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Why? Because we can — maybe.

Wednesday, 17 October, 2012

“Space exploration? Send a robot. Deep-sea exploration? Send a robot. Killing people on the Afghan-Pakistan border? Send a drone. This is linked to the question of risk, since the main part of what makes experiments with humans expensive is the need to keep them alive.” So wrote John Lanchester in the London Review of Books in April this year. His focus was a US air force captain called Joseph Kittinger, who stepped out of a balloon 31,300 metres (102,800 feet) above the Earth on 16 August 1960.

Towards the end of his article, Lanchester noted: “At the moment he is working with Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian high-altitude specialist whose Red Bull Stratos project has the goal of free-falling from a balloon at 120,000 feet. If they pull it off, Baumgartner will become the first free-faller ever to break the sound barrier.” As the world now knows, Felix Baumgartner set the world record for skydiving last Sunday, plunging from 39 kilometres (127,953 feet) and reaching a speed of 1,342 kilometres per hour, or Mach 1.24. And Joe Kittinger was with him, every step of the way.

Felix Baumgartner

This kind of thing compels Lanchester to ask “why”? Or, more precisely, two forms of why: “Why did anyone bother doing these stupendous things? And why, having done them, was it more than half a century before anyone tried to do them again? Put it like that and you’re part of the way to the answer. The practical answer to the first ‘why’ is weak. The substantive rationale for these feats, meaning the scientific, or the military, or the military-scientific rationale, is not especially robust… The real momentum behind them came from the desire to do things just to see if they could be done. This principle was taken as far as it has ever been taken by the Moon landings that Kennedy announced as a goal on 25 May 1961. Why? Because we can — maybe.”

Kittinger and Baumgartner are the exceptions, not the rule, of course, and their feats are regarded as the acts of men bordering on the mad. Responsible parents don’t encourage their kids to do this kind of thing, which prompts Lanchester to wonder if, “by losing our appetite for this for-its-own-sake adventurism”, we haven’t lost something valuable.” His conclusion is poignant: “It might be that our current sense of the technological sublime is located elsewhere, in things which are more about bits and bytes, some of them objects we carry in our own pockets. Maybe it’s just that we’ve all grown up. Or maybe the fact that we’ve grown up and moved on is exactly the measure of what we’ve lost.”

Millions watched Felix Baumgartner last Sunday and the huge interest in his jump suggests that the tug of adventurism remains strong. Like it or not, it’s now a question of how adventurism is marketed and Red Bull, with YouTube, may have found a way to sell it to bits and bytes grown ups.

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