As I watch today’s jump by Felix Baumgartner – it’s been running non-stop on most major news channels, the same channels that gave a Space Shuttle launch about two minutes between video of a talking dog and what Kim Kardashian just ate – I’m struck by the notion that what we’re seeing, albeit in an Evel Knievel kind of way, is the future of scientific discovery.
Baumgartner is no civil servant. He’s not paid by any government agency, he’s not one of Austria’s Finest Astronauts, but he is an adventurer. He’s mostly funded by a drinks company. But like the brave, rich men who rubbed glass rods with silk cloths to discover electricity, I believe that the discoveries of tomorrow will be made by gentlemen scientists like Faraday and Musk and less like the quiet souls who now populate our government research facilities.
While I am well aware that this stunt – and it is a stunt, but a very dangerous and fascinating one – has dubious scientific value (unless Baumgartner shatters when he hits the speed of sound) it’s efforts like SpaceX and Lit Motors that are bringing us closer to an interesting future. We cannot discount all of the government-funded work that goes unseen and that clearly went into this launch, but it seems like the adventurer has fallen to the bureaucrat who, in turn, will fall to the entrepreneur.
The question, then, is whether the market incentive can drive cures for cancer and AIDS and bring us closer to the improvement of the Earth and the inevitable colonization of other planets. While I’m loath to believe that one day we’ll pay a fortune to Roche to get a general STD vaccine or life-lengthening gene therapy, I do believe these things will come out of private enterprise faster than they will come out of less market-oriented organizations.
As we watch Felix fly high above the world into the stratosphere, we realize it’s he who is inspiring our kids to study science and he who is epitomizing the new space mission – fully funded, fully branded, and fully mercenary.
Will he garner the same respect and love as Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride? I’m not certain. What I do know is that he’s the new face of scientific effort, whether we like it or not, and a lot can be said for the framers of science who, through private effort and a love of science, expanded our knowledge and took us further than we ever expected.