At over 128,000 feet, veteran BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner rolled back the hatch of his high-tech balloon gondola, ran his final checklists, disconnected his umbilicals, and carefully edged his way onto the step outside. From his perch far above the Earth, and almost all of its atmosphere, Felix's voice betrayed the emotions running through him.
"Sometimes you have to get up really high… to know how small you are," Felix said with an effort. "I'm going home now."
With that, he gently tipped forward off the step and into the highest and fastest free-fall anyone has ever experienced. Minutes later, as he dropped to his knees in the desert sand with fists raised in triumph, Felix had become the first person ever to exceed the speed of sound without benefit of an air- or spacecraft.
The spectacular publicity stunt, sponsored by Red Bull, was apparently one of the most successful in history, with over 8 million people viewing the event on YouTube.
In interviews, project leaders made the point that they were advancing pressure-suit development—making the space suit of the future. It's undoubtedly true that no previous space suit has had to withstand the kind of speeds relative to the atmosphere that Felix experienced during his supersonic plunge. It's also true that record-breaking missions have always advanced the state of the art in the technologies that made them possible.
But if pressed, I bet Project Stratos members would admit that it was the chance at the firsts and records that motivated them to work long days and long nights over so many years to make Felix's dream a reality.
Whenever someone performs a feat like this, be it climbing a mountain, breaking the sound barrier, orbiting the Earth, or landing on the moon for the first time, there are many who are quick to criticize the feat as pointless, a needless risk, an act of hubris. It would be much better, they argue, to devote precious resources to practical matters, to meeting urgent, tangible human needs like food, shelter, and medical care for those who need them. Maybe they're right—I won't argue the point.
But I will argue that human beings have critical needs beyond the tangible. In fact, I believe it's our intangible needs and passions that are our most human quality. Why did ancient human beings make arduous, days-long journeys deep into caves to paint hauntingly beautiful works of art on their walls? Why did medieval Europeans devote generations of labor to erect towering cathedrals? Why are we human beings constantly striving to make new things, go to new places, and do things that no one has done before?
I don't know, but I do know that it's a peculiarly human trait. This drive is the source of our greatest passions and most ardent labors. In fact, the greatest achievements of humanity have always been driven by this passion for the impractical, the intangible—the pointless.
I also know that for me, a life without it is an incomplete experience. A life devoted entirely to practical, tangible concerns doesn't interest me at all. That's why I write and make photographs. That's why I seek out the best food and drink to share with my loved ones. That's why I fly.
So when I saw Felix Baumgartner slumped on his knees in the New Mexico desert, exhausted but exultant, I knew exactly what he and his dedicated team had accomplished. It was just something that no one in the history of humanity had ever done before.
Yes, it was pointless. And that's just the way I like it.