Captivated spectators called it audacious and awe-inspiring. Critics dismissed it as a publicity stunt. Yet it’s hard not to admire what Felix Baumgartner accomplished yesterday afternoon.
The 43-year-old Austrian skydiver successfully completed a harrowing leap back to Earth from 24 miles (128,100 ft) above the New Mexican desert on Sunday. In doing so, he set the record for the highest human freefall and became the first skydiver to break the speed of sound without the assistance of a craft. His peak velocity measured an astonishing 833.9 mph, or Mach 1.24.
Ever had a nightmare of falling endlessly into an abyss? Acrophobic spectators got some semblance of the experience while watching a live broadcast of the jump. It’s hard to imagine being in freefall for 119,846 ft over a period of 4 minutes and 20 seconds. Baumgartner had only his pressurized suit to protect him from the frigid, oxygen-deprived air around him.
I was one of the seven million viewers anxiously watching Baumgartner’s mission from the start, listening intently to live step-by-step guidance from the Red Bull Stratos mission control center. Baumgartner’s 550-foot tall helium balloon – composed of plastic thinner than a sandwich bag – gracefully departed terra firma at 11:31 a.m. It quickly carried Baumgartner’s capsule thousands of feet above the brown-red hues of the New Mexican desert.
For Baumgartner’s millions of onlookers, there were many nerve-racking milestones as his capsule rose mile after mile above Earth. One such moment was seeing his balloon climb well past the cruising altitude of commercial aviation. All the while, Joe Kittinger (who held the previous record-highest freefall from 1960) offered a grandfatherly tone of reassurance to Baumgartner’s lonely ascent into the stratosphere.
Then, after passing the Armstrong Line at 62,000 ft, Baumgartner began experiencing problems with the heating component in his faceplate visor. But in the midst of potential difficulties, Baumgartner’s capsule kept rising – soaring well past 100,000 ft even as the thin air of the stratosphere slowed down his ascent.
Once the capsule climbed above 128,000 ft, discussion about the exit jump meant there was no turning back. It was chilling to watch Baumgartner depressurize his capsule, unhinge the door and see ice crystals fly off into the lifeless environment around him. We watched in awe as this one man stood alone, 24 miles above human civilization, ready to accomplish something that had long been his dream.
Yet even for the legendary skydiver it was understandably daunting. Might we have detected a hint of fear as “Fearless Felix” stared down at the world beneath him? Probably. But it was a reminder of what makes even the most audacious people human.
Whatever instinctual fear might have been on display didn’t last long. After muttering the words “I’m coming home” for the world to hear, Baumgartner hurtled himself off the platform and quickly disappeared from sight.
After it was all over, Baumgartner recounted those moments of supersonic freefall:
“The exit was perfect but then I started spinning slowly. I thought I’d just spin a few times and that would be that, but then I started to speed up. It was really brutal at times. I thought for a few seconds that I’d lose consciousness. I didn’t feel a sonic boom because I was so busy just trying to stabilize myself. We’ll have to wait and see if we really broke the sound barrier. It was really a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.”
It was a nail-biting mission from start to finish, but Felix Baumgartner’s death-defying freefall was a testament to the scientific achievements of humankind. It showed the world that the right combination of intellect, cooperation, and curiosity enables us to break new barriers, however high or fast they might be.