Today’s record breaking jump from the stratosphere is yet another entry in both history books and the continual desire of mankind to break limits. Felix Baumgartner broke records in a daring jump that pushed the limits of science. In a sense, he was a guinea pig the same way men like Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong and many others have before him. These attempts not only extended our limits, they also brought tangible benefits in the research and development field by providing a unique experimental platform.
R&D: From Public to Private
Traditionally, such forms of research and development are funded by states. No average consumer would want to significantly fund such moves because it is costly and the benefits to dollar spent will not be reaped any time soon. The initial space race was born out of competition between nations and to a certain extent, a positive externality of the Cold War. After the end of the cold war, such experiments took a massive drop. Co-operation, not competition, took the center stage. NASA began to fumble and interest in space travel began to dip. It came to a point that funding for such exploits were cut as nations did not see the need to push science to its limit. All these gradually ended the great era of Space Shuttles.
This is what the private sector is great at, finding creative ways to stay afloat and turn a profit.
But as the public domain gave up on the very elements that inspired young minds and the human can-do spirit, the private sector took over. Elon Musk’s massive wealth funded SpaceX is a private entity that succeeded where NASA failed – cost effective space travels.
Handing the job over to the private sector yielded a second benefit. Mass consumer demand was recreated. Marketing was done right, people got together to watch the Dragon launch in bid to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Similarly, millions around the world watched on YouTube as Felix Baumgartner ascended over 120,000 feet into the stratosphere and made that daring leap. Such mass interest was inconceivable in the years before. This is what the private sector is great at, finding creative ways to stay afloat and turn a profit.
Unity: Breaking Borders
In leaving nations and states out of the picture, people around the world cheered in every successful launch. This wasn’t about America winning or China getting ahead. Felix is an Austrian who had the aid of an international team to launch from the United States. Frankly, no one bothered about the nationalities involved. This was a celebration of the human spirit. This is what mankind is about. We do things not because we need to but because we want to.
It makes the competition between nations look petty and childish.
The feel good effect continues to flow. The kids who watched SpaceX take off or the brave leap off 120,000 feet will be inspired the same way as the generations before looked in awe as Neil Armstrong left his footprint on the moon. The positive effects of such inspirational success cannot be measured in dollars and cents. It makes the commercial dream of chasing millions look weak and selfish. And it makes the competition between nations look petty and childish.
The Formula 1 series were the first pioneers of such a move. Every car on the track has millions pumped in from R&D labs. Attaining top end speeds with tight control is not just about winning trophies or getting on the podium. For many constructors out there, being part of the competition is a feat in itself. These cars and drivers were funded by research labs. But funding along from that end would not cover expenses. The global appeal of the car race, lead to massive interest from consumers and the funds flowed in. Combine this with a R&D push and you get a self sustaining model that was once deemed impossible by economists. What was formerly market failure is now a resounding success.
The benefits do not end there. Important factors discovered in F1 aerodynamics through testing in wind tunnels translated into aero efficiency in modern day cars to make them more fuel efficient. Also, new materials or alloys made for use in motorsport eventually found their way into road cars. KERS power will soon be in everyday cars once reliability is improved. BMW attempted to launch cars with a ‘boost’ button that harvest braking energy to drive engines for a short distances at low speeds without fuel. To top it off, safety has probably been the greatest innovation that motorsport has spearheaded.
Felix Baumgartner’s jump was a test for a more flexible and versatile space suit. It aided development of protocols for exposure to high altitude/high acceleration. Most importantly, the jump enabled biologists and doctors to explore the effects of supersonic acceleration and deceleration on the human body. It was also a test of latest innovations in parachute systems which could translate to safer air travel.
SpaceX is pretty straight forward. Akin to the Space Shuttles, it’s main purpose is to deliver items to the ISS for scientific research albeit at a much reduced cost.
A New Dawn
Obviously, one cannot hope for the same to be replicated in every sector of research and development. High altitude travels and race cars serve only experiments that require such conditions for tests. But you have to put faith in private sector and not public administration and governments to get the job done efficiently. This newer model driving and funding R&D is sustainable unlike the messy conversion between taxes and public expenditure.
The dynamism and curiosity that drives mankind forward must be funded by means that are equally robust and spontaneous.
The reason is simple. The model matches its requirements. The dynamism and curiosity that drives mankind forward must be funded by means that are equally robust and spontaneous. This is an exciting age to live in and one can only hope that the millions inspired by current day events would one day take the lead and continue this virtuous cycle in the advancement of the human race.