of the invisible hand, by supporting the new and the innovative, and by recognizing and celebrating the valuable contributions society at large makes to the achievements of each individual hero.

“Sometimes,” remarked Mr. Baumgartner as he prepared to fall from the heavens, “you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are.”  How right he was.

Contact Miles at [email protected].

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