The Big Red Leap: Baumgartner’s Step Into Space

Red Bull versus Apollo

I’m of that vintage that, as I type, I can still remember the muscular effort it took, the particular mechanical, as it were pianistic feel of typing an essay on a portable Remington. The medium I’m typing on now also served as an information delivery system for the much-distributed video of Felix Baumgartner stepping off a sub-orbital platform into literal thin air. I am by the way typing faster, much more effortlessly, more carelessly, since any mishit keys result in much less dire consequences, such as restarting a page with a fresh leaf, or the frustrating use of that undergraduate savior, White Out.

I use the commercial, rather than the generic name for that substance because it’s easier to recall. In the same way, Baumgartner’s feat is easier for many to remember as “the Red Bull thing” because that’s how it’s codified in our heads. That’s how it’s been very purposefully codified in our heads, because Red Bull’s branding of such events is important to that company; they want to be identified with such extreme derring-do, as is only appropriate for a company whose big product serves as a medium for caffeine delivery.

I can also remember watching, on that ubiquitous information delivery system of the sixties, a somewhat more complex stunt carried out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1969. NASA didn’t at that time need the backing of a corporate sponsor. We didn’t watch The Nescafe Moon Landing. We were highly aware that behind Neil Armstrong’s historic step onto the surface of the moon was a U.S. government bureaucracy so rich and powerful that they had literally spent a chunk of the national treasury so that he could plant that flag in the lunar dust. Some of us were even vaguely aware that the national effort behind that endeavor was part of an arms race with the Soviet Union, the kind of sharp end of research and development whose broader shaft was working its way into our broadcasts from places just north of Saigon.

I watched the Moon Landing, which certainly earned its capital letters, alongside my grandfather. He was eighty years old at the time, having been born in 1889, and I’ve often wondered, as indeed I did at the time, what he could have been thinking. When he had been my age, he had been looking at the stars as he lay on a buckboard, or perhaps with his head resting on a saddle, looking up at what must have been a stunning view of the heavens, completely free of man-made debris, in the middle of the high plateau somewhere near Ekalaka, Montana. His commentary on the event was, as usual, succinct. At the end of the broadcast, he muttered, “that’s quite something.”

There was a further irony that I was vaguely aware of: because my mother was in one of her “I’m banning television from this house” phases, we were watching at the home of one of those odd people my parents were in the habit of adopting into their eccentric lives. It was that of Helen Janzen, a single mother who had made her way to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where we lived, from the chaos of post-war Germany. She was a thin, chainsmoking woman who spoke with a thick German accent, and it was characteristic of my parents that they included Helen in our lives; in 1969, you might reasonably expect the next broadcast after the moon landing to be something like Combat!, or Hogan’s Heroes, which presented German-speaking people either as demonic targets for the bullets of bold American G.I.s, or buffoons who were targets of American wit.   World War Two, that momentous event which had brought to life the Military Industrial Complex that was also bringing you the Moon Landing, was very much in the background of our thinking, and the U.S.A. had no less of an information monopoly on it than they had on moon landings.

Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Module and famously garbled his line, which should have read, “One small step for a man… one giant leap for mankind.” We believed him. Americans, who were footing the bill, believed him. Canadians believed him, and to judge by the crowds that watched the event all over he world, people of many nationalities and creeds also believed. I would never look at the moon again the same way. Those were heady times.

Apparently, Felix Baumgartner’s pithy quote as his stepped off what has come to be known as The Red Bull Platform (which has not, I believe, earned the capitals I’ve given it here, except for the product that forms the modifier of that phrase) was “I’m coming home.” This was another marked contrast to Neil Armstrong’s statement, which was optimistic, far-sighted, and outward-oriented, as is only appropriate for one whose only brand affiliation, apart from NASA and the U.S. government, was the Greek god whose primary attribute is reason. Mr. Armstrong was pointing the way to mankind’s conquest of space. Felix was performing on behalf of a soft drink company, or perhaps I should say a semi-hard drink company.

Not that I wasn’t impressed with his feat. It must have taken extraordinary fortitude to strap himself into that module, and to have placed himself in the position, having arrived in the stratosphere, to have thought, “well, I’m not getting down except by jumping into the arms of whatever Providence awaits me. Hope the parachute works.” Such a proof of pure guts is so far beyond most of us that even Neil Armstrong and company might have preferred their government-sponsored capsule to Mr. Baumgartner’s privately sponsored one. I realize that it is very unfair to compare these two events, but one can’t help it. Both involved a man in a spacesuit taking a very bold step, both were performed for the camera to a worldwide audience, and both involved images of the earth seen from that perspective that humankind could hardly imagine, much less visualize, when my grandfather lay looking up at the stars from under his blankets on those cool Montana nights. My grandfather’s step into the void had, by the way, been to board a train in Saint John, New Brunswick, one of North America’s oldest cities, as a very young lad, and chuff off into the American West. That too must have taken great courage.

NASA continues to operate, one presumes, on the edges of the American frontier of know-how, and if their contribution to the arms race might seem more modest, it is no doubt still central to American military interests. I wonder how much of NASA’s research and development, for example, contributed to the technology built into drone aircraft. By contrast, Red Bull isn’t going to produce a technological breakthrough, unless you consider expertise in commercial branding as a kind of techne, in the ancient Greek sense. As one of those people who’ve been watching America from a somewhat off-centred perspective my whole life (my grandfather still spoke with a kind of hybrid Montana-New Brunswick accent when he remarked on the Moon Landing), I can’t help but feel that stepping off the Red Bull Platform to come home is a highly symbolic act. Some people are denigrating it, even calling into question Felix Baumgartner’s courage. I think they’re nuts to do so. It was a bloody bold stroke, by any measure. Maybe what makes them critical is the sense that in comparison with that signal event of from our collective Baby Boomer youth, this seems petty and commercial.   Commercial it certainly is, but then again no one is going to turn the lessons learned by the intrepid Germanic-American Mr. Baumgartner into a cruise missile or a killer drone. Hats off to you, Mr. Baumgartner. As my old grampa would have drawled, in his bluenose-western drawl, “that’s quite something.”

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