First second of daredevil’s dive captures world’s imagination

October 15, 2012

It took four minutes and 20 seconds for Felix Baumgartner to fall 24 miles from the stratosphere to Earth. But in the hours since, one of those seconds has loomed especially large in the world’s imagination: That’s the one second it took Baumgartner to look down at the curvature of the planet below him, lean out of his capsule and let go.

In that second, Baumgartner became a superhero.

Superman? Shrug. “Faster than a speeding bullet” is going to be hard to say without a smirk now that “faster than the speed of sound” has usurped it.

Adrenaline junkies weren’t the only ones who marveled as Austrian daredevil Baumgartner broke the world record for the highest and fastest skydive, becoming the first man to break the sound barrier without the assistance of a craft. Scientists and engineers considered the implications of the jump. Internet jokesters went to work creating memes and parody Twitter accounts.

And many viewers who once hoped to become astronauts — and those who know what it feels like to dream big — sat, riveted, for the four minutes and 19 seconds of free fall after that one crucial second of release.

Science is back in style

Baumgartner’s jump proved that science — space, especially — is cool again. August gave us the dramatic Mars landing of the Curiosity Rover, complete with its own handsome hero: Bobak Ferdowi, the mission control “Mohawk Guy” who captured hearts and minds with his eccentric style and informative science tweets. Now we have Baumgartner, with his equally chiseled features and even more attractive bravery in the face of danger. He and his weather balloon may well be among the two most popular costumes this Halloween.

Baumgartner has done more for science than make it seem dangerously sexy. He and his team, sponsored by the energy drink company Red Bull, have also contributed technology and information that will be used in future commercial spaceflight.

Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and a former NASA astronaut on three Space Shuttle missions, says the team that developed Baumgartner’s suit is working with companies that are building suborbital and orbital vehicles. Lopez-Alegria says people will be able to go on ballooning adventures to the edge of space, like Baumgartner — but they’ll remain in their spacecraft, of course.

“I don’t know how far those [companies] are away from flying, but the technology is pretty well understood . . . it’s a question about how fast people can get the investors lined up. We’re on the order of one or two years, not decades.”

As for Lopez-Alegria’s personal reaction to the jump, he found it “thrilling.”

“When they opened the hatch, and they had that view, as he was about to prepare . . . .” Lopez-Alegria said, “the people got a chance to see that view, and I think that’s pretty enticing for commercial space travel.”

Still, as an astronaut, he had reservations. The shuttle veteran said he certainly never wanted to attempt what Baumgartner did.

“I’ve seen that view, and the idea of jumping was nuts,” he said.

A real fright

Part of the shared experience of seeing Baumgartner’s jump was the fear that anything could go wrong. You can watch the first two minutes of the jump as a horror movie: In a gif of Baumgartner’s jump, the daredevil steps up to the edge of his capsule, steps off and disappears from view within four seconds of free fall, as if he was swallowed by the Earth below. The gif loops over and over, but grows no less terrifying each time.

There’s the claustrophobia inspired by the capsule and the suit (which reportedly gave Baumgartner panic attacks during test runs). There’s the view: beautiful, but possibly the last thing this man would ever see. The uncontrollable spinning during the first minute of descent, which — in the worst-case scenario — could have burst his eyeballs and killed him. The report over the radio that Baumgartner’s visor was fogged, obscuring his vision. The incredible darkness, interrupted only by the white speck of a human hurtling toward Earth at more than 700 miles per hour. Watching the space jump was like watching the car chase suicide that made news in September on Fox News — but it could have ended in an even more widely viewed tragedy.

Fortunately, Baumgartner’s jump didn’t. And when he fell to his knees once he was safely on the ground in New Mexico, realizing the immensity of what he’d done, the scene was dubbed “That moment when you realize you’ll never pay for a drink again” by one Reddit user.

Once it was clear that Baumgartner was safe, it was okay to joke. Social networking users competed to upload humorous takes on the giant leap, whether it was some fake “unreleased audio” of Baumgartner screaming the whole way down, a Lego re-enactment, or a cat taking the historic jump instead.

An extreme athlete whose latest stunt is the crowning achievement of a career of base jumping and other death-defying acts, Baumgartner now occupies the cultural space where Chuck Norris, star of “Walker Texas Ranger,” is — a larger-than-life character who epitomizes manliness, strength and a little bit of comic book magic. Both have been ascribed the power to conquer impossible tasks through the clever meme-makers of the Internet. (An example caption for a photo of Baumgartner that’s been bouncing around social media: “Forgets to pull parachute. Hits Earth and cracks it in two”). Except Baumgartner’s accomplishments aren’t movie magic: They’re real.

The faux “Felix Baumgartner” of one parody Twitter account asked “I just jumped out of space. What the [expletive] did you do with your day?”

What the real Baumgartner actually said was much more modest.

“I know the whole world is watching, and I wish the whole world could see what I see,” he said before his jump, his words garbled through radio static. “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you really are.”

Those were words that resonated among the more than 7 million people who tuned in, but especially with Lopez-Alegria.

“I wish people could see it, too,” he said. “The wider angle your view is, the more appreciation you have, and realization that the world doesn’t revolve around you.”

See more memes about the space jump on the Style Blog.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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