The question is, why?
Like most of us these days, I’m on a number of e-mail distribution lists maintained by friends and acquaintances who like to pass along interesting photos and links. One of them is maintained by Edward, a fellow pilot and aviation buff.
On Monday, he sent out an e-mail message with an article about French skydiver Michel Fournier. Mr. Fournier planned to attempt to break the altitude record for skydiving later that day. I followed the link in the message and learned that he’d be doing the jump over Canada from a helium balloon when it reached 40,000 meters or 25 miles up, on “the edge of space.”
Today, Edward sent out a single link as a followup: “French skydiver fails record freefall bid.” From the article:
French skydiver Michel Fournier’s bid to set a new altitude freefall record was scuppered Tuesday when the balloon that was to carry him into the stratosphere separated from his gondola.
The balloon had been scheduled to take off at around 4:30 am (1030 GMT) from North Battleford in western Canada’s Saskatchewan province, but somehow detached from the gondola and drifted away, leaving the 64-year old parachutist behind on the ground.
Wow. Didn’t anyone think to check the connections between the balloon and the gondola?
Later in the article, I learned that:
He had two earlier unsuccessful attempts too, in 2002 and 2003. His balloon tore in 2003 and he had bought a new one for this trial, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars. For a balloon filled with 600,000 cubic meters of helium. To take a 64-year-old man into the sky so he can try for the third time to break a record.
What will this record prove? Well, the original idea was to prove that space shuttle astronauts could safely eject from a landing shuttle in the event of a problem. Of course another man, American Joseph Kittinger, had already survived a jump from 31,333 meters for a medical experiment in 1960. But I guess that wasn’t good enough for Fournier and the money men behind him. When the European Space Agency abandoned that mission, Fourier continued the project with private financing.
My question is, why?
How many hundreds of thousands — if not millions, at this point — of dollars has Fournier pissed away on this ego trip? There are people starving throughout the world right now as the cost of basic staples like rice climb sky high (no pun intended). AIDS continues to spread. People are dying for want of something as simple as a mosquito net to protect them while they sleep. The money handed over by Fournier’s deep pocket friends could have helped hundreds, if not thousands of people, meet a few of the necessities of everyday life.
Instead, it was caught up in a lost balloon that, although recovered, can never be used again.
Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against achievements that can move man forward in science. While it might be nice to know that a properly equipped, financed, and trained man who has made over 8,000 jumps can survive a jump from 25 miles up, how is that going to impact scientific study? The article did not mention that he was bringing along any experiments — just a camera and equipment to record his sonic boom. (I assume that was for the documentary they’d likely make and sell in an attempt to cash in on this project.) I don’t see this as being more than just another wasteful and frivolous stab at fame.
Am I missing something? It’s possible. I certainly haven’t been following this story. If you know something that justifies this stunt, please do use the Comments link or form to share what you know.
And please don’t think I have anything specifically against Mr. Fournier. I don’t. There are other men and women of many different nationalities — including more than a few Americans — who similarly attempt and either fail or succeed at record-breaking stunts apparently designed to stroke their egos and feed our need for sensationalist entertainment.
But when you consider the big picture and the wastefulness of these attempts, it just seems very, very wrong.