why our vision should go beyond our noses

October 17, 2012

startos jump

Expert skydiver Felix Baumgartner did something spectacular last Sunday. He fell from 128,000 feet to a picture perfect landing in a suit stuffed with GPS trackers, accelerometers, and all sorts of other sensors to help NASA and aerospace companies design an escape system for manned missions into sub-orbital space and backups to escape pods designed to be jettisoned in orbit should something go catastrophically wrong. There are even designs for suits meant to fall from orbit, and Baumgartner’s experiments are a stepping stone to making them happen. As the cost of launching humans and sophisticated payloads into space falls, the safer we’ll make our trips into space, the easier it will be to live and work in orbit and beyond. But you wouldn’t think that the Stratos Jump was a technological breakthrough with many possible uses if you listened to a small swarm of the same web-based curmudgeons who come out to pooh-pooh every innovation or experiment that doesn’t line up with their belief that we must eliminate poverty and cure cancer before we dare spend any money on some new piece of high tech…

This is the same nobly misguided attitude that insists we throw away our future for the outright impossible goal of turning our world into a utopia where no one is ever sick, hungry, or poor. It’s only after the cure for the last disease has been found and the last war has ended should we be allowed to build new robots, fly into space, or work on extending human life spans. The idea that such blue sky experiments can yield new jobs as companies try to capitalize on new technology and that complex problems can be solved by leveraging something learned from atom smashers or observing embryo development in space doesn’t seem to register in their minds. Neither does the fact that some problems and conflicts simply can’t be solved because there’s no incentive for those involved to solve them, or because many of the people responsible for the world’s social and political ills simply do not give a flying monkey’s scrotum about anyone else and won’t even try to pitch in. We can’t sit around and wait for everyone around the world to catch utopian fever and neglect important work that moves our civilization forward, governed by the whims of starry eyed activists in over their heads. That way lies stagnation and self-neglect.

Look, I understand that there are a lot of people living in poverty. I know that there are criminals, warmongers, and terrorists running amuck in many parts of the world. I understand the need for social safety nets to help those in dire need. But there have to be limits to how far we’ll go since some problems simply can’t be solved by throwing a lot of time and money at them. Helping too much might have destroyed Africa’s textile industry, and negotiating with people who think that their deity told them to kill you is usually an exercise in moving a brick wall with your bare hands. At some point, we have to say enough and stop helping, especially when our well-intentioned aid turns into enablement of corrupt governments and those who decide that they don’t really need to contribute to society despite being perfectly capable of doing so. Baumgartner and his team are trying to help working in a frontier we already use for navigation and communication safer. If you really think it’s a waste of time and money to do that and the millions of dollars involved had to have been spent on utopian causes, let me ask you what you’ve done to help cure cancer or end world povery lately. Chances are, it wasn’t a whole hell of a lot.

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  • Brett

    As much as I’d love to say “amen” to your first paragraph, I don’t see it. His jump was from 24 miles up, which is not really even viable to be considered “suborbital” – he’d have to go another 38 miles to get to the edge of space. It’s not particularly useful for potential escape systems from higher up, since the acceleration you’d get from falling higher would kill you when you get into the thicker, lower part of the atmosphere.

    It’s a stunt. A technically impressive feat, but a stunt nonetheless – unlike Kittinger’s jumps, which were directly related to a project designed to see if pilots could potentially eject from the next generation of high-altitude strategic bombers (such as the B-70, which was canceled).

  • Greg Fish

    Baumgartner had 99% of the atmosphere below him when he jumped and again, the point is that this attempt is a stepping stone to suborbital ejection, not that his team built a viable suborbital escape system. And considering that there’s projected to be a boom in suborbital flights, trying to figure out the challenges of escaping a falling space plane is a more than worthy endeavor. This is why NASA and Virgin Galactic were watching this.

  • venqax

    I agree completely with your assessment. If the standard were that all existing problems had to be solved before anything innovative, exploratory, or experimental could be done we wouldn’t be living in caves, we’d still be wandering the savannah, trying to first remove all obstacles to survival with our bare hands before we experimented with this radical “tool making” thing. Even if nothing substantive ultimately came of this, it is still worthwhile for the spirit of the thing. And I’m glad there are nuts who will DO this kind of stuff.