Logos in space
Some collective viewing experiences become touchstones for a generation. The Canada-Russia Summit series. The O.J. trial. The moon landing.
In 1969, my mother perched me in front of our black-and-white television set to watch Apollo 11’s historic mission. At least, that’s how she likes to tell the story. In truth she must have sidled her tummy up to the set. I didn’t “watch” Neil Armstrong take those famous first steps, but his words may have filtered through in utero: “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Many scientific breakthroughs and daring feats have followed that historic event, but perhaps none as culturally uniting as the experience of watching that moment live as it unfolded.
Sunday presented another opportunity to witness history in the making, with the Red Bull Stratos mission, streamed live on YouTube. Over 8 million people watched as Felix Baumgartner ascended 38 kilometres in a balloon capsule, unbuckled himself, and then leapt from the edge of space, becoming the first person to break the sound barrier in free-fall.
My son watched riveted with me, remarking in awe: “He can see the curvature of the Earth.” Such events inspire metaphysical contemplation: about the risks and rewards of space exploration; about our physical limits, and our instinctive drive to push past them.
They also highlight momentous societal shifts over the past 40-odd years. Where we once watched TV for breaking news and analysis, we now turn to the Internet, 24/7 on demand. And where scientific exploration was once a top government funding priority and source of national pride, we now accept, and perhaps expect, the commercialization of space travel. From Red Bull to Virgin Galactic, logos in space are the next frontier.
Barely an eye has batted over the fact that an energy drink company funded a five-year scientific mission collecting data on pressurized space suits that could help future space travellers and pilots survive a bailout. Just as no one bats an eye when Coca-Cola—perhaps the world’s top pusher of highfructose corn syrup—sponsors our foremost international competition of athletic excellence, the Olympics.
It’s generally agreed that the private sector is where the money’s at. So rather than lamenting the diminishing role of pure scientific inquiry in the public sphere, the pundits are gushing over Red Bull’s marketing coup.
You can’t report on Baumgartner’s mission without saying “Red Bull.” That wouldn’t fly in 1969. Imagine the moon landing brought to you by Lucky Strike. Instead of a U.S. flag, they could have planted a glossy headshot of Buzz Aldrin with a pack of smokes: “An American original.” (Or perhaps their other slogan, if things had gone badly: “It’s toasted!”)
Red Bull Stratos is the ultimate in marketing synergy, successfully combining scientific exploration with a massive publicity stunt and the pursuit of several world records. Make no mistake, Felix Baumgartner will appear somewhere soon, saying “Red Bull gives you wings!”
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