Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Right Stuff: Felix Baumgartner's Supersonic Jump From Near Space – October 14, 2012

Felix Baumgartner about to step into the void (Photo by Jay Nemeth)

"I know the whole world is watching now, and I wish the whole world could see what I can see: sometimes you have to go up really high to see how small you are."
                 –Felix Baumgartner, October 14, 2012, seconds before he jumped from 128,000 feet

Some weeks back, I wrote about Philippe Petite and Nik Wallenda, two high-wire walkers whose exploits had inspired me. I thought their achievements – walking between the two World Trade Centers in 1974, and walking across Niagara Falls this past summer, respectively – were awe-inspiring. Little did I know that some short months later, Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian pilot and BASE-jump specialist, would trump that in an earth-shattering, perhaps game-changing manner.

As a child, I was completely obsessed with space travel. Like so many people of my generation, I grew while attempts were being made during the Cold War to be the first man on the moon. All the lead up to that event occupied many of my waking hours (though some of it happened before I was four years old): Russia's Yuri Gagarin being the first man in space; Alan Shepard, the first American; Russian Alexey Leonov becoming the first man to walk in space; followed by Ed White, who performed the longest walk in space at the time; the tragic deaths of White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee in Apollo 1; then there was Apollos 7 through 10 that proved man could go to the moon and back.

As for Apollo 11 – July 20, 1969. Nothing more need be said.

Then followed the successful Apollos 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17. The near disaster of Apollo 13, and the herculean effort it took to get the men back alive. I remember mourning the demise of the moon landings, but became excited again when the shuttle missions started in April 1981. After a time, it too became all a little blasé because our astronauts and cosmonauts became, seemingly, little more than transport truck drivers in low-space orbit.

Baumgartner mid-jump (Photo courtesy of Redbull Stratos)
Except for the sadness brought on by the disasters of Challenger in 1986, and Columbia in 2003, my interest waned as our universal vision of space travel itself receded. The pioneers are old men now. Neil Armstrong dying this year added yet another layer of heaviness to my memory of that quickly fading era. There is no will in government anymore for grand space races. That ground has been ceded to the private sector, such as Red Bull and Virgin. The view of people who always complained about space travel, 'being a complete waste of money while people still starved,' has basically won. Of course, they are right. And yet, even if we could spend every last dime we have, we still couldn't end poverty, war, deprivation, disease or intolerance. What these small-minded people forget is that we need these grand schemes, these moments of wonder to pull us out of the dreariness that can envelope our everyday lives. We need crazy men and women who are willing to push the envelope, to risk life and limb, while gaining some measure of fame, to redefine what we are capable of as people. Without the American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, and the race to space, many of the innovations that help us in our daily lives (computers, cell phones, medical advancements that occurred because of research conducted leading up to man venturing into space, and work that continues to this day on the International Space Station, etc.) would have taken decades longer to develop.

So during the early afternoon this past Sunday, I stayed transfixed in front of my computer watching Felix Baumgartner slowly rise into near space in a pressurized capsule attached to an enormous helium balloon. (Can you imagine the funny voices you could have made with that?) Due to the general lack of wonder about space travel today, I didn't even know he was going to attempt it on October 14th until I heard a brief report on CBC Radio news, though I did know he'd cancelled his attempt early last week. Quickly I turned on my computer and went to the site. By then, the balloon was already at 85,000 feet. I switched on the TV to watch it there, too, and discovered that not even CNN (the station, when owned by Ted Turner, that used to religiously cover each and every NASA launch) was covering it in real time. So I continued to watch it on my computer (even though CNN did finally start reporting it when the capsule was close to 120,000 feet).

Joe Kittinger jumping from 102,800 ft in 1960
There were some fascinating things I discovered while I watched, or learned later. The CapCom man – the only person allowed to talk to Baumgartner during his accent – is none other than (Retired) Colonel Joe Kittinger who in 1960 jumped from a gondola at 100,000 feet (it was Kittinger's record that Baumgartner broke). He may have felt comfortable throwing himself out of airplanes, or jumping from buildings or mountains, but Baumgartner has claustrophobia and had to have sessions with a sports psychologist to even be able to sit in a capsule while wearing a helmeted space suit for nearly two and a half hours as he rose into the heavens. (During Sunday's accent, he also had several non-public conversations with Kittinger to ease his mind during the ride up.) He broke three records: a/ the highest any man has ever been in a balloon-raised capsule, b/ the highest and longest jump (but not longest freefall – Kittinger's freefall was longer by about 14 seconds) before deploying a parachute (119,000 odd feet), and c/ the first man to break the sound barrier without assistance of any vehicle. On the day of this historic flight, one of the last retired space shuttles, Endeavour, made a rather inglorious final road journey to a museum in California, a trek that required (I think criminally) some 400 trees to be chopped down to make it through. And lastly, and I think very appropriately ,October 14, 1947, was the day that Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier in an aircraft (though completely unplanned, as this flight was suppose to take place on Tuesday, October 9, but was cancelled due to poor weather); October 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner became the first unassisted man to break the sound barrier! There's a certain lovely symmetry to that I think.

Strangely, as he was about to jump, CNN abruptly cut the feed and went to talking heads as I continued to watch and listen on computer (the computer feed was actually about 1 minute behind the TV). At first, I thought the sponsor had not given the channel the rights, but CNN later admitted they did it because they were afraid he'd augur in and they didn't want that seen on live TV. I guess it was a good call, but it showed a lack of trust in the preparedness of the flight. And yet, there was also some hypocrisy in this decision. Back in the day, CNN never flinched to show live shuttle launches even after the Challenger disaster. They didn't seem to shirk their newscasting job then, so why were they all sensitive now? Isn't that what a ten-second delay is for? Anyway, neither BBC News or TSN (a Canadian sports channel) felt any reticence, because they showed it live.

I will never forget the shot from above as Baumgartner, basically in space (you could see the curvature of the Earth), stood on the 'porch' of his capsule, said the quote I started off this piece with, and then he took a little hop and was gone. The hairs on my arms stood straight up as he jumped and plunged almost instantaneously out of sight.

Photo by Balazs Gardi 
We have a few days to wait to see the footage he shot from cameras attached to his suit during descent, and I look forward to it, but to watch this brave man, whose nickname is Fearless Felix, do something no one has ever done before was truly amazing. (Note: a day after I wrote this, but before it was posted, the helmet footage showed up online. It was pretty harrowing during the reported out-of-control moments near the start as you could see the Earth spinning and spinning in the background.) It was like something out of the last Star Trek film when Kirk, Sulu and a 'red shirt' jump from space using almost the same technique in order to make a surprise landing on a near-orbit 'space drill' controlled by the bad guys. The small-minded people are already nattering on about what a 'waste of time' his jump was. And yet, the data and telemetry they gathered during his accent and descent will be invaluable for future space trips, including the soon-to-begin space tourism. And it will undoubtedly lead to more research into fields we have not even conceived of yet.

This event is not just about showing off. It is about pushing our limits because that is what we, as a species, do. If we don't do these things, if we don't challenge ourselves, if we don't risk death, we are nothing more than a small, unimportant speck that deserves to be forever locked on our little blue dot in the middle of nowhere in the Milky Way.

I prefer to end with one of my favourite quotes from Robert Kennedy (supposedly borrowing from George Bernard Shaw's play Back To Methuselah) who said, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

 David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel, The Storm and Its Eye.

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