Not as much of the world may, right now, be watching television as it did a half-century ago when, in 1961, U.S. astronaut John Glenn flew in the first space capsule to orbit the globe, or waiting by a radio as it did thirty-years before that, in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew the first trans-Atlantic airplane flight.
It is likely most people today will swipe by a still picture and headline on their iPhone of what’s happening, right now, or glaze over it in a Twitter tweet. Scant attention to the event, however, diminishes nothing of its importance as a moment in space technology and even more so as a reminder of the human condition.
Glenn’s mission was a crucial stage in the exploration of space for the next two decades by NASA, leading to large and small scientific discoveries with an impact on life on Earth. Lindbergh’s endeavor helped illustrate the safety of air travel even over the turbulent air above the sea.
And today, moments ago, the 43-year old helicopter pilot and skydiver, Salzburg, Austria native Felix Baumgartner, ascended into the stratosphere to a level higher than airplanes, in a massive helium balloon with the intention of then jumping from the attached capsule to free fall through the heavens, picking up an immediate velocity at the speed of sound.
The risk is starkly plain. As he free falls from the altitude over 20 miles above the earth’s surface, he will drop through a temperature of 70 degrees below zero. If he goes into an uncontrollable flat spin, it will pressure his blood into his head and feet causing a “blood boil.” There is a chance he will become unconscious. It isn’t certain if he will survive.
With progressive technology providing safety features in planes, cars, trains – in every vehicle of motion, Baumgartner’s experimental adventure evokes a type of physical bravery, a primal courage seemingly unknown today, almost never heard about anymore.
Unlike those willing to make the supreme sacrifice of their life as members of the armed services, this is a one-time mission undertaken with the knowledge that, even with tested safety measures, may end his life.
And he will experience this entirely alone, as did Glenn and Lindbergh in their challenges.
Narrating this in essentially real-time, the mission unfolds as Baumgartner now goes through over 40 checks with mission control.
The air pressure in his suit has now gone through its first of two “fillings,” as the balloon rises to the point where this must be equalized.
The hatch to the capsule has opened and the view is one familiar to us only from the seat of an airplane, looking out into the blue sky and clouds above the earth. He has slid out over the steps of the capsule – with nothing between him and the miles and miles of sky to the earth below.
Now, he has begun his free-fall skydive of over 23 miles and, if he makes it, this will set a record. The television cameras have cut away from showing him jump and will not show him as he falls – in case he dies.
He has landed – and even walked as he touched down to earth in his parachute. They are now saying he fell, at one point, at 729 miles an hour – beyond the rate of the speed of sound. He has also gone higher than any human ever has in a manned craft above the earth, estimated now at over 23 miles.
This was not a federal government NASA mission but a private one, sponsored by Red Bull. It has proven that a human body can survive moving at that high velocity.
It has also proven the stability of his high-pressured suit, almost as if he were a self-contained airplane. The suit, it is said, will now be used as the prototype for space suits that can be used as emergency suits for passengers taking “space tours” which are predicted to be less than twenty years away.
Even more fantastical, in a “Jetsons” sort of future, such suits can likely be adapted to lower atmospheric levels when ongoing technology finally does produce safe versions of the the long-promised jetpacks giving humans the freedom to fly through the sky.
Entirely apart from the space technology of this drama is the one of universal interest; how a human being could undertake such a dangerous but glorious mission.
Felix Baumgartner has been in training for it since 2007. At one point, he apparently had to take a break from the intensity of it all. What makes it all the more astounding is that he suffers from claustrophobia and had to seek the care of a therapist to overcome it and endure the close pressurized space suit and the capsule. Although he’s said that if he survived the mission, he was going to return to his work as a helicopter pilot, he has already provided for those seeking it, the proof that a human being can overcome fears and take on challenges if they determine to do so.
Seeing it live today also serves as evidence that no matter how expertly advancing technology further enhances the “virtual experience” it simply can never truly be the same as a ‘real experience.” There is still something forever imprinted in the memory by experiencing an event unfold which instant replay, HD or otherwise, fails to do.
You could have watched Felix live, as he was falling, on the poorest-quality PC monitor and, in doing so, grasp a more palpable authenticity to it all than the highest quality digital Youtube version could ever possibly provide.
The process of living through even a brief but uncertain moment, the heart pounding in anticipation of the outcome, is what imprints the associative emotion which becomes inextricably intertwined with the memory of that particular moment of time.
PHOTOGRAPHS PROVIDED TO THE MEDIA BY RED BULL/STRATOS DISTRIBUTED THROUGH THE AP
- Felix Baumgartner’s 23-Mile Freefall Attempt: By the Numbers (newsfeed.time.com)
- Felix Baumgartner begins bid to break sound barrier (wjla.com)
- Daredevil Lands on Earth After 23-Mile Leap (abcnews.go.com)
- Felix Baumgartner is headed up for his 23-mile-high skydive (grindtv.com)
- Felix Baumgartner set for jump from edge of space (cbsnews.com)
- Felix Baumgartner’s 23-mile supersonic jump on schedule (abclocal.go.com)
- Felix Baumgartner Launches Space Jump Bid (news.sky.com)
- Leap of faith: Felix Baumgartner’s historic jump from the edge of space (engadget.com)
- Felix Baumgartner begins record breaking freefall attempt (telegraph.co.uk)
- Baumgartner Begins Ascent on Supersonic Dive (newser.com)