In praise of Felix
By Steven Martinovich
By the time you read this an Austrian skydiver will have done something that no human has ever attempted before: jump to Earth from the stratosphere. Felix Baumgartner fell a mind-blowing 128,000 feet (watch here) – far higher than the SR-71 ever flew – and became the first man to break the sound barrier in free fall. He also managed to set new records for highest manned balloon flight and longest free fall time. By any measure they are phenomenal achievements in human endurance given that even the slightest tear in his specially designed suit would have likely meant the horrific death of his blood boiling inside of his body.
There are those who are not impressed. They argue that Baumgartner is merely a thrill seeker – the man has BASE jumped off every structure on the planet worth the effort – and this is merely another stunt to add to his resume. The money spent on this mission, a number that Red Bull declines to divulge, could have been better spent. The benefits will likely only extend to safer space suits and survival systems for astronauts and high altitude pilots.
And they're right – to an extent. Baumgartner merely jumped off the highest thing he could find – in this case a helium balloon. And yes, Red Bull could have spent the tens of millions on school books for children or whatever hobby horse the critics are attached to. And no one can argue – unless they work for the U.S. military or NASA – that safer space and pilots' suits will benefit a tiny percentage of humanity. The critics, however, are as narrow minded as Baumgartner's vision from nearly 23 miles up was expansive.
There's always been a lot of talk about the roles that adventurers and athletes play in our society. Although Charles Barkley famously declared that he was no one's role model, just a basketball player, men like Baumgartner do occupy a moral place in our society. No, he won't save lives like a doctor or teach your child to read, but he has an important role.
There's a reason for that, though most people don't give it much thought. Unlike our world, which is filled with arbitrary rules handed down by tradition or distant politicians and leaves us never quite knowing what we are allowed to do, whether we will be rewarded or punished, the things that someone like Baumgartner attempts occur in a clearly defined world. If Baumgartner is successful in a jump, he lives. If he fails, he suffers a grisly death. It's hard to get more zero-sum. To the victor truly go the spoils.
His jump, however, impacted more than simply himself. For Baumgartner, the jump was a mental and physical battle, but it also spoke to us because for the spectator his achievement gives us a shared universal language for excellence. Watching men like Baumgartner allows us to indulge in our capacity for admiration. It is one of the most noble of human traits: admiring the grand achievement of someone who pursues excellence at all costs.
Whether it's the Super Bowl or the Red Bull Stratos jump we're told that our time would be better spent doing something productive. We should be worrying about homelessness, racism or wars in distant countries, not whether a man succeeds in what is ultimately a meaningless activity. Self-denial and service to others are ideals, we're told, and it's not right to attempt something – or watch that attempt – for no other reason than self-enjoyment.
Men like Felix Baumgartner give us a chance to celebrate humanity. He and his incredible jump allow us to laud skill, intelligence and ultimately achievement. It gives us, as writer Thomas Bowden put it some years back, a "spiritual fuel" that flows to us from another person's achievement. It inspires and gives us the moral courage to fight our own battles every day.
Baumgartner may only be a daredevil skydiver, and not someone deemed as important to society such as a doctor or teacher, but he reminds us that anything can be had with old-fashioned preparation, hard work, willingness to take risk and principles. For that, Felix Baumgartner is an example to us all and a true example of the best of humanity.
Steven Martinovich is the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.