Felix (for) Austria!
On Felix Baumgartner's breathtaking leap, thus breaking the sound barrier
The term Felix Austria comes from Ovid, declaring that to expand its empire, "happy Austria" chose to marry instead of fighting wars. Today, the Austrian-owned energy drink manufacturer Red Bull, chose to stage a daredevil stunt with "no scientific value" rather than pick a fight with the competition, striking a chord in our collective memory.
For a few hours all gaped in awe, wondering how Felix Baumgartner could break the sound barrier in free fall, and perhaps secretly hoping something would go wrong. Viewers imagined being alone in that Stratos Capsule for hours on end, floating up to the stratosphere.
Two things made this show more than just a publicity stunt.
Perhaps, as ORF commentators said, "science didn’t learn anything new." But as we watched the young man ascending into the sky, we learned how the atmosphere changes and the helium in Baumgartner’s balloon expands with the loss of pressure, united in the collective observation of scientific realities outside the everyday. Maybe it’s nothing new, but it’s not every day that everyone from businessmen to garbage men debate the air resistance in free fall.
The event also provoked nostalgia for early NASA missions. Looking back, Neil Armstrong’s moon landing was "a giant leap for mankind", meaning for science and technology. A wide variety of innovations went along with it, including TV satellite dishes, medical imaging devices, the ear thermometer, fire resistant clothing, smoke detectors, cordless power tools, the joystick video controllers and, randomly, golf balls.
Secondly, while Red Bull’s investment didn’t give us much new insight into the stratosphere, it contributes to science in other areas.
From the one-of-a-kind Stratos capsule, to the pressurised space suit engineered specifically for the jump, to a "smart" parachute designed to deploy if Baumgartner had spiralled out of control, the jump sparked innovation. NASA Engineer Dustin Gohmert called it "a good foundation" for bettering chances of survival at extreme altitudes.
Also notable is that private investors can make things like this happen. When billionaires are known for developing toys for their own amusement, like Richard Branson’s nautical car, personal submarine, or space tourism directed at the super rich, something this inclusive is inspiring to many. In fact Baumgartner’s suit could be the technology necessary to make commercial space travel possible and safe.
As high-tech reality TV goes, it doesn’t get much better than this. And it’s another crazy Austrian, making happy headlines.