Reclaim the adventurous spirit

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, October 20, 2012

On a platform more than 128,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, Felix Baumgartner leaned forward in a chair and began an improbable adventure that bordered on impossible.

He jumped.

So high up, he could see the curvature of the planet. His journey took all of 4 minutes — most spent in a freefall that had him traveling at 833 mph and breaking the sound barrier, the first time that has been done by someone not in a jet or spacecraft. He landed in the Arizona desert with a soft thud and a huge smile.

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His Austrian roots aside, it was fitting that he landed in a desert in the United States, the land of adventure and wonder. From Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett to the wagon trains, Americans have possessed a spirit of adventure unmatched. The question of what could be has always outdistanced the notion of what we can’t do.

Lately, however, until Baumgartner plopped down on American soil, what has happened in this land that has galvanized the imagination of its people? Video games? The latest iPhone release? In a time when imaginations are snuffed by 24-hour cable news outlets and a seemingly endless dose of reality television, the question must be asked, “Have we lost our adventurous spirit?”

Even an endeavor such as Baumgartner’s, which should have had people tuning in coast-to-coast and from pole to pole, was carried online and on the Discovery Channel. In its place on network TV, the NFL showcased its Sunday offerings. Hitting other people in pads is better TV than watching a man leap from 25 miles high into the vast unknown.

When Neil Armstrong in July 1969 uttered his famous words “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Americans sat transfixed in front of grainy black and white televisions and the spark was ignited. The decades that followed proved America’s dominance in space exploration. It captured the imaginations and vaulted us all forward.

Sadly, on the same day as Baumgartner leaped into space, NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour meandered through the streets of Los Angeles to its final resting place in a museum, marking the end of a program that led America to the moon and farther. Unfortunately, the future of American space exploration remains in limbo, right alongside the nation’s imagination.