Felix Baumgartner, Red Bull and the California economy

150 150 Christopher Nelson

For once, a Sunday wasn’t dominated by the NFL or a high-profile season finale.

It took an Austrian jumping out of a contraption paid for by a Thai-founded and Austrian-owned energy drink company to generate a moment above American soil that had an inkling of the scientific suspense of the moon landings in the 60s and in doing so, it briefly pried our collective attention away from the usual cultural baubles of Sunday.

It spoke to the wonder still contained within scientific achievement. The mere fact that a man could jump from the edge of space and be the first human to ever break the sound barrier in free fall meant something to us. So much so that 8 million people watched the live YouTube feed with no planned broadcast on actual television (the Discovery channel eventually picked up the live feed and showed it).

The irony of this all came just as the shuttle Endeavor was on a ground-based tour of Los Angeles before retiring into its resting home at a science museum. The government sponsored, NASA engineered and built shuttle completes its transition to tourist attraction while a privately funded endeavor steps into what used to be a shuttle launch’s spotlight. Seem like a trend?

Billionaires like Virgin founder Richard Branson and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen have already been pouring loads of their into money into the development of commercial spaceflight. But, with the exception of a ubiquitious Red Bull logo, this didn’t hold a singular commericial purpose. This was for sheer scientific spectacle…doing something just because we could.

Or rather, a team assembled with private money could. The private sector is picking up the slack where NASA can no longer go, but even the domestic (several Californian) companies such as those who played a role in this feat are in danger down the road if we don’t have enough people entering the work force with enough math and science competence to fill their needs.

Here in California, we’ve seen our public education system decimated by a severe financial mismanagement of our resources and a broken budgeting process. If one of two revenue generating measures don’t pass this November 6, further cuts will be triggered.

Over at the California Economic Summit blog, we constantly bemoan the fact that there are jobs open that require science and engineering training that simply is not happening at our schools, leaving well-paying jobs unfilled in a state that is constantly hovering around the 10 percent unemployment mark. California students rank a dismal 47th in science scores according to a study earlier this year.

Clearly, if things don’t change quickly and in a wholesale, 180 degree manner, it won’t be a California company being called on to lend a hand in the next great scientific feat to be broadcast around the world for others to admire. The chance to ignite such change begins at the ballot this November. There are citizen-driven initiatives that will reform how our state government does business, but will Californians educate themselves and vote for such reform?

It remains to be seen. Meanwhile, our state’s scientific skills are getting closer and closer to their victory lap where they become a museum relic right next to Endeavor.


Christopher Nelson

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