Did you watch it? Were you one of the eight million people on earth watching him live on YouTube (breaking a record of 500,000 watching a live event) or other websites and holding your breath? Were you praying “Dear God, please let him survive this crazy stunt?” What am I talking about? Oh, just the most amazing accomplishment since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Of course, I’m talking about Felix Baumgartner’s amazing free fall jump 39 kilometers above the earth.
Now some spoilsports will tell you it was just a big publicity stunt, so when they do that, just ask them how many world records they’ve broken lately. They’ll probably just stutter, “Uh, uh, uh….” The jump was so much more than great publicity for Red Bull--in an age of increasing government austerity — especially towards the space program — sponsorship from private corporations could be the future of funding for many areas of groundbreaking research and scientific discovery. From this jump, the Red Bull Stratos team and NASA were hoping to contribute to the development of space suits, explore the effects of supersonic acceleration and deceleration on the human body, and develop protocols for exposure to these conditions. Data collected from this jump could open the door to the next age of space exploration and tourism — making it much more than just a marketing ploy. Moreover, the jump will inspire many young people, which was one of Baumgartner’s goals. The determination and hard work Baumgartner invested in this project shows the world what humans can accomplish and also reminds us that everyday people can accomplish great things. What was also truly amazing and inspiring was that during the course of his training, Baumgartner became extremely claustrophobic in his capsule and spacesuit but battled it successfully to reach his goals.
So who is Felix Baumgartner? He is a 43 year old Austrian skydiver and BASE (jumping from a fixed object) jumper. How did he get his start? He spent time in the Austrian military, where he practiced parachute jumping and fell in love with daredevil exploits. After he left the military, he started setting world records: (1) the highest parachute jump, when he jumped from the Petronas Towers in Malaysia; (2) being the first person to skydive across the English Channel using a specially made carbon wing; (3) the lowest BASE jump from the hand of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro; (4) the first person to BASE jump the Milan Viaduct in France; (5) the first person to skydive onto and then BASE jump from the Turning Torso building in Malmo, Sweden; and the first person to jump from the 91st floor observation deck of the Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan.
What records did he break on Sunday, 14 October 2012? Apart from the 39-kilometer jump, he reached an estimated speed of 1,342 kilometers per hour or Mach 1.24 (and was the first human to break the sound barrier outside of a vehicle) and set the record for the highest manned balloon flight. But, there was one record he intended to break that he missed: the longest free fall record. That record as set in 1960 by USAF Colonel Joseph Kittinger—the older man with the white hair Baumgartner communicated with during his flight. Because Baumgartner deployed his parachute 17 seconds too soon, Kittinger still holds the record.
How did Baumgartner feel during the flight? As he stood on the step of the capsule, Baumgartner said, “I know the whole world is watching now. I wish you could see what I can see. Sometimes you have to be up really high to understand how small you are….I’m coming home now.” He later said at a press conference, “Let me tell you - when I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble. You don't think about breaking records anymore, you don't think about gaining scientific data - the only thing that you want is to come back alive." He described his tumbling free fall as being like “swimming without feeling the water,” but when he landed on his feet he punched the air in victory.
Lastly, a few words about the two balloons used in the project. They cost $250,000 each and their skin was 1/10th as thick as a sandwich bag. They could only be used once, so when Baumgartner’s first attempt on 9 October was aborted, the first balloon could no longer be used, and he only had one balloon left.
The project probably cost Red Bull about $50 million but gave it $100 million worth of publicity. Since Baumgartner has been working as an employee of Red Bull since he was 19 years old, it’s unclear if the jump will make him rich. But he has stated that his daredevil days are over—he plans to settle down with his beauty queen girlfriend and fly helicopters on mountain rescue and firefighting missions in the U.S. and Austria.
As stated above, one of Baumgartner’s goals was to inspire the next generation. Has his feat inspired you to attempt to achieve one of your personal goals? Which one? How do you plan to go about it?
Mini-Project: Read about Colonel Joe Kittinger on Wikipedia. Debate whose accomplishment was more impressive: Kittinger jumping 31 kilometers in 1960 under less sophisticated conditions or Baumgartner jumping in 2012 with the best technology and experts in the world to help him.