When Felix Baumgartner made his historic jump from the “edge of space” at about 39 kilometres (24 miles) above the Earth a couple of weeks ago, he was branded a hero. Perhaps deservedly so, becoming the first person to break the speed of sound outside of an airplane or spacecraft, and skydiving from the highest altitude yet achieved. While some people have called his jump little more than a publicity stunt, it did help to invoke a sense of wonder at what we are capable of.
It might be assumed then that Baumgartner would be an ideal spokesman for space exploration, helping to raise the public’s awareness and excitement about “the final frontier,” but apparently that is not to be.
For space enthusiasts, he has rather turned out to be, disappointingly, just the opposite. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Baumgartner stated that going to Mars is a waste of money:
“A lot of guys they are talking about landing on Mars. Because [they say] it is so important to land on Mars because we would learn a lot more about our planet here, our Earth, by going to Mars which actually makes no sense to me because we know a lot about Earth and we still treat our planet, which is very fragile, in a really bad way.
So I think we should perhaps spend all the money [which is] going to Mars to learn about Earth. I mean, you cannot send people there because it is just too far away. That little knowledge we get from Mars I don’t think it does make sense.”
To be fair, Baumgartner is talking about Mars exploration specifically, not space exploration in a general sense. But Mars always has been, and will be, a primary focus for NASA and others, and is still the first planet that humans could travel to after the Moon.
Speaking of which, Mars is not too far away. Plans for future manned missions are being worked on, even if there is no firm timetable yet. It is certainly doable technology-wise, within the next twenty years or so according to NASA, but as with any huge project, it is mostly a matter of financing.
As for the “little knowledge” coming from Mars, Baumgartner should really try talking to the many scientists involved in these missions; I’m sure they would beg to differ. His arguments are reminiscent of those who insist that all space exploration is a waste of money, with little return. They fail to realize that much of the modern technology and conveniences which we tend to take for granted came about as a result of just such scientific innovation, including directly from NASA itself.
As for the environmental debate, yes, much more needs to be done to help protect our planet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore at the same time. Learning about how Mars changed from a wetter, habitable world to the one we see today can only be a good thing. Venus also, with its “runaway greenhouse effect” and how that can help our understanding of global warming (both caused primarily by carbon dioxide).
Felix Baumgartner may have succeeded at accomplishing an incredible feat in its own right, and promoting a sense of “wow, how cool is that” – but when it comes to the basic desire to explore, an essential part of our humanity, not so much.
This article was first published on Examiner.com.