Early this past Sunday, I watched as Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner became the first human ever to break the sound barrier unassisted by a craft, jumping out of a balloon from 128,100 feet and surpassing the record for the highest freefall ever in the process. Sponsored by Red Bull, who will no doubt soon edit the footage into a much-more-exciting 30-second commercial (the ascent in Baumgartner’s balloon took quite a while), it was something of a throwback to past eras’ pointless achievements; men doing things simply because they thought of them and had the cultural privilege to make their silly boyish dreams a reality. Chuck Yeager. The moon landing. All that crazy shit.
Of course, in terms of procedure and general social impact, this was neither Chuck Yeager being the first person ever to break the sound barrier (he did it sitting down, which somehow seems more impressive to me) or the moon landing, but at least it’s something. I seriously doubt any small child who happened to be watching the Discovery Channel at 11 a.m. on a Sunday (or, more likely, watching YouTube, on which Baumgartner broke the record for live streams) will be any more inspired toward the sciences than they would have to be to be watching that network at that time anyway, but on a certain level, I’m inclined to say screw it. At least they took that money and did something with it no one else has ever done before. It’s not like that check was either going to Baumgartner jumping out of his little capsule thing or to the orphanage. They’d have probably just found some other, even less productive way of getting rid of it. Like on motorbikes or Shaun White endorsements or whatever else it is Red Bull spends money on, blessings and peace be upon them.
Let me reiterate, this is not Chuck Yeager or the moon landing. It was a guy skydiving from very high up—an activity that may make for vaguely compelling television but from which next to no education can be derived beyond the lesson that if you have enough cash, you really can make anything you want come true, which is a lesson we’re all reminded of daily anyway, rendering Baumgartner’s jump even more pointless. I guess my point, however, is that at least they didn’t take that money and develop a pointless app, or a pointless cellphone to put the pointless app on, or a pointlessly snarky commercial for the pointless cellphone with the pointless app. At least they left the house.
And since corporate patronage seems to be how this kind of stuff happens these days, there are also many, many worse investments Red Bull could’ve made. I don’t think Baumgartner’s achievement furthers us as a species the way the discovery of the human genome did, but neither is it some bought-off, backwards-ass republican senator, which I’m pretty sure is what most companies do with their liquid assets—I’m sorry, any candidate who runs on a “don’t you hate government?” platform is just dealing with more internal loathing than I want in a leader—when they’re not raping the countryside or looting their employees’ retirement funds. Good for Red Bull, shifting the paradigm a bit. Gawd knows it could use it.
Think it’ll inspire a new love of the sciences in our culture? An appreciation for the people who try and reach beyond themselves and achieve something simply for the sake of setting a new standard? Maybe even move us even slightly away from the anti-intellectualism that has usurped our public consciousness whole and left us an unproductive smattering of full-mouthed isolationist hatemongering consumers, spitting out onto our $100 shirts the chewed spines of the people in this country and outside of it exploited and dismantled so we can enjoy the comforts to which we seem to be so entitled?
Alright now, people. Heads down. Back to real life.