As the Red Bull Stratos balloon went up higher and higher into space, I was looking at the earth's curvature on the video feed. And I was preoccupied not with the feat or the associated dangers, but with the possibility that a wide angle lens may be distorting the image and making the earth look more curved than it actually would at that height. However, as the moment of the jump approached, all the hard-boiled cynicism went away for a bit, and I had to stop and marvel at what I was witnessing, via a remote video connection on the other side of the planet from where the action was happening.
I have always been quietly grumbling about how frontiers aren't being pushed anymore. Sometimes when I see someone carrying a smartphone (and I own one myself), I often wonder about the fact that we're carrying in our hands devices that have more computing power than some of the earlier space missions did. We didn't get to see man land on the moon, and we're likely not going to see man land on Mars anytime soon. Yet we queue up at stores when the fruit company releases a new phone, and talk about it as if it were the Second Coming. I'll begrudgingly admit that frontiers are being pushed where we cannot necessarily see them, in technologies that are benefiting us on a daily basis. They might not have the same impact and visibility as landing on another celestial body, and therefore we take them for granted. I like to think that, while flying cars will probably not work out, the future did deliver a personal scaled down version of HAL 9000 in Siri, and that is kinda cool. But I digress.
The thing is, entire generations looked at the space race, the moon landings, Concorde, and the space shuttle and were inspired to push harder at the frontiers of what we know. Somehow, I cannot see a new phone, or any of the other things that we take for granted, inspire someone to go out there an push the limits. The fact that I was watching Felix Baumgartner live sitting halfway across the globe from him alone should be something to think about, yet I was more bothered about the camera distorting the picture. I was viewing it as a spectacle, as reality television, and not as the amazing feat it truly is. He went up in a balloon. A balloon is not the first thing you think of when it comes to transportation/vehicular records that are still standing. You might start with hypersonic aircraft, solar aircraft, biofuel aircraft, pretty much any other form of flying craft before your list eventually brings you to the balloon. I didn't know there were any records to be broken on balloons, I thought we'd dealt with all of those in the earlier part of the last century, when they were still fashionable as a mode of transport/warfare. Yet, before he even stepped out of the balloon, and an incredibly engineered balloon at that, he had already set the record for the highest flight in a lighter-than-air craft. And then he broke the sound barrier in freefall, which has never been done before.
Maybe we're all spoilt for choice, the whole lot of us. Amazing things are happening around, and we barely notice. I wonder how many people are aware of the fact that this was not just a record attempt, and that Baumgartner's jump has recorded data that would help design emergency egress systems from future spacecraft. Maybe twenty years from now, when you're flying on a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipSeven and it flies into space junk left by an old burnt-up spy satellite and you have to eject, you'll have Baumgartner amongst others to thank for getting you down on terra firma. A generation or two ago, they had the moon landings to inspire them. We have the Hubble telescope, the Curiosity rover, the Large Hadron collider and people like Baumgartner. Sure, theirs was more awesome, but I think we tend to overlook what we have. Amazing things are happening around us, and there are frontiers to be pushed everywhere. Even in a balloon. We're probably just not looking hard enough.
Okay. I'll get off the soapbox now.
(Also, no offence meant to balloon flyers, I just happen to have a personal preference for aircraft that I can actually control :P)