After the Fall: On Project Stratos

by Eli S. Evans

On the morning that, due to wind (a light breeze, in any event), Felix Baumgartner – “Fearless” Felix, as he is known by his supporters – was forced to abort his plan to float up to the “edge of space” (actually 128,000 feet, which is officially well short of the edge of space, but as far as I’m concerned past about twenty feet the differences become altogether nominal) in a capsule dangling from some manner of glorified hot air balloon (helium, as it turns out) and then jump out of that capsule, free falling for so long that he would, in addition to exceeding the previous record for highest altitude balloon ride and highest altitude skydive, tumble at a rate faster than the speed of sound, a friend published an anticipatory post on his Facebook wall. “Today,” he wrote, “a man might just break the sound barrier with nothing but his body. For better or worse, these truly are extraordinary times.”

The post included a link to YouTube, where preparations for the not-yet-aborted leap were streaming live and, rather than continuing to do whatever it was that I had stopped doing to glance at Facebook, I clicked the link, at which point I learned that the this leap from the edge of space was part – the main part – of a project called Red Bull Stratos, sponsored and staged by the popular energy company the grandson of whose founder recently ran over a police officer in Bangkok with his Ferrari and then reportedly dragged the body for over 200 meters before, after it finally came loose, fleeing for his family’s gated mansion. I watched for a while – footage of heavy equipment moving about somewhere out in the New Mexico desert was interspersed with glimpses inside some kind of mission control command center where physicist and meteorologist types examined data, checked their watches, and exchanged consternated looks – and then, having determined that no leap was imminent, returned to Facebook, where I added the following comment to my friend’s post: “His body and a whole lot of investment capital.” Ten minutes later his reply came in: “Eli,” he had written (and I’m fairly certain that thusly addressing someone by name on Facebook is the equivalent of getting in his face off of it). “Are you telling me you’re not into this? Or is it just that good ol’ knee jerk Marxist commentary?”

I was perturbed, and not only because the word “knee,” it seemed, had only been added as a nicety. More than anything, I was perturbed by the implication that being “into” the fact that a man was going to attempt to float 128,000 feet into the sky in a capsule dangling from a gigantic helium balloon and then jump out of it and free fall faster than the speed of sound and pointing out that he wasn’t actually going to do this with “nothing but his own body” – as though there were such a thing in the first place – were somehow mutually exclusive. Would I have to either stop being a sports fan, in that case, or somehow forget the network of financial interests that make the spectacle of athletic competition, as well as the media discourse that props it up, possible in the first place? Could I lose myself in a book (a rarity these days, in any event) without first losing my awareness of the fact that, independent presses aside, its production and distribution was paid for by a corporation aiming to ultimately make back more money than it had laid out, to win a profit on its investment?

More to the point, would I have to relinquish the interest I indeed had found myself developing in Project Stratos and “Fearless” Felix Baumgartner? During the ten minutes between comment and reply, I’d been reading up on Baumgartner’s history of extremeness, or extremity, perusing pictures of his preparatory jumps, perilous in their own right, apprising myself of the heightened risks of his forthcoming record-breaking leap – first among them, of course, the risk of dying – and imagining, based on my own limited experience doing things like reluctantly riding roller coasters and boarding airplanes I had a bad feeling about, what it would be like to take that step into the unknown, to leave behind the solid ground of the floating capsule and feel an emptiness like none you’ve felt before open up beneath you. At the same time, there could really be no doubt that for Red Bull, which had made a relatively large investment of time and money in the project, the whole thing was above all (and below it, as well, for that matter) nothing more than a profit-making endeavor: an elaborate bit of what they call “Branded Content,” in which the line between content and advertising would be blurred to the point of disappearance. When Baumgartner finally took his leap the brand would be everywhere – on his uniform and his helmet and his floating silver capsule like some gigantic half-crushed can Red Bull, then soaring with him end over end toward the earth, faster than a speeding shriek – and yet there wouldn’t be a single commercial break, not a single promotional interjection nor a single banal invitation to buy something to detract from the high-stakes integrity of the spectacle or, perhaps more importantly, mark a separation between event and product. By all indications, moreover, Stratos was Branded Content, this still nascent form of advertising, not only at its most elaborate but as well at its most effective: early estimates suggested that, measured in terms of publicity value (which I will assume is in turn measured according to its capacity to provoke actual consumption), Red Bull was going to make away with more than twice what it had laid out on the project, a profit margin every bit as gaudy as the jump itself.

In this regard the whole enterprise seemed, beyond its immediate promotional intentions, a tacit confirmation of the fundamental assumption at the heart of every pitiless argument for the deregulation of the financial industry, the dismantling of the welfare state, the corporatization of public education, the rolling back of environmental protections, the breaking up of workers’ unions, capital gains tax exemptions, and pretty much any other socio-political reform (or, as is just as often the case, regression) the practical effect of which is what Jonathan Chait dubs the “upward redistribution of income”: namely, that in times such as these, after the bloody failure of modernity’s grand visions for the future, the collapse of the sovereign nation-state, the triumph of capitalism, the end of history, and so on, the potential for human achievement is, cannot but be, a direct function of the potential for profit-making; that without the promise of profit to spur investment there is simply no longer any meaningful possibility for progress.

*

In the end, I did not see Baumgartner’s successful – in so far as he did not die – leap from the edge of space. I suppose I must have been doing something that I could not stop doing, or did not want to stop doing, in order to tune into YouTube and wait for the dreary moving about of heavy equipment in the sunlit New Mexico desert to finally produce its promised climax. Nonetheless, I did check the news at some point that afternoon with the specific intention of finding out whether or not Baumgartner had jumped and, if so, whether he’d survived. Later, I browsed images of the death-defying ascent and (this latter defying death at a higher rate of speed) descent. There was no shortage of them: images of Baumgartner sitting in his capsule, images of the capsule dangling from that giant silver balloon, of Baumgartner standing at the edge of the capsule holding onto a pair of handrails like someone stepping into a chilly swimming pool, and then of him falling forward as though, perhaps not altogether fearlessly, pushed by the weight of the parachute strapped to his back; images of Baumgartner, the parachute deployed, coasting gently downward, and images of him landing softly on the yellow desert floor, dropping to his knees, standing again with the mask on his astronaut’s helmet raised, thrusting his arms in the air in victory, hollering, waving, grinning madly.

The image I found most affecting, however, is one that appears to have been taken from above just moments after Baumgartner jumped. Freed of the bulk of the capsule, his body gone flat, graceful, so that, with his legs behind him and his arms at his sides, slightly bent at the elbows, he looks a bit like one of those flying squirrels one learned about in science class that can soar up to 300 feet from treetop to treetop. Below him, though, is not the forest floor but just this vast, virtually incomprehensible emptiness and, beyond that, the Earth, looking not quite, but almost, like a planet. The Red Bull logo is visible in various places – on Baumgartner’s helmet, his parachute pack, and on the left shoulder and left leg of his uniform – but if on the ground their presence seemed a subtle reminder that this grand endeavor would not have been possible without the support of an energy drink company looking to spend a buck in order to make back two, here, with nothing but Baumgartner himself between them and utter oblivion, it is a reminder that, even now, without the support of the human body at its limits every profit-making effort would still be doomed from the start.

Knee-jerk Marxist or not, I will try to remember this the next time I’m told that it is the market that dictates life, in this new world order of ours, and not the other way around.


About the Author:

Eli S. Evans is a writer and a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He writes regularly for magazines such as N+1, in the United States, and Quimera, in Spain, and has work forthcoming from Zg Press and in a collection of essays about the late writer and social theorist Monique Wittig. His academic research focuses on the intersections of modernity and postmodernity in twentieth century Spanish literature and philosophy.