Image from the Stratos test-jump. That’s a long way down for a dress-rehearsal.
The short message of this article is that the Red Bull Stratos is a shining beacon of hope for the human race’s incredible will to survive and advance in spite of itself. You’re gonna think I’m nuts, but that’s okay; colour me inspired.
I’m not usually a sucker for a publicity stunt, and I think that personal preference is still in tact. So when I say that yesterday I almost lost my mind watching the Red Bull Stratos jump from over 128,000 feet, you might accuse me of succumbing to the marketing hype of the year, or the decade. Nay, I say; what Felix Baumgartner and his team accomplished was not only an amazing and daring physical feat, but also a marvelous scientific achievement and a beacon for what the human race can do if it really sets pettiness aside and tries. Sure, the Red Bull logo was all over this, and Felix Baumgartner is responsible for dozens of daring jumps all over the world with that emblem flying proudly on his parachute; but you have to accept that this time, the Red Bull logo was attached to masterpiece of engineering, precision and invention.
Reading back on the history of the mission, this endeavor first got underway seven years ago, in 2005. Since then, Red Bull and Baumgartner assembled a team that included engineers, doctors, psychologists and even the former height record jumper Col. Joe Kittinger (who set the record while in the American Air Force way back in 1960). Through technology design, training and flight tests, and countless challenges, they advanced steadily towards a date (yesterday, as it turns out) where Baumgartner would make history.
Screencap of the feed of Baumgartner nearing the end of his mission.
Think about this. 1960. The record has stood since then. When Kittinger did it, he was an officer of the American Armed Forces. After doing high altitude jumps as part of Project Excelsior (where he broke the record), he went on to work on other high altitude experiments, and then serve three tours in the Vietnam War. He was shot down near the end of his third tour in 1972, and spent 11 months as a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton where he was the senior ranking officer of all the POWs and endured torture at the hands of his captors.
Here’s another historical data point. As we’ve already covered, the day Baumgartner broke Kittinger’s record – while also flying faster than the speed of sound outside of an aircraft (the dude went mach 1.24 unofficially) – was yesterday; October 14, 2012. On that same day in 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier in an aircraft, going Mach 1 in the Bell X-1 experimental aircraft. He did this as a member of the American Air Force.
Baumgartner continues his descent, covered by numerous helicopters.
October 14 is not only remembered for Yeager’s daring achievement, however; it has a slightly more notorious history in the Cuban Missile Crisis. You see, it was this day in 1962 when an American U-2 reconnaissance plane captured photographic proof that the Soviet Union was indeed constructing missile bases in Cuba. That evidence led to possibly the most tense 13 days of the 20th century. Millions watched and feared for their lives; having a fallout shelter in your backyard was the fashion of the day. Some people were so frightened then that they still have them now. Although crisis was averted through back channels, the world may never understand how close we actually got to annihilating ourselves. For additional learning, the movie “Thirteen Days” captures the terror of the time well, and the documentary “The Fog Of War” also tells some of the story (and that of the Vietnam War) from the eyes of someone on the inside.
Think about these three things: what do they have to do with Red Bull and Baumgartner on October 14, 2012? Contrast, that’s what. All three events – though remarkable – were military and government operations. Stratos was a peaceful and private endeavour undertaken for the heck of it. Because they could. The hero is a supremely sober adventurer with a team of highly skilled experts funded by an often goofy energy drink company. They weren’t trying to beat a rival nation or religion with opposing views to some monumental technological punch – no space race or moon race here; they were trying to (and succeeded!) advance human understanding of its own limits and provide the technology to survive in a mind-boggling situation. You are looking at the future of space-suits in what Baumgartner wore, mark my words. I’m not trying in any way to diminish the achievements of Kittinger and Yeager, I am underscoring the source of the endeavour: Stratos happened to prove that they could do it, not to prove they were above some international “coolness” line.
Terra firma. After a perfect landing, Baumgartner celebrates the success of the mission. The world was with him!
Then, think of the audience. While millions watched the horror and fear unfold in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, fast forward to yesterday as over ten million (that’s a count I’ve heard tossed around) watched with awe and admiration as Baumgartner completed his team’s work successfully. At least, that’s what I saw. It wasn’t for the glory of Austria (Baumgartner’s home country) or the USA or some other country or deity, it was for the glory and amazement of the human race. People from countries all over the world – countries that may not have the best relations between one another – all watched and tweeted, Facebooked, blogged, and cheered for the feat.
Watching and listening to the pre-flight checklist was riveting and tense enough. When he stood at the threshold of near infinity from a human perspective, however, and said “I know the whole world is watching, I wish the whole world could see, sometimes you have to go really high to see how small you are,” the whole world collectively held its breath and stood looking out from Baumgartner’s perch. Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted that the corresponding distance over a school-room globe would be roughly a millimeter. I respect Tyson, but tell that to the man who stood on his front porch at over 128,000 feet.
They did this thing, and there was no agenda. No ego. Even though there were Red Bull logos everywhere, there was no “Drink Red Bull” commercial (well, they may follow, but whatever). They did this with a spirit of adventure, entrepreneurship and sheer courage. They had to build it all to make it work, and they got it right (except for a foggy visor). True feats of human accomplishment will only get harder and harder to challenge the more time passes, or maybe they’ve always felt that way generation by generation and the ones we witness in our lifetimes are sources of amazement for us… either way, I was blown away by this.
You see? There is hope for the human race after all. As I said, colour me inspired.