When I was four and five and six years old we watched the moon landings on TV then waited nervously for the splashdown and the astronauts’ release from their seared capsule.
In the same way millions of people watched Felix Baumgartner’s astonishing fall through the empty sky on YouTube. In his protective suit the Austrian daredevil looked for all the world like some Apollo astronaut of the 1960s. But did this daring deed truly recreate the images of the space age, or only an empty pastiche of them?
History always repeats itself, said Hegel. He forgot to add, said Marx — the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Not that Baumgartner’s dive was farce.
It was heroic, if not foolhardy. In terms of sheer mad bravery it was stupendous. But surely those seductive and glorious images with their evocation of the great moments of space exploration are so appealing because they fill a void in our collective heart, a void of aspiration and the belief in progress that a daredevil’s leap cannot ever really match.
In the end, Baumgartner’s achievement is just a great stunt, with a commercial sponsor. People have always done brave things, and in the early 20th century going over Niagara Falls in a barrel became the leap of choice for publicity-conscious stunt people.
Yet amazing as such jumps were, did they add to human knowledge and capacity? No — the first powered flight by the Wright brothers, which was much less spectacular, just off the ground in fact, changed the world in a way stunts do not. The images of this leap look like exploration but actually are mere entertainment.
The visual similarity between Baumg-artner’s record-breaking fall and the feats of engineering audacity that took human beings on to the surface of the moon and then, even in the cash-strapped 1970s, built a landable and reusable spacecraft is cruelly deceptive.
Baumgartner’s free fall is not the same as the public-funded, State-sponsored efforts of an entire scientific generation that not so long ago sent Neil Armstrong on to the silver dust of the lunar surface. Look closer and the visual image of this 21st century hero is not so 20th century, after all. His helmet has the words Red Bull on it, not a stars and stripes. Indeed, Red Bull logos and inscriptions are all over his space suit.
The confusion between a publicity stunt and the great space missions of the last century is fully intended by the sponsor, to judge from images of what it calls ‘Mission Control’ at Roswell, New Mexico.
Mission Control is written in big letters on the wall with all those echoes of white-shorted bespectacled geeks getting Apollo 13 safely home. But again the none too subtle visual give-away: this is Red Bull Stratos Mission Control, says the sign. Not Nasa after all.
Seeing the earth from Baumgartner’s helmet is spectacular and sad: wondrous to see this orb as the astronauts saw it, amazing that he is so high he can see the planet as a planet, but sad because he is plummeting back. All he has done is stretch gravity’s elastic a bit further. What happened to breaking it entirely?
The epic State spending that sent serious missions to the moon is a thing of the past. As Baumgartner prepared for his stunt, the space shuttle, relic of an age when in Apollo’s wake space exploration seemed destined to become ever better, was being ferried to its final resting place in a Los Angeles museum. Today, private money pays for record-breaking achievements that come nowhere near the optimism of Nasa’s golden age.
The digital age is not an age for astronauts. Google the words ‘Moon landings’ and one of the most popular search phrases offered is ‘moon landings faked’.
So in place of true exploration we idolise this pseudo-astronaut: the man who fell to earth, with style.