Felix Baumgartner: Unwitting Role Model

Felix Baumgartner. Not the role model I’d hoped he’d be. Oh well. Credit: REX

Two weeks ago, Austrian daredevil and skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped 120,000 feet from a balloon. It was neat, but that’s about it. It was a stunt funded by RedBull. My opinion on the jump as a whole can be found in full here.

Yesterday, I woke up to Baumgartner’s first interview since the jump. In the last two weeks, he’s become something of a celebrity. Across social media sites, he’s been lauded as the Neil Armstrong for a new generation (a view I strongly disagree with but will save for another rant). With a worldwide audience hanging on his words, I’d hoped Baumgartner would emerge as a spokesman for the value of the technology coming out of our space program and the need to study space to learn about the Earth. Instead, he accused NASA of wasting money exploring Mars. I finished reading the interview, got really irritated before 7 o’clock in the morning (far too early), then calmed down. My measured response to Baumgartner’s interview is over at AmericaSpace.

RedBull’s Stratos Stunt

Baumgartner, covered in RedBull logos, begins his fall at just over 128,000 feet. Credit: Handout/Getty Images via The Guardian

According to YouTube, eight million people watched Felix Baumgartner’s high altitude jump on Sunday morning. It was exciting and death-defying, but at the end of the day it was a just an elaborate publicity stunt that will likely see RedBull sales skyrocket this month. But I’d argue that the event wasn’t entirely a success from a publicity standpoint. RedBull, who sponsored the jump, wasted an incredible opportunity. It had  an eight million person audience captivated, but did nothing to teach that audience about the context behind Baumgartner’s jump. Joe Kittinger’s 1960 jump was amazing, the heritage behind these types of tests is fascinating, but without any context the audience just saw a daredevil break a record for record-breaking’s sake.

I realize I sound like an irritated historian, but I also have a background (albeit a brief one) in publicity. Not taking advantage of an opportunity to teach eight million people a few awesome things about science is a terrible waste, from an historian’s standpoint and a public relation’s standpoint. [Read more...]