I woke up Saturday morning to coffee and Felix Baumgartner’s first interview since his 120,000 foot jump in the Telegraph. I was curious to read what he had to say. He’s become rather famous in the last two weeks, and with comments across Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ calling him the Neil Armstrong for the next generation, his words would likely resonate with a large, young, and impressionable audience. I was a little more than mildly disappointed, and slightly annoyed.
Baumgartner’s jump was a feat of science, engineering, and human determination. It was exciting and certainly got people interested in space. As Doug Messier points out at Parabolic Arc, “space enthusiasts made the quick leap of imagination to a whole new sport of space diving, with daredevils jumping to Earth from suborbital space and, ultimately, orbit.” With that background, I expected Baumgartner to emerge in the press as a champion for science, engineering, and the power of human spirit. Instead, he came out swinging at NASA and Richard Branson.
Even though the technology that enabled his high altitude jump was derived at least in part from NASA, Baumgartner thinks the agency is a waste of money. Specifically, the search for life on Mars. It seems Baumgartner fell to Earth with a similar realization Apollo astronauts had returning from the Moon: that the Earth is small and fragile, and we ought to take care of it. In Baumgartner’s case, saving the planet trumps learning about it by studying other worlds.
Where the red planet is concerned, Baumgartner made the comment that plans to send men to Mars are senseless. We know our Earth, we should work on taking care of it. What could we possibly learn from studying Mars? “I think we should perhaps spend all the money [which is] going to Mars to learn about Earth,” he said. “I mean, you cannot send people there because it is just too far away. That little knowledge we get from Mars I don’t think it does make sense.”
The main problem with this statement is that it isn’t really true. Mars isn’t too far away to send a manned mission. Wernher von Braun knew how to get men to Mars; he published a brilliantly detailed book about the mission in 1947. In the mid 1960s, NASA knew how to get men to Mars in a repurposed Apollo spacecraft. Distance isn’t the technical hurdle on a manned mission to Mars, landing something big and heavy like a manned spacecraft is. But that’s another story.
But it’s not just manned missions to Mars Baumgartner has a problem with, it’s any missions to Mars. He, like so many others, cited the cost Curiosity as an example of NASA’s senseless spending. Of the $2.5 billion price tag, Baumgartner said: “That is tax money. People should decide ‘are you willing to spend all this money to go to Mars?’” This is the classic argument that doesn’t take into account how money was spent on the Mars Science Laboratory mission. The $2.5 billion created over 4,000 jobs over nine years, and in total cost every tax paying American just $8 over nine years.
And he continued: “I think the average person on the ground would never spend that amount of money – they have to spend it on something that makes sense and this is definitely saving our planet.” NASA is in the planetary business, not just the space business. The agency has been studying our planet since its inception and continues to monitor the environmental factors like the ozone layer and ice caps that threaten the Earth’s stability.
NASA wasn’t Baumgartner’s only target. The daredevil didn’t react well when Sir Richard Branson wrote on his blog that he might sponsor a jump from 400,000 feet, perhaps out of one of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwos. “[I] haven’t had a challenge myself for a while,” Branson said. “Could be fun for Virgin to give Red Bull a run for their money.
Baumgartner dismissed Branson’s comment and called it a joke. “It looks like he wants to use our positive momentum and gain publicity on his side and that is kind of lame,” he said, adding that the idea of jumping from 400,000 feet is completely insane. It’s a hard accusation to swallow from someone who jumped from the stratosphere in a pressure suit made of RedBull logos. Not to mention Branson is the king of publicity stunts. I would personally love to see Branson and Virgin Galactic take on Baumgartner and RedBull. If nothing else it would be a fun contest to watch.
But this is all my opinion, and everything Baumgartner said is his opinion. And he is, of course, free to say whatever he wants. But he’s become a celebrity. As he told the Telegraph, “when I landed in JFK, New York City, a lot of people were waiting outside… It’s kind of scary[;] it’s kind of cool if you think about it. I have no privacy anymore. People waiting outside at 4 in the morning; it’s unbelievable.” Like it or not, his words weigh heavier now than they did before his jump, and that means he’s influencing a largely young audience.
It is, in my opinion, unfortunate that the man who expertly captured the world’s attention with a jump based on technology from a near-space altitude is a poor spokesman for the value of exploring space to better understand our planet and the important role NASA has long played in studying the Earth.